5 - The Startle Warning -
do you run with it
or turn it off?

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The startle warning forms the first part of fight or flight. It’s that moment when something totally unexpected happens which causes your survival instinct to grab your attention and focus it on the possible danger.

What is a Startle Warning?

The warning comes when you hear a loud unexpected noise, at that moment when you lose your balance and think you’re about to fall, when something unexpected moves in the darkness…. You get the idea...

The warning nearly always causes you to feel that sudden pang in your chest like a short sharp electric shock or maybe it feels as if something suddenly grips your heart for a moment. Your whole body tenses.

As you get the shock you become consciously aware of the possible danger and begin to think about what it is, is it really dangerous etc. If you decide that it is, the full fight or flight response kicks in as you endeavour to save your life. More often, however, you realise that it’s nothing to worry about, let out a sigh, and go back to what you were doing before it occurred. This act of telling yourself it’s ok causes you to relax your body.

As it feels your muscles relax and your mind saying it’s ok, your survival instinct knows it can switch off again, that it was a false alarm.

Let’s consider an example.

Suppose today you moved into a new house that happened to back onto a railway line. Exhausted from the move, you go to bed and quickly fall asleep.

man sleeping

During the night a goods train approaches.

man sleeping train approaching

Your survival instinct hears it and, because it isn’t accustomed to this noise in the middle of the night, does its job and wakes you up with your startle response. Momentarily disorientated you sit up thinking, ‘What the hell is that!”.

man woken by train in night

As you become conscious you realise that the noise is only a train going by. You sigh, release the tension, and lie back down. This response to the warning tells your survival instinct that there’s no real danger.

man sleeping through train in night

Later that night another train goes by and the same thing happens again. But each time you switch your survival instinct off again by shrugging it off and releasing the tension, it is slowly taking notice. 

In time it learns that this particular noise in the night is not dangerous and after a few days it will probably have stopped waking you when it hears a train in the night.

If on the other hand, you became annoyed by the fact that you kept getting woken by trains, you would in fact be responding to the survival instinct’s warnings with negative arousal (anger, frustration, etc). When you react to a startle warning with calm and release of tension the instinct learns that it doesn’t need to warn you about that and it will do so less and less until finally it stops completely.

When you react to a startle warning with more raised negative arousal (anger, fear, sadness, etc) you are effectively telling it that it is right to warn you and it will keep on doing so.

This one fact is key to either losing or keeping anxiety symptoms. 

By joining in with warnings like these over the years, we all teach our instincts to warn us of all sorts of dangers.

These vary from person to person depending on the experiences they have had in their lives.

Now find out more about some of the more common everyday anxiety triggers.

  1. Overcoming Anxiety
  2. Anxiety Causes
  3. Startle Warning