This Stinks: Scent, Memory, & PTSD

“If you are here today, you are a survivor. But those of us who have made it through hell and are still standing? We bare a different name: warriors.”
―Dr. Lori Goodwin

What’s happening to me? I found myself wondering as I crouched in the doorway to my apartment, seemingly unable to leave. Something had triggered me; memories of hallucinations I’d had while in psychosis flooded my mind, as well as being restrained by too rough hospital personnel, who ultimately shattered my carpal, cracked my ulna and radius in several places: five severe breaks in toto. I almost shouted in the silence of my apartment, for I felt so wholly transported back to the horrid hospital I was sent to when I had my first manic psychotic break. Finally, my legs straightened, forcing me up, and my hand reached for the doorknob and turned it. I took a single step into the hall and then froze.

I realized what had caused my PTSD-related flashback and moment of depersonalization when the woman who cleans the lobby of my building waved at me, holding a bottle of some caustic cleaner that had a strikingly similar smell to the one the hospital used. That strong industrial type needed for spaces where many feet have traverse the ground daily. In my case, I’ve found that scent holds an exceedingly powerful potential to send me reeling into dark memories, mostly of hospitalization. While it is doubtlessly important to be able to identify one’s triggers, the fact that it was a simple bleach-based cleaner that had caused me to crumble to the ground in absolute fear felt embarrassing.

So I ask you: has a passerby’s perfume ever made you feel so incredibly beyond sad? Has the smell of certain foods cooking in an adjacent room filled you with a terrible fear of violence? Made you cover your face? Has the smell of paint, of cleaner, of juice (let’s just say supremely cheap, concentrated cranberry, a hallmark favorite of the psychiatric institutions, so I’ve learned), the musty earth of a plastic shower curtain that needs replacing: have any of these, or those millions of little things not mentioned here, ever made you drop to your knees and squeeze your eyes shut, for you do not wish to be in the place you are invisibly being transported to?

It was only after I confessed this to my psychiatrist that I learned the tremendous power of scent viz-a-viz memory recollection. In fact, a great deal of research, such as the experiments conducted at heralded medical schools in the United Kingdom and Italy, have found ample evidence that confirms that, “when we smell or hear something during an emotional experience, the odour or sound is woven together with the memory in the same region of the brain. This is highly common for trauma victims.”

To those of you, of us, who are survivors in the truest sense of the word; people who sometimes have to battle our own sense of smell, of taste, of touch, of sound, of sight: you are not alone. And you can learn to effectively resist allowing your PTSD to control you, and instead, understand how you can be the one in charge.

PTSD Coping Skills: A Fact Sheet by The National Center for PTSD

Understanding The Recovery Process

  • Recovery is an ongoing, daily, gradual process. It is not a matter of suddenly being cured.
  • Some amount of continued reaction to the traumatic event(s) is normal and reflects a normal body and mind. Healing doesn’t mean forgetting traumatic war experiences or having no emotional pain when thinking about them.
  • Healing may mean fewer symptoms, symptoms that are less disturbing, greater confidence in your ability to cope with your memories and reactions, or an improved ability to manage your emotions.

Coping with Traumatic Stress

  • Active coping means recognizing and accepting the impact of trauma on your life and taking direct action to improve things.
  • Active coping occurs even when there is no crisis; coping is an attitude and a habit that must be strengthened.
  • Active coping means recognizing and accepting the impact of trauma on your life and taking direct action to improve things.
  • Active coping occurs even when there is no crisis; coping is an attitude and a habit that must be strengthened.
  • Remind yourself that they are just that, memories.
  • Remind yourself that it’s natural to have some memories of the traumatic event(s).
  • Talk about them to someone you trust.
  • Remember that, although reminders of trauma can feel overwhelming, they often lessen with time.

Positive Coping Methods

  • Learn about trauma and PTSD. It is useful for trauma survivors to learn more about PTSD and how it affects them. By learning that PTSD is common and that their problems are shared by hundreds of thousands of others, survivors recognize that they are not alone, weak, or crazy.  This is difficult work, but will ultimately be deeply empowering.
  • Increasing positive distracting activities. Positive recreational or work activities help distract a survivors from their memories and reactions. Artistic endeavors have also been a way for many trauma survivors to express their feelings in a positive, creative way. This can improve your mood, limit the harm caused by PTSD, and help you rebuild your life.
  • Practice relaxation methods. These can include muscular relaxation and breathing exercises, meditation, swimming, stretching, yoga, listening to music, spending time in nature, and so on. While relaxation techniques can be helpful, they can sometimes increase distress by focusing attention on disturbing physical sensations or by reducing contact with the external environment. Be aware that while uncomfortable physical sensations may become more apparent when you are relaxed, in the long run, continuing with relaxation in a way that is tolerable helps reduce negative reactions to thoughts, feelings, and perceptions.
  • Talk to your doctor about trauma and PTSD. Part of taking care of yourself means mobilizing the helping resources around you. Your doctor can take care of your physical health better once aware of your PTSD, and doctors can often refer you to more specialized and expert help.
  • Talk to another person for support. With support from others, survivors may feel less alone, feel supported or understood, or receive concrete help with a problem situation. Often, it is best to talk to professional counselors about issues related to the traumatic experience itself; they are more likely than friends or family to understand trauma and its effects. It is also helpful to seek support from a support group. Being in a group with others who have PTSD may help reduce one’s sense of isolation, rebuild trust in others, and provide an important opportunity to contribute to the recovery of other survivors.

Remember: You are brave. You are a survivor. Recovery is possible, and you can do it. You are not, and never will be, alone.