This post is something a little different. This one’s about how I came to own my startle reflex and advice I’d give others with a startle reflex if they want to become more confident about their own startle reflex. For those who don’t know (and I didn’t understand it entirely until I read this quick explanation by Annie Nason) the startle reflex is a reflex that babies are born with which usually goes away by 6 months old. However, it never fully disappears in those with cerebral palsy. And can often lead to heightened responses and being jumpy to things that wouldn’t make other people jump.
My startle reflex used to be something I found embarrassing as I thought people would be staring and wondering why I was reacting to things (such as doors slamming) in the way I was (often exaggerated looking jumping).
With that in mind, here’s my 3 tips, for those with cerebral palsy, for owning a startle reflex. Obviously, these won’t be appropriate for everyone but they’re just the things that helped me, and I hope they can help others.
Explaining the reflex to other people may help them understand the reflex and perhaps stop any staring or reactions. Obviously, this depends how comfortable you are discussing your condition and how well you know the person you’re talking to. Obviously, strangers aren’t entitled to your medical information, but if there are friends, flatmates or family that may often see you startle it may be helpful to explain it to them so they’re not constantly curious (as most of the reactions are just curiosity from my experience). Besides which, being able to counter someone laughing at you with “yeah it’s a disability thing” and watch their face fall as they realise that they’re THAT person who laughs at a disabled person is a wonderful thing, or maybe I take too much pride in making other people squirm with embarrassment?
Help limit it where you can
I know this may not be possible as anything can trigger a startle, but if you are nervous about your startle reflex and know something repeatedly startles you it may help to help yourself limit the startle where you can. For me personally, the noise of concerts and loud drums pretty consistently triggers a startle. Obviously, as a girl who loves a concert, this isn’t great news. So, I constantly learn the lyrics and drum patterns for songs when I know I’m going to a concert (to the point of learning every single word of every single album months in advance). This means that by the time the concert rolls around, I’m likely to know where all the loud snare drum hits are so I’m expecting them and less likely to startle. Obviously, it doesn’t get rid of startles completely, but it certainly limits how much I startle and how affected I am by those startles in terms of confidence, so I think it’s good to know when you’re most likely to startle and to help mitigate it if and where you can, or even just learn when you startle most often so you can be less surprised by your own startle reflex and maybe you’ll start to just see it as an ‘oh yeah that happens’ kinda situation if you’re expecting to startle at certain things.
It may be easier to approach dealing with your startle reflex in a situation you’re happiest in
For this, I’m again coming from my own experience, but for me my startle reflex being at its worst at concerts and with loud noises was actually a blessing in disguise. My initial embarrassment at startling in public was counteracted by my love of concerts. I realised that even IF people WERE staring when I startled, I just didn’t have the time to care as I was having too much fun at the concert. This experience also made me more aware that the way I imagined reactions in my head was different from reality, where I thought people would stare if I startled, they actually weren’t bothered in the slightest because they were too busy watching the concert. Now I’m not saying put yourself in a situation where you know you’ll startle to help you become more comfortable with it (that contradicts point 2 and I’m not really here to contradict myself) but just think about what would make you feel most comfortable about your startle reflex and go from there. Maybe it’s easiest to explain to a certain person first? Or maybe you want to have someone with you while you explain your startle to someone else? Or maybe you DO want to be like me and throw yourself in somewhere you know you’ll startle to get comfortable with it? However, works for you, just start in the way that makes you the most comfortable and you will get more comfortable with your startle reflex as you go.
It may take a day, a week, a month, a year or a lifetime (my startle reflex still frustrates me occasionally and I supposedly “own” it) but you will come to see your startle reflex as just another part of you and your cerebral palsy, no matter how miserable and frustrating it seems at the moment. I hope my suggestions are at least a starting point in helping you learn to accept your startle reflex as just another part of your cerebral palsy.
Em (Invincible Woman On Wheels)