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Hal Mathew
Hal Mathew

Apply Buddha Brakes to Your Startle Reflex

You can reduce your anxiety level through mindful means

I’ve been reading a lot recently about the startle reflex as it applies to folks who suffer with panic disorder and agoraphobia. As you probably suspected, people diagnosed with this wretched curse tend to be more easily startled than those who don’t suffer with this wretched curse. There is something you can do about that and the solution is based on my experiences as well as Buddhism and science.

Let’s talk about some of the studies first. Essentially, what all of them observed was that some people are born with quicker startle reflexes than others and that the phenomenon can, statistically, lead to anxiety problems. The same quickened startle response can begin at any time of life with trauma of one kind or another. Wikipedia cites a Journal of Abnormal Psychology article regarding PTSD and startle reflex in showing that not only is the eye blink response to stimuli speed heightened in someone who has suffered trauma, but the condition worsens with each new trauma.

A Journal of Psychiatry & Neuroscience cites a 2009 study of teens diagnosed with “anxiety disorder,” in which researchers used measurements of response to stimuli based on eye blink speed, muscle reflex and sweat glands. I’ll just state its conclusion: “ASR (Autonomic System Response) is abnormally enlarged in young patients with anxiety disorder.” Whenever I was at that stage, I felt like a nervous wreck, powerless to do anything about it.

A person with a high startle response just naturally plays tag with the amygdala more often than a “normal” person would, setting up the amygdala to be constantly at a higher alert level than most people experience. An important thing to know is that the startle signal shoots straight to the amygdala where a quick decision is made about the nature of the stimuli. Do we run? Do we pick up a makeshift weapon? Do we climb a tree? Or, do we realize the stimulus was only a banging screen door and get on with it? Brain business gets very complicated at this point, and includes the role of the hippocampus for memories.

Suffice it to say, if you are agoraphobic your alarm system is haywire and in desperate need of re-programming. That’s where my Un-Agoraphobic recovery program comes in. Yes you can re-train your amygdala so it isn’t so readily startled. In the meantime, what this means for agoraphobes is that each time you have a panic attack, your alarm system gets set on even higher alert. Your body is betraying you by doing the worst possible thing. Being on high alert makes it easier for you to have another panic attack. Duh. Everybody gets it but the amygdala, which apparently thought your last emergency and subsequent panic attack was because of a tiger. You’ve got to admit it, you feel as though it’s something as scary as a wild beast. Now your alarm system is on the lookout for more tigers. Don’t you wish you could turn your mouth around and shout into your brain, “THERE WEREN’T ANY TIGERS!!! STOP DOING THIS TO ME!!”

Unfortunately for you, the amygdala was born at a time in our evolving brain’s history when being alert to many forms of danger meant survival. Being alert still does, of course, but the tiny mid-brain organ needs to turn it down a bit, don’t you think?

Here’s what I did that worked. First, I started trying NOT to respond to things that would ordinarily startle me or at least get my attention. I remember making a game of it to see how quickly I could return to normal after a startle situation or pretend not to react. I started doing this in my teen years, and found trying not to react at all, luckily, impossible. Slowing my reaction, however, turned out to be helpful in turning down my system a little.

When I discovered Buddhism, I gathered many tools for my recovery process. The most helpful of all – “mindfulness” – allowed me to place my entire focus on anything I chose, which helped to calm my fear response system.

The practice of mindfulness allowed me to begin observing things that happened around me rather than reacting to them. Practicing this throughout the day allowed my emergency response system to return to normal: only to be used for absolute emergencies. I’ve read Buddhist monks saying such things as “When washing your hands, wash your hands.” What this means for you is to focus all your attention on each task or situation throughout the day and on nothing else. Focus on your surroundings and their details. This continuing pattern of close observation will tone down your startle response. You are learning to observe and then react. Your amygdala needs the break.

My web page is dedicated to recovery from agoraphobia: See you there.

About the Author
Hal Mathew

Hal Mathew is a journalist and social worker. He began his writing and editing career at The Billings Gazette.

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