Startle Response is No Laughing Matter

14064027_10154471375949507_5485771994445972868_nOne of the things I love most about diving is the adventure in exploring new areas. Places where few (and in many cases no one) has explored.

In the last few months I’ve been mapping out an area of one of our local lakes. This is normally something I do on my own without another diver around. It’s a time for me to relax and explore. The conditions are not optimal- nor “optical”. Most days visibility at best is less than five feet. Lately the maximum range of visibility is around two, unless I disrupt the muck and silt on the bottom and then it drops to zero. I use a finger reel to tie off one of the many provided anchors such as twisted metal, tree trunks, or fragments of excavation equipment. The reel acts as a guide to limit the area I’m mapping and a reference point to swim back too. I can lose myself in exploration without losing myself in the lake.

Since I also have a few Advanced Diver students I’m working with, I thought it would be fun to teach them how to map out and work in these environments as part of their certification. From this I have developed a small core of divers who meet up with me and we go in our various directions to map and explore. One of the maladies I’ve discovered is the sudden appearance of one of my dive buddies. The find my yellow line, follow it to the area I’m diving and suddenly appear next to me or in front of me. Even though I know there is another diver in the water or a diver that is close by- I jump out of my wet suit at their appearance. It’s something I have tried to control, but some days it can happen multiple times. After the startle I have to resist the urge to swim faster (not uncontrolled- just a faster than normal pace), slow my breathing down, and focus, getting back on task of exploring. It doesn’t take me long to get over the initial response, I just realize if I don’t make a conscious effort then I swim aimlessly for a few minutes not doing what I had set out to do while on the dive. It does take time to come all the way back to my previous state, but with relaxation and breathing exercises, I can return back to the peaceful diving I had moments before getting “jumped” by my dive buddy.

Getting startled is not the same as being afraid or having fear. It’s part of the survival reflex that has been built and reinforced I the neural pathway. When a diver (or in the land-based world a non-diver) gets startled, they feel a number of things. There is an adrenalin surge, the mouth dries because of the increase of blood sugar, and the heart rate increases. In my own case I know I breathe faster and talking to others the can produce perspiration, increase muscle tension and they feel “keyed up” or hyper vigilant. This is classic startle response. When someone jumps out from behind cover and grabs you or yells, “HEY!” that may initiate a startle response.

For most people, this response is short-lived. Not so for those who live with PTSD. Even coming around a corner while in a grocery store and running into an on-coming shopping cart can cause the effect, Hyper-arousal and hyper-vigilance are symptoms of PTSD. In many cases, even if the respondent knows they are about to be startled, they can’t fight it, as in my case, knowing there was a diver close to me, and getting startled when he emerged from the fog of silt and muck suspended in the water.

beanI’m not a fan of scary movies. Maybe this is why I enjoy the serenity of diving so much. While my wife and kiddo are ok with being startled in a movie or favorite TV series and enjoy being suddenly scared is enjoyable, it’s a sure bet that a someone with PTSD will not feel that way. And while my dive buddy if startled will get over the response quickly, the research shows that it takes people with PTSD longer for their bodies to return to normal after being startled. Our nervous system gets severely strained when trying to cope with a stress that may have been beyond our capacities even though we pushed through it at the time. Our nervous systems are designed to balance the demands between self-regulation and survival and when in survival mode a ton of chemicals get dumped in to our brains to help us cope at the moment, but not necessarily in the future.

I’ve been pretty good about laughing stuff off when I get jumpy and being the butt of my own jokes about it. Whether on a dive, in the local big-box hardware store, or in my cubical it can still be embarrassing to get startled and even worse trying to calm down without feeling like a “drama-queen” afterwards. The fact is that those with PTSD, being startled is not fun and it’s not good for group morale. My daughter has learned that it is not okay to scare a person with PTSD just to watch them jump. By doing so may actually be traumatic and is absolutely nothing to laugh at. Most of us have pretty thick skin, but it’s because of that thick skin and what we’ve had to be thick skinned for has caused the hyper-vigilance, anxiety, and other issues that the startle response is part of.

Now my dive buddy is a pretty good guy and doesn’t try to cause an issue and is understanding of why I have just jumped out of my wetsuit when he suddenly appears.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s