Apr 8, 2021

Interviewer: It's normal to jump at a really loud, unfamiliar sound. But when you get startled at the tiniest noise, that might not be so normal. We'll discover what's normal and what's not with being jumpy. That's coming up next, on The Scope.

We're talking today with Kirtly Parker Jones, she is an expert on all things woman. Dr. Jones, my mother, she has developed this jumpy scare anxiety, I'm not even sure what it is. Everything makes her jumpy. Me talking to her when her back is facing me makes her jumpy. Thunder makes her jumpy. Loud noise on the TV makes her jumpy. I don't feel that's normal.

Dr. Jones: Doesn't sound like it's normal for her, and it doesn't sound like it's very pleasant for her. And her getting startled is startling you, so there it's probably not okay. Let's talk about arousability. There's some very interesting research now looking into arousability or hyperarousability. We have some data that looks at women who are extremely anxious, very stressed during their pregnancy, they had very high serum cortisol levels during their pregnancy.

Cortisol is the level we make when we're stressed. When their babies were born, their babies had high levels of cortisol and they were more hyperarousable. Little startle noises made them jumpy, these are the babies. So this is something where the baby is born with a trait of being arousable and being hyperalert based on the experience in-utero.

But there are other conditions that can lead to a hyperarousable state. First of all, the most predictable is caffeine. We are now the caffeine nation and I see young people consuming very high levels of caffeine. When you drink coffee or caffeine-like drinks all the time, people are hyperexcitable. They jump at smaller things, they're hyperirritable, their brain is irritable, meaning, the same loud noises that don't bother other people seem to bother them. So loud noises, bright lights, the brain is irritable when it's hypercaffeinated. And often it's a little underslept. So that can make the brain hyperirritable.

People who are hyperthyroid. So when your engine is just running too fast, it can make you hyperirritable. You jump or become startled at smaller things. You can't calm yourself as well. So that can be one of the signs of hyperthyroidism.

I think more importantly for me, is I see more and more women who have really a form of PTSD, which is Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. It's been a lot in the newspaper with respect to our soldiers. Men and women coming back from overseas because very loud noises, they saw horrible things, they were traumatized, and now their brain is on high alert all the time. Little things make them jump. That's the hallmark of PTSD. People don't sleep. They wake up with nightmares, loud noises make them duck and cover, and they're very irritable.

Well this can happen outside the battlefield as well. Women who've been sexually abused, women who've had a traumatic episode on the street, a near-death experience in a car accident. Maybe even a very scary medical episode where they were afraid for their life and they were in the emergency room. Something really scary had happened, and now they can't calm themselves again.

Interviewer: So it doesn't sound like it has anything to do with the organs, or if you might have a heart disease, or it might lead to something in your brain. Nothing like that, though. Nothing that serious.

Dr. Jones: Not usually, no. Your brain can be hyperstimulated because of medications that you're taking or because of your thyroid. People who have a heart condition where they have a very rapid heartbeat, just having a very rapid heartbeat can make you anxious. And being anxious can trigger a very rapid heartbeat. And when your heart is irregularly beating rapidly, it makes you startle easily. Whether the startle came first or the heartbeat came first is not entirely well known. But people who have a very rapid heart rate, and may have actually a rhythm disturbance, can feel very anxious because their heart is going so fast, and can startle easily. But we can fix that.

So jumpiness? It could've come from the womb. It could be a trait that you're born with, everybody in your family's kind of jumpy. It could be the mothering style that you were raised with. It could be that your caffeine and your amphetamines are too high, so stop that already. It could be a sign of hyperthyroidism, or it could be a consequence of a traumatic episode that you're not over and might need help with.

Being hyperarousable or hyperirritable is very difficult to live with. Hard for you to live with yourself, and hard for others to live with you. It's worthwhile getting it evaluated and talking to your clinician. There may be a medical reason, but there are very good therapies such as mindfulness training to help you be the calm person you really hope to be.

updated: April 8, 2021
originally published: August 6, 2015

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