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Startle response and insults

Is a unconscious defensive response to sudden or threatening stimulus. Causes of the startle response will differ with age and events and is highly individualized. The response have different stages, and will differ in duration based on a number of factors. 

Startle responses are invoked by insults, what is perceived as insults will vary with age, and internal states among other things.


Activation of startle responses perceived by different age groups:

  • Newborn babies - Loud sounds, bright lights, unfamiliar events
  • Infants - Darkness, strange animals, temporary absence of parent
  • Children - Fights and disagreement with friends and siblings

Internal states that affect insults

  • Feelings of anger
  • Dependency
  • Hunger for contact
  • Fear of being left
  • Sexuality
  • Imagining horrible events

Insults may trigger feelings of

  • Anger
  • Rage
  • Control
  • Defiance
  • Self-doubt

Insults may result from situation linked with

  • Family life
  • How we are treated
  • Encouragement or discouragement of emotional expression
  • Prolonged economic hardship
  • Absence of one of the parents
  • Effects of war, poverty, divorce, death
  • Verbal and physical abuse

Physiological reactions to insults:

  • Stiffens body posture
  • Accelerates metabolic processes, giving more energy to organs, the muscles, and the brain

From a perspective of bodily tension, the startle response involves

  • A change in musculature and posture
  • A change in diaphragm's shape
  • A change in the body's relationship to the earth's gravitational line
  • An alternation of feelings, emotions, and thinking

The startle response cycle consists of 5 stages

  1. Investigative response
  2. Assertion
  3. Annoyance reaction
  4. Anger or avoidance
  5. Submission and collapse

If the first response alleviates the insult, the event that interrupts us, the organism returns to homeostasis. If not, the first response can evoke the second, the second to the third, and so on. In cases of severe threat, the early stages of startle are by-passed and we jump immediately to a more extreme response. One or several steps could be by-passed depending on the insult's severity and the victim's state.

Dysfunction occurs when

  • The startle response or alertness ongoingly affects the individual
  • Remaining within constant state of preparation for conflict, getting away from threats, or becoming weakened or collapsing

Startle reflex may lead to

  • Immediate responses of either fight, flight or freeze and somatic distress
  • Constant state of preparation for fight, flight or freeze, eventually weakening or collapse


Emotional anatomy, Stanley Keleman