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Getting the jump on ‘jumpiness’

Do you sometimes jump out of your skin at the sudden sound of a door slamming in the wind? It could be the Startle Effect.

Had that heart-thumping moment as a truck rumbles past? Do you sometimes jump out of your skin at the sudden sound of a door slamming in the wind?

These are natural human responses any of us can relate to, but for some Cantabrians, even six years on from the earthquakes, there’s an added jumpiness, known as the ‘startle effect’.

Associate Professor Department of Psychological Medicine – University of Otago Christchurch, Caroline Bell explains why it happens.

“Aftershocks are a big factor – people in greater Christchurch experienced a huge number of aftershocks. These sudden sounds remind us of the noise of an earthquake. Essentially you are training yourself to prepare to act or react to danger. The body becomes used to a high level of arousal, and reverts to it easily.”

This adrenaline response is our natural alarm system – our body telling us to be alert and ready for action. It's there to help us, but afterwards we can feel shaky, queasy or on-edge, and it can make it hard for us to concentrate. It can also result in strong emotional responses such as anger or crying.

“For a lot of people these reactions are a lot less frequent now,” says Caroline Bell. “But it’s important for people to be aware if they’ve got concerns about how they are feeling or feel that they aren’t moving on from the earthquakes, they can get support. You can talk to your GP or call the 0800 Canterbury Support Line (0800 777 846).”

What’s the science behind the ‘startle effect’?

The ‘primitive’ part of the brain is the amygdala. It responds to threats and reacts. The amygdala was busy warning our ancient forebears when it was time to run away from that sabre–toothed tiger. This exaggerated startled response also known as the ‘fight or flight response’ is the amygdala being helpful.

But the amygdala switches on automatically - without thinking – as opposed to the frontal cortex where logical thought takes place. That’s the part of our brain saying ‘Hey, that was just a truck, all good’.


What can you do?

The challenge is giving the frontal cortex the driver’s seat and turning down the volume on the amygdala. International disaster recovery expert psychologist Dr Rob Gordon says the good news is our brains can be re-programmed over time to better differentiate between real and non-threatening noise situations.

Rob Gordon suggests practicing these simple steps:

  1. We hear noise, fight or flight kicks in
  2. We stop, take a deep breath and think.
  3. Tell yourself (silently or out loud)…’I’m ok. That noise was a truck and I got a fright as I thought it was an earthquake. I need to calm down now’.

Paying a bit more attention to the causes of your jumpiness helps you to become more mindful and calm, and less driven by the habits of reaction.

The Five Ways to Wellbeing (Connect, Give, Take Notice, Keep Learning and Be Active) also offer some great strategies to lower stress levels. Simple things like walking, catching up with a mate, or completing a particularly tricky sudoku puzzle can make a big difference.

Following the November 2016 earthquake sequence, All Right? developed a bunch of practical tips for coping with a disaster. These are great tips for every day too

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