The Startle Pattern

Control And Destroy The Startle Pattern-Before It Gets You Down

When a person is suddenly surprised, perhaps by a loud noise, it results in what is called, ‘The startle pattern.’ Everybody has much the same reaction, we pull the head back, muscles contract and this, in turn, creates a terrible compression at the level of the seven cervical in our necks. This results in the whole spine shortening. This shortening is at the heart of many of our physiological problems. 

The entire torso becomes tightened, the rib cage is restricted, the shoulders become level with the ears, the muscles grip the body rather than supporting it. The whole body is a mess. Our ‘use’ has affected functioning.

Learn to beat it

This is a quick and almost daily occurrence and can happen in a split second, though with lasting results of tension. As Alexander students, we learn to respond with inhibition. To stop the tightening before it takes effect. Often this response will carry through, only to the neck, not passing through the whole structure. However, it is a huge contributory factor in many aspects of suffering. It must be acknowledged that we are talking about an experience that occurs over time. This startle pattern is central to the work because it is largely responsible for it. With regular and consistent practice it is possible to nullify these effects entirely. Whilst waiting for a friend to meet me in a restaurant I decided, as I had no book to read, that I would practise my inhibition and direction. Stop, neck free, head forward and up, knees forwards and away. 

Personal Experience of Beating the Startle Pattern

The chap I was meeting was a very brash fellow, and came up behind me and smashed his hands on my shoulders expecting to make me jump out of my skin. Much to his surprise and mine if I’m entirely honest, I just stayed very still and realised it was him. I maintained my upward direction and poise without issue. It must be pointed out that if I hadn’t been engaged in practising inhibition and direction the result would have been different. The work is ongoing. 

Sadly, most people can be easily observed to have not experienced this level of calm or order in their physical attribution. The startle pattern appears to be their default use. It undermines, breathing, movement, sense of calm, jumpiness, how stressed a person is. It really does interfere with the quality of life. The person simply doesn’t function at their best. 

F M Alexander

F M Alexander’s’ technique brings about a renewed integrity in the individual. The newly aware pupil has integrated awareness of the relationship between the head, neck and back and legs. This really means that they are now neuro musculoskeletally aware or re-educated. 

In a neuro musculoskeletally educated individual the head, neck and back work in such a way as to improve overall function. In the past, the same individual undermined their well being by responding with the startle reflex. Essentially the response is now informed whereas before it was quite random.  


In a busy life, we perform many varied and challenging activities. A renewed relationship with our bodies will not only ensure that we perform without unnecessary tension but also improves the way we experience the things we do. If we play golf, we play better. 

If we exercise, we certainly get more out of it. And if we perform a speech, a song or any other practical thing we do it much much better. As Alexander himself put it himself, we must gain, ‘Constructive Conscious Control of The Individual.’

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Nick Chapman is an Alexander Technique teacher in private practice.

He qualified as a teacher at The Constructive Teaching Centre Lansdowne road in Holland Park and is a member of the Society of Teachers of the Alexander Technique. He holds the certificate for teachers of the F. Matthias Alexander Technique. He was trained by W.H.M. Carrington.and D.M.G. Carrington. W.H.M. Carrington studied with Alexander and was the most influential teacher in the country. He is now a legend. His wife Dylis was also his teacher and was just as influential.

Nick Chapman is employed by Merrill Lynch and UBS as the resident Alexander Teacher.

Nick Chapman has considerable experience in the treatment of a wide range of musculoskeletal, stress and anxiety related problems.

He worked with the Odyssey Trust, where he used Alexander Technique and other relaxation methods for the relief of drug withdrawal.

He also worked in nursing homes where the nurses found great benefits using the technique for stress and the management of various physical problems from maneuvering and handling high risk patients.