My calendar says it is Spring. The view outside my window says otherwise; I live in a northern state. But spring is coming. Many trauma survivors – including survivors of childhood sexual abuse – are aware that spring is coming because of their body’s response to the meteorological conditions that come with spring.
Our bodies remember.
When I was in high school, my youth group traveled to all-day outings at the Indiana and Michigan Sand Dunes along Lake Michigan. We’d play football on the beach, do some swimming, and then – just like the sea lions along the Pacific coastline – we’d lay for hours on the sunbaked beach. But the next day, I took on more of the features of a lobster with my fair skin having burned to a bright red.
For many of my adult years, I thought that maybe I had escaped the serious skin problems that occur with the sun’s impact on my skin decades earlier. But eventually, the damage to my skin appeared. My dermatologist says, “Your skin has a memory.”
Our bodies have a memory of the trauma experienced in earlier years.
So it is with trauma experienced in childhood and youth. Bodies remember the trauma. The memory is triggered when any of the five senses of the body are stimulated by any environmental conditions that accompanied the trauma decades earlier.
Seasonal changes – especially the distinct changes that accompany spring – can trigger a survivor’s memory of past trauma. To illustrate, think of spring allergies: sneezing, itchy eyes and noses, headaches. For survivors of childhood sexual abuse, the features of spring can trigger other “allergic” responses when those features are similar to the conditions surrounding their childhood sexual abuse.
Our olfactory center – our sense of smell – has a powerful ability to trigger memory, perhaps the most powerful of our senses to do so. For example, a young or older woman may wonder why the fragrance of spring blossoms triggers for her a more unnatural response to its beauty; that rather than desiring a deeper breath of the fragrance, she feels some nausea at the slightest whiff. What if, that woman as a young girl, was sexually abused in a room while the fragrance of spring blossoms was wafting through an open window? Wouldn’t the nausea then make sense? Wouldn’t her unnatural response actually begin to become a rational response? And might the knowledge of that link to the past help to diffuse the influence of the past?
Spring offers some distinct triggers:
- The fragrance of an April shower
- The change to daylight saving time and lighter evenings
- Tulips and daffodils in vases on a table
- The sound of a thunderstorm
- Leaves budding on trees
- Doors and windows open after being shut all winter
- The smell of grass clippings
- Grass stains
- Sweat on the body after working in the garden
- Easter and Passover and the accompanying celebrations
- April Fools’ pranks
There are survivors who, for years, might believe that they’ve escaped the effects of their childhood sexual abuse. I remember one such survivor who was present for a Marriage Reconstruction Ministries Conference. As I spoke and listed the numerous and various effects that stem from childhood sexual abuse, this survivor was surprised to see how many of those effects were intruding in the survivor’s life but had never been linked to the abuse. (It is important to know that a list of effects is not diagnostic. Experiencing the effects does not prove that abuse occurred. This individual knew of the abuse prior to the conference but had not linked the past abuse to the present intrusive effects).
Our bodies remember!
If your wife is a survivor of childhood sexual abuse, your awareness of seasonal triggers can be a first step of extending compassion to your wife and of alleviating some of your own frustration over her unexpected responses.
Guard yourself from thinking in terms of “My wife is so unpredictable” or “My wife seems to have such a short fuse at times.” Instead, here are some questions you can ask yourself in order to examine the situation.
- What is it that is going on here?
- 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 that 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.