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The Connection Between Senses and Trauma

Matthew Cuddeback, LCSW

Have you ever experienced a moment that felt as though it came completely out of nowhere, in which you suddenly became anxious, sweaty, shaky? This can happen when you are at home, out with friends, etc. For example, let’s say you are at a crowded bar and all of the sudden you start to get anxious, sweaty, and are having a hard time breathing. In this scenario, let’s say you go to the hospital and the doctor or nurse say there is no medical reason for your symptoms. This kind of occurrence is often a result of a past traumatic event being triggered. There are very real and important reasons for this and it can suggest that the trauma has not been addressed fully.

When we experience a traumatic event it changes the physical structure and processes in our brains. The amygdala and the hippocampus are located near each other in our brains. The amygdala is responsible for monitoring emotions and the hippocampus is where memories are created. When you experience something traumatic, your amygdala reacts and tells you you are unsafe and puts into survival mode. Other parts of your brain shut down so that you can focus only on survival. It also effects the hippocampus and leaves a sort of metaphorical stamp on it. Your brain made this connection and now will continue to do so. When you experience something similar to this traumatic event your brain tells you it is the same situation so as a result, you are supposed to be afraid for your life.

So, back to that bar you were at. You were there enjoying your friends, the drinks, and environment, having a great time, and your heart starts racing. What you didn’t notice is that you are all crammed in together in this small space, and the big guy standing directly behind you has noticeably been drinking to excess. Your brain recognizes that smell, it’s the same beer your dad used to drink. Your hippocampus, with the marks left from the amygdala have connected the smell to the memory of when your dad was asleep in his chair passed out from drinking. Your brain remembers that when that would happen you often would smell the alcohol on his breath when he came down the hall and shouted at you and banged on your door and became violent with you. You may have tried to forget these things, but your brain and your body don’t forget.

When you smell the beer on the guy at the bar your brain said I remember this smell, and when we smelled it before we were unsafe, that means we are unsafe now and have to be on alert in order to stay alive. Your brain recognizes this is a matter of survival now and that means you should be afraid and sweat, and shake, and your heart should race.

So, what do you do to address this? There are many different ways to address and treat trauma, but a common theme among all of them is making sure you understand the connections between what your brain and body are telling you and what you experienced in the past. Whether it is about becoming desensitized to the sensations that remind your brain and body of the trauma via treatment such as Eye Movement Desensitization and Retraining (EMDR) or doing cognitive restructuring with Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) to better understand, be better prepared, and identify ways to manage these feelings. Treatment begins with recognizing these connections your mind and body are making. Over time you try to catch yourself, notice triggers, and change your cognitive processes to give you tools to prepare for, manage, and avoid these situations. Regardless of which treatment is right for you, be sure to pay attention when you have such symptoms. If you believe you are struggling with trauma reactions, Symmetry Counseling has many therapists that have experience and expertise in working with trauma and are available to help.

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