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Seasonal Triggers: Our Bodies Remember

Our bodies remember! If your wife is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, your awareness of seasonal triggers can be a first step towards extending compassion to your wife and alleviating your own frustration over her unexpected and seemingly unnatural responses.

A survivor’s memory and the effects of her trauma can be triggered when any of her five physiological senses are stimulated by an environmental condition that occurred during her trauma decades earlier. If your wife is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, there are environmental conditions that can trigger her memory of the abuse. When this occurs, the trauma of her past once again invades her present. The seasonal changes of autumn can be powerful and plaguing triggers.

The trauma of the past invades the present.

Seasonal changes—especially the distinct changes that accompany autumn—can trigger a survivor’s memory of past trauma. To illustrate, think of autumn allergies: sneezing, runny noses, headaches. For survivors of childhood sexual abuse, the characteristics of fall can trigger “allergic” responses when those characteristics are similar to the conditions surrounding their childhood sexual abuse.

Seasonal changes can trigger
a survivor’s memory of past trauma.

Our olfactory centerour sense of smell—has a powerful ability to trigger a memory, perhaps the most powerful of our five senses. A survivor might wonder why the scent of autumn leaves or a woodburning stove triggers an intense response. The response might be a rapid heart rate, nausea, or an urge to escape. Rather than enjoying the crisp cool air and the scent of burning wood, she feels nausea at the slightest whiff. What if, that woman as a young girl, was sexually abused in a room with a stove burning its wood? Wouldn’t her nausea then make sense? Her seemingly unnatural response is actually a rational response. Knowledge of that link to the past might help diffuse the influence of the past.

Knowledge of that link to the past
might help diffuse the influence of the past.

Autumn offers distinct triggers:

  • The scent of autumn leaves and a woodburning stove.
  • The change from daylight savings time to darker evenings.
  • Autumn leaves pressed in scrapbooks.
  • The sight of falling leaves and naked branches.
  • The scent of campfires.
  • Halloween and the accompanying costumes and haunted themes.
  • Colder temperatures and the end of the days of summer.

Guard yourself against thinking in terms of “My wife is so unpredictable” or “My wife has some real problems.” Instead, here are some questions you can ask yourself to examine the situation. 

  • Does this kind of reaction occur in other situations? If so, are there any similarities among the situations, and, if so, what are they?
  • What seemed to be the focus of her comments?
  • How is this the same or different from how she usually responds?
  • If I suspect she is experiencing a trigger of past abuse—that her past trauma has once again invaded her present life—how can I respond with patience, understanding, and empathy (knowing what it is to be in her shoes while simultaneously knowing what it is to be in mine)?

To learn more, see Babette Rothschild’s The Body Remembers: The Psychophysiology of Trauma and Trauma Treatment.