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How environments and surroundings can re-trigger trauma responses (article)

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It’s the holidays and I’ve returned back home to one of the places I experienced the most trauma and stress growing up.

Almost immediately I’ve noticed my body and mind’s response to being back; although circumstances have changed in the many years since I’ve moved away from here, in many ways I still carry old stressors with me that are easily woken again with the reintroduction of old surroundings like my childhood bedroom and the local neighbourhood.

Although I’m not necessarily experiencing flashbacks, my fight or flight response is heightened, and I’ve found passing anxieties much harder to shake off, intrusive thoughts far more common, and my moods far more erratic.

The smallest things that would not set me off in my usual environment these days in university, would set me off here. The smallest worries that would not usually catch my attention anymore, are far more pronounced here.

Our body and our subconscious carries within a lot of cues and ingrained responses that we don’t notice. Although I don’t consciously think about how each place is actually a source of a history of PTSD, depression, amongst a variety of other things, my body picks up on subtle signs as innocuous as the notebook I used to write in, the sounds of the busses outside, the creak of doors and mumble of the house.

An environment is much more than just a bedroom, a house, a neighbourhood, it is a living, dynamic space. It was, and is, an extension of you.

It seems almost obvious that I’ll be in a much more heightened state of danger and caution now that I’m back.

Remove the tiger from the forest and you know you’re safe now, but your brain is hard pressed to extinguish the association of threat with the movement of leaves and the whistling of the wind through the branches.

Worries and anxieties that I would normally be able to let pass without much rumination in my new home, now weigh heavier and are much harder to untangle in my brain now that I’m back where a lot of my history was born.

It’s like wading back into a swamp – I feel the dredges of old habits and thought patterns I have shaken off to a large extent, but not completely.

In many ways being back feels like a relapse, but I know it is unfair to blame myself for instincts that have only ever tried to keep me safe and alive.

Despite no real obvious sign of danger or threat, despite many things having been long resolved, this uncomfortable, underlying feeling of off-ness is simply old associations and thought patterns reawakening from slumber in the corners of my brain that have not had to be used for a long, long time.

Paths in the brain that I have not tread or felt the need to tread for years and years are being walked again, and I can see and experience the footprints I left. Not all of them are pretty.

Off comes the dust and now I am 13, 14, 15 again, except in an older body.

I try to make space for that frightened, prey-caught-in-a-corner teenager, but it is difficult to calm responses that have long since been engrained.

I stare at the glass of my old bookshelf and remember how it shattered on the floor and I stare at the place where the lock on my door used to be and am thrown back to a night years and years ago.

I breathe and I let myself ruminate anxiously if I have to, and I give space for this chaotic teenager in my brain. I forgive them, I give them space and permission.

Although I won’t be here for too long, and although on the surface level nothing at all is really wrong or threatening, I know that there will always be underlying stories hidden underneath the most mundane objects and corners of a place. And I give myself and my brain and body permission to reprocess things it has to reprocess again. One day, it will get easier. Each time, it gets easier.

But for now all I can do is be kind to myself, and remember that what I’m feeling now, is completely temporary.