Emotions and Our Five Senses
Have you ever caught a whiff and been instantly transported in time? Ever hear a song and instantly recall a person or event? These sensory experiences often lead to a strong emotional response and memory recall. While some are welcome, others are not.
Smell is the strongest of our senses for evoking emotional memories because it's connected to our hippocampus, where memories are stored, and the limbic system, which is the emotional hub of our brain. A quick whiff of a food, perfume, or nature is all it takes to roll back time. It's an amazing gift when we're unexpectedly reminded of a happy time with a loved one, a fun outing with friends, or an inspiring glimpse of our younger self.
Sounds, particularly songs, connect us to time that might otherwise be lost. We mark our lives by a soundtrack that weaves together the quilt of our life. We smile when we hear that familiar tune.
Sight, taste, and touch also unlock memories and emotions. When de'ja vu greets us or we're thrust back in time to a childhood dinner or we're reminded of the gentle touch of a loved ones hands we experience the the power of our senses.
But what if the emotions triggered by our five senses are traumatic?
What if a smell evokes memories of an abuser or sounds elicit flashbacks? What if the sight of a friend triggers panic or a taste reminds us of a place in time we'd rather forget. Touch can be a painful reminder of harsh treatment.
This is the power of our emotional response to our senses.
For good and bad, these sensory triggers are often unexpected and unwelcome. We're unprepared for the emotional response that feels beyond our control and we don't like it.
Even if our memory isn't a "big" trauma, we can still be caught off guard by the emotional wave that follows.
We think we've moved on only to be blindside by how much the memory still stings. We think we've offered forgiveness only to find the heat of anger rising within us. We think we've grieved only to be flooded with sadness at our loss.
So how do we navigate this emotional response when we can't see it, smell it, or otherwise sense it's approach?
Here are three ways to defuse the painful emotions that are triggered by our five senses.
- Breathe. Our first response to pain is often to hold our breath. We might not even realize we've done it until we exhale. Becoming conscious of an unconscious rhythm of your body helps you feel more in control when you feel out of control. Slowing your breath allows your parasympathetic nervous system to take over the sympathetic system, the one that creates that feeling of "fight or flight." Take slow inhales through your nose and long exhales out through your mouth. Repeat until you feel the calm return.
- Ground yourself. Remind yourself that you are in the present. Emotional responses to memories take us right back to that place of our pain, which in reality, is not where you are today. Take time to look around, observe your surroundings, and even say aloud, "I am safe." Even if you're not experiencing a severe reaction, recognizing that you are in different place in life from the time your pain occurred can help calm your emotions more quickly.
- Notice your trigger. Once you've experienced a powerful emotion triggered by your senses, notice what caused it. Was it a smell, sight, or taste? Was it a sound or touch? When you know what triggered your response, you may be able to avoid it or shift it the next time. Some triggers you can change, like staying away from certain locations or people. Others you can't. As much as it's in your power to do so, make adjustments to reduce the chance of repeating your emotional response.
If you are healing from severe trauma, your most important step is to seek professional help for more guidance.
In our newest podcast episode, my co-host talks with Kathy Johnson, a Licensed Professional Clinical Counselor, about ways to manage the emotional triggers that can catch you by surprise and works with women on resolving them.
I hope that during this holiday season your senses are overwhelmed with good memories and emotions. The wonderful scent of pine, candles, and fresh baked treats.
I hope that music fills your ears and reminds you of happy childhood memories and traditions.
I hope you soak in the hugs of family after a year of social distancing.
And I hope you taste and see the goodness of God all around you.
I pray your memories bring you peace, joy, and healing this holiday season.