About Anxiety

Why Am I So Jumpy and Easily Startled?

Erika Krull, MSEd, LMHP

Written by

Erika Krull, MSEd, LMHP

Last updated January 13, 2022

Why Am I So Jumpy and Easily Startled?

When you feel jumpy, everything seems a distraction. It doesn’t take much to startle you, and you can’t seem to wind down or get much sleep. It’s tough to get through the day and night like this, and at some point, you want answers. 

Here we’ll explore some of the more common reasons you may be feeling jumpy. Some issues may be easier to resolve than others, but we’ll also review several ways to deal with a sensitive startle reaction no matter what the cause.

Experiencing acute stress

Think about the last time you felt noticeably stressed by something. Maybe a last-minute problem happened at work right before a big meeting. Or perhaps your vehicle broke down on a busy street. When you perceive something as a threat or an upsetting surprise, your mind and body go into a stress response

The two parts of a person's autonomic nervous system work together to manage the fight-or-flight stress response. The sympathetic nervous system stimulates the body and gets it ready for action, and the parasympathetic system calms the body down for rest. 

The stress response includes physical sensations that prepare you to either fight or flee. Your body sends surges of hormones through your bloodstream and oxygenated blood to large muscles. All of these physical responses are helpful when you’re facing immediate danger, but this can be overwhelming sometimes. 

A jammed printer before an important meeting isn’t the same kind of threat as facing an angry bear, but your body doesn’t know any different. It's easy to see how you might be startled by things that usually wouldn't be an issue.

Hypersensitive nervous system 

If a person can’t resolve their reaction to stress in the short term, their nervous system may feel like it’s in overdrive. When a person experiences short-term stress, both systems work together to get the body ready for the threat and to settle down when it passes. 

But with chronic stress, the sympathetic system keeps the body amped up with less help from the parasympathetic system. This imbalance can make a person feel like they are always at the ready and can't relax. The body goes with the path of least resistance. With more practice staying alert than calming down, it’s likely to remain in a state of hyperarousal.

Symptom of insomnia

If you’re having trouble sleeping, you may also feel easily overstimulated at all times of the day. Part of the problem with insomnia is the body’s hyperarousal, excessive sensitivity to stimulation. Studies have shown that people with insomnia are hyper-aroused during the time they’re trying to fall asleep. These individuals are exhausted but can't settle their body or mind, causing the state of being “tired but wired.” 

Experts also believe that a general state of hyperarousal may cause insomnia. In other words, a person with insomnia may feel on edge and unproductive during the day because their body is hyper-aroused around the clock, not from the lack of sleep.

Anxiety disorders

Chronic anxiety disorders can also cause a person to startle easily or overreact to stimuli. It may seem like a person's nervous system would be most active at the height of stress. However, the sympathetic system is actually flowing more strongly all the time, possibly in anticipation of stress. 

When the body repeatedly anticipates stressful events, it can seem like the faucet of arousal is always left open and running. Instead of an ebb and flow of arousal based on the circumstance, the flow is exaggerated and nearly constant. 

Trauma - PTSD and acute stress disorder 

People can experience trauma at any time in their life, and many recover on their own. But some become traumatized by what they witnessed or went through. Their mind and body become trapped in their nervous system’s intense reaction. They may re-experience the trauma repeatedly and feel constantly overstimulated. Many people need help reprocessing the trauma so their mind and body can calm down.

Acute stress disorder (ASD) and post-traumatic stress disorder PTSD have overlapping symptoms, with hyperarousal being one of them. The main difference between the two is the timeframe and duration of symptoms after the trauma. ADS symptoms develop right after the event, and symptoms last no longer than a month. With PTSD, symptoms may develop more slowly and can last for months or years, even with treatment.

Shared symptoms of PTSD and ASD

Here are some of the shared symptoms between PTSD and ASD and how they contribute to feeling jumpy and easily startled.

Hyperarousal symptoms

Irritable behavior including angry outbursts, being aggressive to people or objects

  • Trouble falling or staying asleep, restlessness
  • Hypervigilance
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Exaggerated startle response

Excessive caffeine or other stimulants 

Drinking your daily coffee or energy drink can help you feel ready for the day. But it can also leave you feeling shaky and unsettled. Your body may feel like it can’t settle down, and everything makes you twitch. And by the time you realize what’s happened, you may have no choice but to just wait it out. 

These symptoms can be worse if you already feel stressed or have a history of anxiety symptoms. Your body’s reaction to caffeine becomes another layer of stimulation on an already highly active nervous system. By the end of the day, you may feel like your nervous system is frazzled, and you want to crash. 

How to calm down when you feel jumpy or startled 

It's exhausting to feel jumpy or overly sensitive to your surroundings all day, and it's hard to rest and restore yourself when you can't turn down the volume knob on your nervous system. It also takes a toll on your mental state, which can feed into a vicious cycle of stress. But with time and some practice, you can retrain your body to relax. Here are some simple and practical ways to calm your mind and body. 

  • Do deep breathing exercises.
  • Do an aerobic workout, weight training, or other physical activity like heavy chores or yard work.
  • Listen to calming music.
  • Touch something cold like ice or cool water.
  • Squeeze a firm object as hard as you can, then let go.
  • Smell a familiar aroma that soothes you like vanilla, or think of favorite scents.

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