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When One of Your Senses Is a Trauma Trigger

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Editor's Note

If you’ve experienced sexual abuse or assault, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact The National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.

When I was a little girl my grandmother taught me to cook. She didn’t give me recipes with measurements or provide basic skills for chopping, sautéing and properly searing meat. But, she taught me how to smell when something was adequately spiced or cooked. I never thought there was anything special about this skill since it came naturally to me. I just knew it was extremely useful.

• What is PTSD?

When I was a little girl I was also sexually abused by my grandmother’s husband, my step-grandfather. He smelled of a specific cologne, body odor and hair gel. The abuse happened in a swimming pool, a bathroom and my bedroom. The abuse imprinted itself upon me physically the way it does for many survivors, but most intensely through my sense of smell. This was not useful.

As an adult and professional chef, I use my ability to smell how well food is prepared to create delicious meals for my guests. It’s a technique that I have tried to teach people when I conduct cooking classes to no avail. Apparently, most people can’t smell the difference between foods that are adequately spiced or properly cooked and those that are not. I didn’t realize this wasn’t something that came naturally for everyone and found that to be curious. This prowess makes me special and is my “superpower” in the kitchen.

As an adult, I walk by a man wearing a specific cologne, the strong smell of chlorine or someone with body odor and my body freezes. The alarm bells in my brain go off. I start to stress sweat. My heart begins to race. I have a panic attack. I am triggered into a flashback of my step-grandfather and I in the bathroom or the pool or my bedroom. My body relives all of the physical and emotional sensations of the abuse as if I was experiencing it now. This is not my “superpower”… this is my curse. Yet, somehow I understand that my “superpower” and my “curse” are connected in an integral way.

I have done enough therapy to understand some of what is happening. When you have experienced trauma that has caused post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or C-PTSD your brain gets re-wired so your senses become a conduit for triggering unprocessed traumatic memories. All of our senses can get activated and trigger us. But many survivors of trauma, myself included, note that for some reason their sense of smell is the most dominant when it comes to being triggered and they don’t know why. I decided to research this because I too wondered how something as seemingly innocuous as the smell of cologne can completely derail me, while the smell of bacon in the oven can be the most intoxicating thing on the planet. What I found was both fascinating and validating.

The sense of smell is a humans most developed sense. Taste and smell are intricately intertwined, which is why we often can’t taste anything if we have a cold that clogs our nasal passage, making losing my sense of smell one of my greatest anxieties about possibly contracting COVID. Our sense of smell is the only sense that is fully developed as a fetus in the womb and humans are capable of detecting about 1 trillion smells, although because these are contextual we may not be able to fully identify them without the proper language to do so. And…people generally smell in color, associating specific hues with specific smells, giving it an even more enhanced impact on our experience of them.

What I found most intriguing though, particularly with regard to smell as a trauma trigger, is the fact that the olfactory bulb where smells are interpreted is directly connected to the limbic system where the amygdala and hippocampus are located, creating a direct link between smell, emotion and memory. In fact, the connection is so strong that often a smell can trigger an emotional reaction even without a particular specific memory associated with it, something that helps to explain how a survivor of trauma who doesn’t necessarily recall the detailed narrative of their trauma may still have intense feelings related to their trauma simply by smelling something that imprinted upon them at the time the trauma occurred. This fact could hold a powerful key to unlocking traumatic experiences that occurred pre-verbally in very early childhood, thereby helping to process and heal from them.

I have a love/hate relationship with my sense of smell. I hate that it causes me so much pain when my trauma gets triggered, but I love that it gives me an edge in terms of my ability to cook. Having a better awareness of what’s actually occurring in my nasal passages and olfactory bulb and how this information is being processed in my brain gives me some tiny sense of comfort. I’m one of those people who self-soothes by learning about why something happens the way it does, particularly when it comes to my coping strategies for trauma. It feels less threatening to understand that my nose is doing exactly what it was designed to…alert me to potential dangers and encourage behaviors that are adaptive.

Getty image by Design Cells

Originally published: August 25, 2021
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