The Startle Reflex: Our Source Of Chronic Pain And Stress

Our bodies have an inborn reflex that organizes all our bodily stress. It's called the startle reflex. Everyone experiences it. You've probably observed it in others. You step off a curb that's unexpectedly high and feel yourself beginning to fall. A car zooms by too close to you. Your child suddenly screams at a high pitch. In each of these cases, you will experience the startle reflex.

There are two distinct phases to the startle reflex. In the first, you extend your hands, neck and back. You suddenly gasp a breath of air with a wide-open mouth. Your eyebrows go up as your eyes take on a startled expression. This first phase lasts a fraction of a second. Then, within another fraction of a second, your feet grab the floor, your fingers curl, you pull down with slightly bent knees, chin lowered over the throat, rib cage and sternum pulled down over the diaphragm. The muscles in the belly contract to make them hard. The back of the neck is short and tight. The jaw clenches and the eyes take on a fixed stare. The face has a searching expression, but without the mobility to actually scan the environment. You are unable to move. All your muscles are, in effect, holding onto a ball that you don't throw.

Intense chemical activity also accompanies the startle reflex. Adrenaline floods the body. Some people love theme parks because of the thrill of going on rides and the rush of adrenaline when they might drop faster than gravity or get hurled through space with centrifugal force. Afterwards, people giggle or laugh loudly to discharge tension.

But imagine experiencing a stress that propels your body into a startle reflex that you can't get out of it. After a few hours, your muscles would tighten, your shoulders would become painful. If you had any difficulties with your spine, the compression of muscles in your back and stomach pulling and shortening at the same time would exert tremendous pressures on the nerves exiting your spine and the discs that separate the vertebrae. Your knees and hips would begin to hurt during walking because of all the excess work in the muscles of your lower extremities. Your feet might get sore from the contractions in the bottoms of your feet and toes grabbing the floor. And what about your jaw aching as your teeth clench? The startle reflex is a posture of pain. It's a painful reaction to the environment. This over-adrenalized, immobilized attitude to the world is a major source of pain for millions of people.

Although many of you might not identify with the extremity of the startle reflex, you need to become aware that it occurs with very subtle gradations. One person might maintain only a small amount of phase 1 or a medium amount of phase 2. It's even possible to produce a small part of phase 1 on the right side of the body and phase 2 on the left (which can lead to subclinical balance disorders and a strong feeling of lurching or teetering when walking). It's important to realize how pervasive and subtle these patterns can be.

The purpose of the startle reflex is to make us vigilant and, for moments (during enactment of the reflex itself and immediately afterwards), it makes us hypervigilant. This is fine if we have a clear target to run toward or away from. High stress hormones and intense protective activities like the startle reflex are intended for very short term use and, as in any athletic endeavor, there should be a state of complete rest afterwards. But what if you continue to maintain your startle reflex pattern without releasing it? The result is stress, pain and fatigue.

Why do people get stuck in this maladaptive state? Because they don't know they are stuck in the startle reflex. When you are under stress, feeling very insecure or anxious, do you breathe deeper, smile wider, open your arms and legs to the world and relax? No. You go in the other direction, because that's what nature has provided for us as animals. This is adaptive, as long as it lasts for a split second. The problem begins when we maintain our body posture in a partial startle reflex.

When we become habituated to the startle reflex, we wear ourselves down in fundamental ways. Our muscles can become stringy: hard in some places, soft in others. The texture of our muscles feels uneven. We exhaust our organs with a chemical bath of stress hormones. Fibromyalgia patients find that their muscles become tender. Many experience "sore spots" spread throughout their body due to the uneven use of the muscles.

Exercise helps. But when we're locked in a habitual, maladaptive state, we exercise all our worst habits. Some people, after working our for a few months, find the stronger parts of their muscles become even harder because of overwork, in contrast to adjacent muscle fibers that have never learned to become involved in activity at all. For some people, when rehabbing an injury, it can take a long time for the pain to subside because it's not a simple matter of releasing the difficulty created by the injury; there is an underlying "injury" from a lifetime of habits affiliated with the startle reflex. It's as if we put on a coat long ago and, regardless of the weather, forgot we had the coat on and never thought to take it off.

Another approach to dealing with this stress response is to use simple relaxation techniques, including formal meditation practice. Focusing the mind on something central to the startle mechanism (breathing, for example) not only helps release the stress-startle pattern, but can also gradually melt the muscular inorganic expression of this stress pattern away.

It is also important to become aware of the state of your habits. I ask my clients and students to take the Mobility Survey I developed to help foster greater mind-body awareness. Thinking about how you move, how you feel can be the first step to releasing the habits resulting from a partial state of startle reflex. Most people function in an easier, more fluid manner or in a more tense, stressful and limited manner than their actual age. Get a sense from the Mobility Survey what your Mobility Age is and then consider participating in some way in the Change Your Age program, where you can learn how to move more easily and more youthfully and overcome the habits of the startle reflex.

In this video, you can see the startle reflex in action and ways to relieve yourself of the stress pattern.

Frank Wildman, Ph.D. is the creator of a program specifically for baby boomers called Change Your Age. The program is available as a book, a series of DVDs, and courses and weekend workshops spread around the country.

To help guide people into a movement program that could put more life in your years, Dr. Wildman developed a Mobility Survey where you can find out your real mobility years, which might be functionally quite different from your actual age. You may be surprised!

To find out more about the Change Your Age program, please visit my website,

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