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Why Your Hair Stands on End When You're Frightened

Ken is a disabled American combat veteran of the Vietnam War. He was awarded a Purple Heart and the Bronze Star with V device medal.

Fright inspires the flight-or-fight instinct in all of us

Most people I know have a mild startle reaction when they are suddenly surprised by someone or something. Not me! I break dance into all sorts of contortions and frozen gyrations!

By contortions, you probably understand what I mean. My face experiences warped ticks, eyelids flutter as if they’re a bird getting ready to let go of the branch beneath its feet and my mouth starts stammering and stuttering unimaginable words I would never use in mixed company.

Frozen gyrations, on the other hand, are the hardest part of my reaction to the startle. I have family members who would pay good money to watch that performance. The usual performance starts with my brain recognizing it has been startled. It starts sending S.O.S. messages to the rest of my body. My arms willingly comply with the “abandon ship” message it receives.

But, from my arms to my knees, the message changes languages and is indecipherable all the way down to my feet. They never receive anything closely resembling a note to move. They remain stationary.

Meanwhile, my butt and my knees are doing a tango trying to figure out where to turn, or how to hide. My knees will visibly knock each other, like two brothers playing “don’t touch me” in the backseat of the car.

I have tried to reenact my body’s reactions after one of these events. It was a task my therapist had me track. She wanted to see if she could help me decode my reaction to analyze if I reacted the same every time.

She couldn’t, because each reaction I have is different from the others. She concluded the setting and the mood I was in might have sapped my ability to control myself. She also told me something useful to know. My reaction has a name: piloerection, explained here.

Knowing I was a Vietnam combat veteran, she explained what happened was being scared literally gave me goose bumps, and was a hair-raising experience.

The hairs on the back of my neck stood erect, even after the scary event had subsided. They didn’t contract properly. My hairs were, according to her, either shortened or completely shorn, leaving me helpless to buffer myself from fright.

I get goosebumps all the time. Usually, it is when I am cold. It is the body’s attempt to warm itself. It is also a defensive reaction we inherit from our ancestors.

In earlier times, goosebumps would start the process for the body to be alert to danger. Adrenalin would be released throughout the body, increasing the blood flow, which would make the heart beat faster, and your pupils would dilate in preparation for the fright to come.

The hairs on the back of my neck are shortened to a point where I can’t recover as quickly from being scared. It isn’t just in war zones, either. I can hear a balloon pop around me and I immediately react by ducking down.

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Yesterday, I was at a nice pizzeria in town, with my wife. The building was an old mechanic’s garage that had been converted into a pizza parlor. The garage doors remained in place after the restoration, to provide for some much-needed ambiance on clear, sunny days. Such was the case during our visit.

I was seated with my back to the garage doors, and the street that runs in front of the place. Cars with loud mufflers pass by quite frequently as we are eating. I wasn’t having any trouble with the noise level, so I kept eating.

Then, a car with a loud, rumbling muffler stopped in front of the parlor, motor still running, waiting on the street light to change. As the light changed, the driver revved his motor, louder and louder. All of a sudden, he started screeching tires and the muffler was working overtime to keep the car in place.

When he finally let off the brakes, his car sped down the street and out of sight. We could see his tire tracks for at least fifty feet.

Worse, though, was its effect on me. My startle reaction kicked in full blast. I jumped out of my chair, and tried to turn around, so I could confront whatever was happening head on and rebut the challenge it presented.

My reaction was typical, but heightened by this display of idiocy. I was in full goosebumps mode, frozen in place at the table, heart racing, pupils fixed intently toward the street, and my feet were motionless, chilling as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened.

All of these reflex actions leave me confused and feeling helpless. There are times when I get emotional and start crying. I am not capable of controlling my reaction to these occurrences.

Whichever ancestor left me the ability to evoke piloerection needs to take a long walk on a short pier!

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Ken Kayse (author) from United States on September 29, 2021:

Thank you for your comments. I'll do my best!

Umesh Chandra Bhatt from Kharghar, Navi Mumbai, India on September 28, 2021:

Very interesting article, please keep on contributing more.

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