Tourette Syndrome: My involuntary nonverbal response to a sudden verbal tic.


Yesterday, I worked with a State Government organisation, who put simply, deal with a lot of crisis situations. Due to the nature of their work, we talked a fair bit about the emotion of fear–what happens in the body and brain when we experience fear? How do we express fear nonverbally? How do we recognise it in others? 


Judging People

Shortly after leaving the building, as I walked to the local train station, I looked ahead and saw a clumsy looking male. Youngish, perhaps in his twenties and very large in stature. I continued walking and passed an odd couple who were sitting on a grassy verge. Odd because they looked out of place. I admit I was a little wary of them and the way they looked at me.

As I passed them, I heard a short, loud, aggressive yelling up-ahead. I quickly looked up, but nothing looked wrong. The clumsy guy was still walking in my direction, and the family behind him left the pavement to get into their car. There appeared to be no altercation. I was a slightly irked by missing the outburst, because I didn't know whether there was a threat ahead, or not. I was clearly distracted by the odd couple. 

I continued walking and wondered whether to divert my direction to avoid this guy. Was he a threat? At this point, it was just big-him and tiny-me. I could continue on the pavement or cut across the car park. Ironically, an hour before, while talking about snap judgements, I'd asked my group if any of them had ever diverted their direction to avoid an iffy looking character.

I had wanted to make a point because we all say, "I don't judge" and believe judging people is wrong, yet we all make snap judgements. Why? Because it's a survival mechanism–people can be a threat. Without this judgement mechanism in place, we wouldn’t be here because our ancestors wouldn’t have been prepared for the threats that they faced. We should value this mechanism.

Most of them said, "yes". I bravely continued along my current path, feeling there was no obvious threat.

I put on the best confident body language I could muster. I didn't want to look weak and vulnerable. I noticed the narrowness of the pavement. I would have to pass this guy at close proximity, the comfort of my personal space would need to be invaded. I wondered why I had put myself into a potentially dangerous situation when I didn't have clarity on what I'd heard. I wasn't assured that there was no threat and there had been another option of path available to me. 

As we approached, everything seemed normal–calm and quiet. Then all of a sudden, out of the calm and from around 30 cm away, came an almighty...

"You f****** C***!"


The Body's Emergency Response

In that moment my body was thrown into its emergency response system–the body's automatic response to a threat–preparation for freeze, flight or fight. 

I flinched–my body hurled itself away from the source like I'd just jumped out of my skin. Then, I froze–momentarily. Rational thought processes began to kick in, and I realised, as you probably have... Tourette Syndrome. There was no real threat. It was simply a verbal tic. Two words that threw me into a sudden state of panic!

I composed myself quickly and we both continued walking like nothing had happened, signalling to the world that everything was okay. Yet my body felt like it was in pieces. Autonomic processes within my body, the physiological processes that we don't consciously control, had gone into overdrive. My heart rate and breathing rate soared. My legs shook because of the adrenaline coursing through my blood, and the excess blood pumped to the muscles in my thighs. I had the power to run, but I didn't need to. There was no threat.

I started to giggle, quietly to myself. Partly relief, partly at the situation itself–and at the irony. I wished the group that I'd just explained this process to, had seen this in action. I wished I could have seen it myself as an outside observer. I wanted to observe my sudden distancing and momentary freeze.

Emotional Expressions of Surprise and Fear

Did I express surprise on my face with a jaw drop and raise of eyebrows? How many seconds, or fractions of a second, before surprise turned to fear? Did my lips stretch outwards, and my eyes tense? How much of the whites of my eyes became visible as the sudden emotion of fear kicked in?


The Body Language of Fear

How fast were my eyes blinking? Did my confident pose reduce to defeat? Did I protect the vital organs in my torso, with a sudden blocking with my arm? Did I grip my leather satchel? Were my fingers tense and my knuckles white? 

As my cognitive thought processes caught up and I realised there was no threat, did I tongue jut afterwards to say, "I got away with that"? Did I exhale with relief? How long before my body relaxed?

All of these–the physiological changes within, the physical feelings of the emotion and the nonverbal responses to the stimulus–happened within seconds. I wanted to hit rewind and slow it down, to observe and re-observe my involuntary response. 

The body's emergency response kicks in instantly, as we encounter a 'threat', yet its symptoms take much longer to subside. As I reached my destination, ten minutes after the event, I still felt the effects. I took some time out to do my slow breathing exercise, slowing down my heart rate and resetting the autonomic processes within my body.

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What does Tourette Syndrome Feel Like?

I wondered what emotions the guy had experienced. Had he felt a sense of fear leading up to the event, in anticipation of what he may say and how I would react? How did he feel immediately after the event? What was happening within his body?

I don't know much about Coprolalia- the involuntary vocalisation associated with Tourette Syndrome. At a guess, this involuntary verbal response, just like my nonverbal response, came in direct response to a stimulus. Funny how one involuntary response caused another involuntary response. Both of our bodies simply reacting. 

Have you had a similar encounter–from my side, or his side of the event? How did the experience of emotion feel for you?

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