Do You Shriek When You’re Startled?

Do You Shriek When You re Startled - Laugh Love Learn - Lucinda Leo

You’re enjoying a moment alone, lost in the rich landscape of your mind. Pondering the meaning of life as you vacuum the bedroom, maybe, or lost among the characters of a gripping story.

You suddenly become aware of someone else in the room, just inches away.

How do you react?

Do you calmly turn to the other person and say, ‘Hi! I didn’t hear you come in?’

Or do your ears ring with startled shrieking, which only moments later you realise is coming from you?

Confession: I’ve always been in the shrieking camp.

I grew up thinking this was a character weakness.  While I wasn’t choosing to scream, I assumed other people must have more self-control than me. How else could they contain their shock and respond so calmly?

Then a few years ago – long before I knew anything about overexcitability – something happened which forever changed the way I thought about being a shrieker.

I was deep in my own world as I scrubbed the shower, when I suddenly heard a voice right beside me.

As usual, I’d jumped a foot in the air and let out a piercing scream before I registered that I was not in fact being accosted by a mad axe wielder intent on chopping me to pieces, but rather being gently approached by my husband wondering if I wanted a cup of tea.

My husband bristled at my shrieks. (Unsurprisingly. One of the evolutionary purposes of screaming is to prepare others for potential impending doom by triggering their own fight or flight response.)

It was then that I noticed the weird taste in my mouth. A bitter, acrid taste.

I turned to my husband. ‘Do you get a bad taste in your mouth when you’re startled?’

‘Er, no.’ he replied, still a bit cross (and deaf), and wondering where this was going.

‘You see, then!’ I replied, excited. ‘It’s not my fault I shriek when I’m startled! I’m having a different physiological reaction from you!’

Not  a very scientific study, perhaps, but it was a huge step in my self-understanding and self-acceptance.

Shrieking and overexcitability

I thought back on that conversation a few years later when I learned about overexcitability, the innate traits that cause some people to react strongly to things others barely notice.

When everyone (including ourselves) erroneously believes that we’re simply behaving differently from other people in the same situation, we’re liable to draw all sorts of other wrong conclusions.

In the example of me being startled by my husband, for instance, we might assume I’m lacking self-control, weak, neurotic or even hysterical.

Meanwhile, a child who lashes out physically when startled by her sibling is likely to be punished for being naughty. The problem is, punishment only adds to the child’s stress and increases the odds of her lashing out next time.

Only when we understand what’s at the root of their behaviour can we properly support sensitive, hyper-reactive children, and help them manage their intense natures.

Patience, love, and kindness reach places punishment never can.

Back to my shrieking. Once I stopped blaming myself for having poor self-control and realised that my body/mind was just having a different experience from other people, I switched my energy away from trying to control my reactions and towards finding other ways to save my family from the knock-on effects.

These days, everyone I live with knows to noisily make their presence known (cue polite coughs, humming, or loud footsteps) from as far away as possible as they approach me. I like to think I’m worth the trouble.

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A note to my kind friends who read regularly

Apologies for the long gap between posts recently. I’ve been dipping my toe into giving talks about overexcitability and rainforest mindedness, which has been hugely fun but – alongside homeschooling an intense teen and tween – rather time-consuming! Once I’m in my stride, though, I hope to use my new material and skills to record a few podcasts and/or videos to help spread the word about OEs. Thank you for hanging in with me. 🙂

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{Thanks to Prawny for the cute graphic.}

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13 thoughts on “Do You Shriek When You’re Startled?

  1. So glad to see you back, Lucinda! (But don’t feel like you owe us your time. We will wait around for you while you work your magic elsewhere for a while. 🙂 How cool that you’re thinking of giving talks. I’m toying with a similar idea….)

    Anyway, I don’t tend to shriek, but even though I’m not generally frightened by this, my body still reacts to sudden noise by causing me to startle or even leap. Other kids on my study abroad program noticed that I did this, and took joy in riding up behind me on their bikes one day while I was walking and ringing their bells, watching me leap a foot into the air. “But I’m not scared! I just do that automatically!”

    1. Hi Jessie, and thanks for your warm reply. Having been away for a while, I really appreciated it!

      Goodness, I can just imagine how you reacted when those kids on bikes ‘pranked’ you. I’ve trained my children that sneaking up on me is NOT a fun game! ?

      I’m so glad you’re thinking about giving talks about this, too. I was at a college reunion at Oxford last week (a surprisingly stimulating and healing experience) and having honed my elevator pitch a bit through writing this blog, I was inspired by how interested people were to hear about TPD and and OEs. Perhaps the world is ready…

  2. Lol! I shriek when I am in the car and Gary is driving and he brakes sharply, or a car moves into our lane on the motorway (actually it only ever happens on the motorway). It drives him INSANE! He says if he ever has an accident it will be because I have caused it by shrieking and making him jump out of his skin!! I’m learning to shriek quieter whilst pumping the imaginary brakes under my feet on the passenger side! My GP puts it nicely when she says I have a more advanced fight or flight reflex. Ha! I like more advanced. It sounds much better than neurotic….

    1. Claire – I just had to read your comment aloud to my husband. I’d totally forgotten about the car scenario. I’m exactly the same and James also hates it, but it’s so automatic, it’s hard to stop!

      Oh yes, I do like the sound of being more advanced, too! How funny. ?

  3. Yes, this is me, and my son too. I remember as a girl growing up in Australia I was often swooped by magpies on the walk to school and I always had that taste in my mouth _before_ I even saw or heard them. Love what Claire’s doctor says. I will be quoting that for sure!

    1. Hello Cathy, it’s lovely to hear from you again. Swooping magpies? Oh my!

      Thanks for letting me know I’m in good company. 🙂

  4. Lovely to hear from you and delighted to hear you’re exploring some interesting new avenues! Don’t feel under pressure to do these any more regularly than you are able – I am more than happy to tread your posts whenever the time is right for you ?

    And I had never thought about this startle reaction and a link to OEs but it makes complete sense. I can get a bit like that too! My daughter scared the life out of me yesterday just yesterday by suddenly appearing from no where to centimetres from my ear. It gave me such a shock and took a few minutes to recover from. Haven’t noticed a taste in my mouth- will have to pay more attention next time!

    1. Hi Kirsty! I hope you’ve had a great summer. Thank you so much for your lovely comment here. I don’t get the mouth taste very often, thankfully!

      Sorry for taking so very long to reply. There’s been a lot going on here. I expect I’ll share in more detail at the PowerWood group soon. xx

  5. When I’m startled my body tries to breathe in sharply and breathe out sharply at the same time. So very little apparently happens except possibly a slight grunting sound and a strange facial expression. It’s probably a good thing I don’t make a lot of noise. A few days ago I was shaving, lost my grip on the electric clipper and it took some chest hair with it on the way down. That would not have been a dignified sound. 🙂

    Also, did you get the email I sent? I’ve had a few emails go missing recently.

    1. Sorry but this did make me laugh! Always so good to hear that it’s not just me to whom these peculiar things happen. ?

  6. My little sister, Sue, was the recipient of many an ear-splitting shriek when we were younger. She would approach when I was foraging for food in the kitchen. ‘Oh, can I have a slice of cake too?’ spoken from beside me, didn’t get the normal ‘Of course you can sis’ reply’.

    At the peak of the shriek my overexcitable brain would actually cut out. Startling me would trigger a brief ‘abscence seizure’ – a moment or two of unconscious disconnection whilst my brain reset. I can’t find anyone sharing this experience so keep coming back to your blog because at least you understand what it is like to have such an intense involuntary response.

  7. I’m trying to understand this, which is what led me to your blog. My sister will scream when anything startles her. Her husband does it to a lesser degree, eg; if he drops something, he will scream. (We all live together.)

    I understand that this is a response to being startled, but when they scream it REALLY startles me (internally).

    It seems to me that we’re all being startled, it’s just the response that differs. Why is it ok for them to scream? Is it really something that can’t change.

    Trembling in the closet

    1. Hi Brigitte,

      I feel for you living with not just one but two screamers – you sound weary of being startled by your relatives and I can understand why.

      Just as our outer appearance and capabilities vary, so do the way our bodies work on the inside. It sounds like your sister and her husband’s nervous systems are more sensitive than yours, which is why although you all feel an emotion you identify as ‘startled’, they have a bigger (louder) response than you. I know for sure that I can’t stifle my startle scream – it’s not like holding back a sneeze. It sounds like your relatives are like me.

      I’m not an expert on neurobiology but I think the startle reflex is related to (the same thing as?) the Moro reflex which newborn babies have (and mostly grow out of by about two months old). I believe some therapies, such as sensorimotor therapy, can over time help integrate the reflex later in life.

      I hope you don’t have to stay in the closet too long 😉

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