A scared, sort of anxious feeling
January 12, 2010 2:03 PM   Subscribe

YANAShrinkFilter: I react with anxiety and "fear" to anger and loud noises. Why?

My boyfriend and I rarely get into yelling matches, but if he yells at me I physically shrink away and feel very edgy and anxious, almost like I'm waiting for something bad to happen. This same feeling occurs when he's expressing frustration at something else.

For example, if he gets irritated at a video game, he'll YELL AN EXPLETIVE! and toss the controller on the coffee table. Even if I've watched him get more vocal and ranty and expect the inevitable reaction, when he finally "blows" it puts me in that negative emotional place.

It is hard to explain exactly how it feels. I liken it to a dog that's just been kicked: a little scared, unsure if it should attack but ready to if necessary. It also makes me hyper defensive, so I lash out. (Example: "Did you start the dishwasher?" "YOU NEVER ASKED ME TO START THE DISHWASHER, AND WHY AM I ALWAYS STARTING THE DISHWASHER?!!" ...ect.)

He has never, ever been violent towards me, and I am not worried he ever will be. He's not an angry person and rarely raises his voice in any situation, especially towards me. The same thing happens during loud thunder storms, and basically during other sudden loud noises. I also get this reaction to shattering glass. (He dropped a drinking glass once and said I looked like I was about to burst into tears)

I'm not an anxious or nervous person. I grew up in a somewhat physically abusive home, but as this is a recent thing (last 3-4 years that I've noticed) I don't think it is tied into that. I have no mental illnesses, and take no medications.

Is there a name for this? What could be the root cause? I don't know of anyone else that this happens to, which makes me feel like a bit of a freak. I don't even know how to go about Goggling it. Tips on how to cope? Does this happen to you or someone you know? Have you even heard of this before?
posted by caveat to Human Relations (19 answers total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
I grew up in a house full of angry yelling (though no physical violence, or almost none) and I also react like someone is going to smack me when someone close to me yells. I don't mean someone nearby, I mean someone who I am emotionally close to. Sort of sucks. I've responded to this by not dating yellers and making general agreements with my partners along the lines of "I can't stop you from yelling but it does tend to provoke an immediate fear reaction in me. I'll work on the fear reaction but if you could work on the no-yelling part, I think that would be best for both of us." I also do the jumpy glass-breaking thing too, it's weird.

I've gotten really good, over the years at not having the hyper-defensive reaction and being able to say, calmly "please do not yell; now what's going on?" I don't know if it's a CBT approach or what, but I've been able to sort of get my mind into an auto-groove "I am not in danger. This person is not a threat to me." and then work outwards from that. If I'm anxious about something else, this gets worse. If I'm generally in a decent mood, this happens much less. So, general statements about lowering stress also apply. I'm interested to see what other people think.
posted by jessamyn at 2:12 PM on January 12, 2010 [4 favorites]

IANAD, just a patient.

This is called hyperarousal and is a symptom of PTSD. However, you can obviously have one of these symptoms without having full-blown PTSD. (Everybody has something a little weird about them, and it's not always a disorder!) Childhood trauma sometimes manifests itself years later, and in the weirdest of ways. If it doesn't interfere with your life, don't worry too much about it and ask your SO not to yell if he can help it.

But if it does interfere at all, there's tons of information about PTSD on the web. This has the DSM-IV criteria about halfway down. Therapeutically, CBT is often used to work on addressing the responses a person has to stimuli. There are also some CBT workbooks you can try. First, though, I'd recommend reading Trauma and Recovery by Judith Hermann.
posted by brina at 2:36 PM on January 12, 2010 [4 favorites]

I grew up in a somewhat physically abusive home, but as this is a recent thing (last 3-4 years that I've noticed) I don't think it is tied into that.

IMO, it's definitely tied into that. I grew up with a parent who was very violent and loud, and growing up in that environment has affected me in a similar manner.

As an example, mr. crankylex came home a few months ago late at night, walked in the door, and discovered one of the cats had peed in his shoes. He flipped out and started yelling, it woke me out of a sound sleep and I had the nearly immediate fear response of hurling. I was in no physical danger, and he wasn't even mad at me, but it didn't matter. I heard the yelling and suddenly I was five years old trying to find someplace to hide.
posted by crankylex at 2:41 PM on January 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

Hit post too soon! Anyway, like jessamyn said, I work on my fear and mr. crankylex works on his yelling, and we hang in there.
posted by crankylex at 2:45 PM on January 12, 2010

The first alert to danger is a sudden sound. Evolution, in its wisdom, connects our ears to our brain stem, which (if necessary) can send emergency signals throughout our bodies via the sympathetic nervous system. This is way faster than having the auditory cortex decode and recognize the sound. The brain stem makes a very fast and simple check- is the volume and bandwidth of this sound high enough? If so, go into emergency mode.

In both PTSD and people that have lived with sustained anxiety (such as an abusive or neglectful home), the brain stem is unusually sensitive to sudden sounds. This sensitivity is increased by concurrent anxiety. Relaxation and anti-anxiety medication can both really help this.
posted by Jpfed at 2:52 PM on January 12, 2010 [6 favorites]

Has he made any effort to tone down his angry behavior? Yelling and throwing things when irritated is not adult. Ask him to find a better outlet.
posted by Carol Anne at 2:54 PM on January 12, 2010

Here's an evolutionary psychology explanation off the top of my head: Loud noises often mean danger, maybe because someone in your tribe is shouting an alarm, or maybe because an enemy (human or animal) is attacking. If some people react to these things by assuming there's something dangerous going on, while others don't have a strong reaction, the people with the strong reaction will be more likely to avert danger in the cases where the loud noise actually corresponds to a real danger -- even if such instances (true positives) are rare compared with the cases where the loud noise actually has a harmless source (false positives). With the false positives, there's no harm done from being scared anyway. (Evolutionary psychology doesn't say we've evolved to be correct most of the time; it just says we've evolved in a way that has tended to further our survival and reproduction.) If being afraid of loud noises makes people more likely to survive, then that trait will be more successful in being transmitted from generation to generation than the trait of having a blase attitude toward loud noises. Therefore, it makes sense for us to have evolved to be scared of loud noises even if this mostly leads to false positives.

Your other questions suggest you want to stop doing this. I don't understand -- why would you want to squelch your instinct? You're afraid of loud noises, I'm afraid of loud noises, many people are afraid of loud noises. It's a useful survival strategy. We're animals - we need to survive. I don't see the problem.

Also, I'll second others in saying (1) your history of abuse probably contributes to this and (2) your bf should respect your feelings and make a point of not shouting.
posted by Jaltcoh at 3:01 PM on January 12, 2010

There are lots of potential reasons for your fear response. The most obvious of which is your history of growing up in a somewhat physically abusive home. I work with kids who have been removed from abusive homes and thier startle responses are much more intense than that of thier peers. Your descriptions of yourself sound very much like what I witness from these kids. For instance, if I were to stub my toe really hard and yell out loudly in pain, a typical reponse from one of the kids on my caseload would be to become very still or quiet and to shrink away. Many actually appear to become smaller. A noise or sound that another child might not even notice will put an abused child into hyper vigilance mode. I think what's happening is that they freeze or shrink away instinctively because they don't want to be noticed. In the past, getting noticed was dangerous to them because they once noticed they became a target for abuse.

Our Sympathetic Nervous System controls our fear response. Think of it a thermostat. Your thermostat is just set a little higher than others. There's nothing wrong with you and you're not a freak.
posted by dchrssyr at 3:20 PM on January 12, 2010 [5 favorites]

Thanks to everyone who replied so far. I would have never in a million years considered PTSD. The personal anecdotes are hugely helpful.

I want to clarify that my boyfriend has been very supportive and has really toned it down. At first he thought I was getting mad at him for getting mad, and so did I, although that isn't really like me. After talking it though I was able to see it was more than just his yelling that set me off.

Also: Because I was never hit as a child, I assumed it would not affect me in this kind of way.

brina: I will check out that book, thanks for the suggestion.

Jalcoh, you make an interesting point. It's just such a horrible feeling. I've got great reflexes, and I now I wonder if it all ties in together.
posted by caveat at 3:21 PM on January 12, 2010

I'm not an anxious or nervous person. I grew up in a somewhat physically abusive home, but as this is a recent thing (last 3-4 years that I've noticed) I don't think it is tied into that.

When did you start dating your boyfriend? Perhaps... 3-4 years ago? It sounds like, while he isn't outright abusive, he's still hitting some of your triggers that may not have been touched in a long time. Please, speak to him about this, and make sure he knows how you're reacting to it.

Also, I brought this up in another thread recently so I may end up sounding like a broken record, but I have a similar reaction to loud/angry outbursts, but from opposite roots: I grew up in a family that never yelled and had great anger control strategies, which means I never learned how to deal when people DID lose control. So, not PTSD here, just a coping strategy issue.
posted by sarahsynonymous at 3:22 PM on January 12, 2010

Whoa, thanks for posting this, I am exactly like this, and the comments you've marked as "best answers" are very helpful to me. FWIW, I'm on a couple of anti-anxiety medications, which tamps down the response a bit. If I don't take them, an accidentally slammed door can trigger a panic attack.
posted by desjardins at 3:35 PM on January 12, 2010

My symptoms are slightly different than yours, but I've always identified with the label, Highly Sensitive Person. It is also called Sensory-Processing Sensitivity and here is a link to a peer-reviewed journal article on the topic. You could also take a test to gather evidence on whether you are highly sensitive although the questions seem way too general to me.
posted by surfgator at 3:36 PM on January 12, 2010 [2 favorites]

I grew up in a minorly abusive, but very shouty, house. I am also ADHD with sensory processing issues. I can't be around people who are reacting to something with anger and yelling. It seriously freaks me out. Once I was staying with a friend and she and her father started arguing and I had to leave, even though I wasn't involved in any way. Recently a coworker and my boss had a disagreement and the coworker got progressively louder and angrier. I had to get up and go outside because I found it so upsetting even though once I again, I wasn't involved.

It's definitely a type of PTSD. Any sort of angry yelling turns me into a scared little girl again.
posted by elsietheeel at 4:34 PM on January 12, 2010

To turn down the reactivity, you might look at meditation or (if you're into gadgets) something like the Stress Eraser. Cultivating the ability to be mindful and relaxed will reduce your overall level of arousal, or at least it helps me when I remember to do it.

I've also heard that magnesium can reduce jumpiness.
posted by PatoPata at 5:13 PM on January 12, 2010

I have the same thing. If I'm around loud or angry people I can act totally calm and even think I'm totally calm but then spend the next 2 days anxious to the point of panic attacks. Took me awhile to put 2 and 2 together but there you go.

I knew someone in the same boat who referred to her "bionic" senses, because she couldn't shut out noises and lights and other distractions the way other people can. For instance, I can't ignore a TV that's going on in the background. I've been told it's related. Who knows?
posted by small_ruminant at 5:36 PM on January 12, 2010

Exercise helps, but not being around loud people helps more.
posted by small_ruminant at 5:36 PM on January 12, 2010

In case you are interested in doing further research, one's response to loud noises is called the "acoustic startle reflex". In the case where one's response is more sensitive than normal, that is termed an "exaggerated startle reflex".

To reduce your acoustic startle reflex, here are some steps to take.

1. Make yourself actually physically safer. Sometimes anxiety is justified; if it is in this case, find out how to make yourself safer.

2. Try to make your environment as pleasant as possible. It's not just that negative moods make acoustic startle worse; positive moods ease acoustic startle.

3. Reduce "ambient anxiety" by taking care of your body.

3a. Growing up in an abusive home may have caused you to ignore bodily signals (simple seemingly stupid things like being at an uncomfortable temperature, not getting enough sleep, being thirsty, or having to go to the bathroom) in favor of attending to more urgent issues like a dangerous social environment. But those signals don't just go away if you ignore them- the discomfort they cause can contribute to a sensation of free-floating anxiety.

3b. If you grew up feeling anxious a lot, you may have developed a habit of breathing in a way that is consistent with anxiety- shallow chest breathing instead of deep belly breathing. Faster, shallow breathing can subtly tweak your blood pH by eliminating too much CO2 (not a problem if you're exerting yourself or anticipating exertion, but inappropriate when you're not). You can practice deep belly breathing by lying down and putting a phone book on your belly button (not over your ribs at all) and lifting the phone book as you inhale.
posted by Jpfed at 7:45 PM on January 12, 2010 [3 favorites]

Also: Because I was never hit as a child, I assumed it would not affect me in this kind of way.

Seeing violence can be very traumatizing! I am like this, too, and also come from a house with yelling but little beyond that, so I asked a therapist where it came from. She said that the way people react to their childhood environment is partially about that environment, but also very much about their temperment and physiology. Some kids are just more sensitive than others.

Here's another personal anecdote. In my case, rather than avoiding shouty people, I ended up spending years in a relationship with an angry guy. It wasn't fun, but the surprising outcome was that in some ways, I became desensitized. I can now stand my ground in even the angriest situations. I outright argue with that original volatile parent (whose thought processes during high-emotion situations turned out to be comparatively quite rational), and I even shouted back at a downstairs neighbor who showed up at 5 am pounding at our door and yelling. And whereas shouting back is probably just another way to handle hyper-arousal, I can also just let my boyfriend be grouchy about something without feeling like it's about me.

This whole "learn to hold my ground" thing has not been without drawbacks: at times, I can set my chin and shut out even my extremely peaceful boyfriend, and I generally have kept myself less vulnerable toward him. It is also highly context-specific, since I still freeze up if my friends, coworkers, or boss get angry. In fact, as I've tuned in to this exact fear, it's been interesting to notice that in one or two friendships the fear is something of a driving dynamic.

My current favorite strategy is to tell friends and family when I'm worried that they're mad at me, and generally to be up front about how angriness freaks me out. People are usually surprisingly great about this. I think to at least some extent, many people are like this, so they really understand and want to help. An old roommate of mine did this, and I always respected her willingness to be honest and vulnerable about it.
posted by salvia at 9:25 AM on January 13, 2010

Sensitivity to noise can be a symptom of a magnesium deficiency. I've always been a sensitive sort and easily startled, but for a few years in my early twenties a sudden noises would startle me practically out of my skin. I eventually tried taking magnesium and within a very short time that particular sensitivity had dialed back considerably.
posted by Serene Empress Dork at 10:34 AM on January 13, 2010

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