The Startle Reflex

It happens at least once a day. Al creeps upon me unawares and I startle and scream. It’s embarrassing. I worry my neighbors will think he’s abusing me. This is not a new thing, I’ve had a strong startle response my entire life. People startle me in the grocery store. But it’s gotten worse since Al retired. At first, I thought, okay, well, I’ll get used to him being around and it will calm down. Also, he is doing things to help me now like walking a little louder or making some kind of noise to alert me to his presence before he’s right behind me. As of yesterday, it was not getting better.

I finally looked “startle response” up online yesterday, pretty sure this was going to be just another weird something I have to live with. As it turns out, some of us are born with stronger startle reflexes than others, and, with it, eventually, comes anxiety. Not sure why this surprised me. When I was teaching, I’d be alone after class, erasing the board and someone would stop by the door to say hi, and I’d be so taken aback the eraser would fly from my hand.

Turtles sunning themselves on the bayou

I still don’t have any good answers about what to do with this increasingly annoying reaction of mine, although Al is trying to help by being a little louder when approaching me from behind. I’m trying to be more mindful, meditate more, and I’m practicing yoga. Also, I’m taking my meds.

I got the mindfulness idea from an article in Psychology Today. Mindfulness is just being in the moment, having a single focus. I tried, yesterday on our walk around the bayou, to keep my mind from wandering. Mindfulness is exhausting! And I’m not sure how it helps calm a crazy amygdala. (The place mid-brain where the fight or flight response resides.) I think if I was totally tuned in to simply taking one step then the next, I’d be even more startled by an alligator crossing my path.

Baby Snapper sunning in the bayou

Our alligators have their favorite spots to bask in the sun, but they are mostly well away from people. We did see an alligator on our walk yesterday. It stayed in the water, only eyes and snout on view as it floated along like a peaceful log. I call the huge resident alligator here on the bayou Big Snapper. Now, there’s a Baby Snapper, too. Al told me the one in the water next to us yesterday was Baby Snapper. He showed me a photo of Baby Snapper sunning he took last year. She’s bigger now.

Last year, I gave up nature walks entirely. I was just too fearful of ticks and also Big Snapper, despite it never getting near anyone in our large community. But yesterday, I was not afraid of the alligator in the bayou. Maybe because it was Baby Snapper. Maybe, could it possibly be, because I’d been practicing mindfulness? For whatever reason, I had a lovely walk in nature with my dear understanding husband. We even stopped awhile to observe the leisurely progress of Baby Snapper floating down the bayou.