Airplanes, buses, crowded waiting rooms, and other places where I might have to sit close enough to people to smell the garlic in their teeth from the salad dressing they ate for lunch (sometimes the day prior), yes–those confined public places are the worst for me. Because half a lifetime of traumatic experiences left me with a sense of smell so heightened my husband teases me that if things go south at our business, I could always get a job working alongside police dogs.
I frequently need to open windows at work, in car rides, or at home, to get rid of smells which are overwhelming me. My husband once came home from a Bible study event smelling like strange cologne that I knew was deifnitely NOT his cologne. He’d simply sat next to a man who was wearing cologne that evening, hadn’t hugged him, just sat there beside him…which is why “How in the world did you smell that?” is a frequent expression around our house.
This super-sniffer-power of mine makes life interesting. I’ve learned to travel with several scarves, and I spray them with a scent that I find calming before traveling, particularly on airplanes. If it gets too bad, I just wrap a scarf around my neck and breathe into it and go somewhere else in my mind. The scarf trick has saved me a few times. A flight from LA to Minneapolis once had me beside a musician (his carry-on was a guitar) with an exploding human head tattooed on his forearm, a green army jacket with grime on the sleeves, and the smell of hangover-vomit and weed on his skin. When he fell asleep with his mouth open I noticed, from the air drifts finding my nose, that he hadn’t brushed his teeth either that morning–after clearly vomiting bad food and booze from the prior day. And there was even a seat between us.
That was a long flight.
Thankfully, I had a scarf wrapped around my face to mitigate some of it.
When the PTSD was at its worst, smells were also the worst. They triggered such horrific memories. The smell of pickles on someone’s breath. The smell of hard boiled eggs, after a few days in the fridge.
On the flip side: as with a few things ‘anxiety disorder related’, there are some really great benefits to this super-power-nose of mine. Certain smells are instantly calming for me. Lavender. Bananas. Roses (but NOT rose-water: ICK). Lemons. Grapefruit. Peonies. A tiny bit of fresh eucalyptus (but not dried and not too much fresh or that has the opposite effect). The smell after it rains. Basil. Bread baking, cake baking, (anything baking really), cinnamon, apples, and all sorts of bath products (except the ones I can’t stand). Bitter cold winter days, when my nostrils nearly freeze shut and the line is so hidden on the thermometer that nothing harmful, or beneficial, could still live in the air.
That kind of sterile cold is the cleanest and best smell ever. It’s something only northerly dwellers might understand. Though I dislike being cold, when the temperature dips like that, the scent of that frigid air is divine. Almost as good as when a cultivated field starts to thaw in farm country and you can literally smell ‘earth’ floating on particles in the air. And so while scents can be triggers–they can also be great grounding and calming tools. The right ones instantly lift my mood and bring me peace. Smells add a richness to my life, and writing, that I am not sure others (who haven’t had trauma heighten their senses) experience.
A good nose is even quite beneficial at times.
I have smelled cooking fires before they started. Propane leaking from tanks before anyone else. Smelled rotten meat and other foods before eating it or feeding it to others…known exactly how many drinks my rebellious teenaged children, or younger mentees at work, had the night prior, (before they could dare lie to me).
Which is the point of it all. When the body is in heightened response to a threat, the senses are all heightened as well, to keep you alive and out of danger. So you may not see the danger yet but you can sure smell something being ‘off’.
Even though my stress levels have come down and I’m not being triggered into fight, flight, (or freeze) responses as much anymore, the heightened sense of smell is there. I’m accepting that it is just part of what makes me, me.
I took a walk with a girlfriend the other day. She has elevated stress symptoms due to a lot of traumatic things happening to her in recent years. She was told by her doctor that she has ‘anxiety’. After we took off from the parking lot, the first thing I did was insist that we slow down and go for a stroll instead of a power walk. She responded almost immediately to the slower pace as I saw her facial features relax into a beautiful smile. And I asked her what she smelled; because I smelled such a strong scent from the pine trees that surely must be up ahead around the corner we were about to make on the park’s path.
She replied, “Ooh, ooh, I smell chickens, like the fall air is lifting up the scent of chicken feathers into my nose… but there’s something else too, mixed in…”
I prodded, “Do you smell the pine trees?”
“Yes, that’s what it was, I knew there was something else!!”
We rounded the corner and saw several free-range chickens coming out of the shade of three pine trees.
Yup. She’s had her share of fight, flight, and freeze responses. Unfortunately, her nose may be elevating her stress levels even more, for the time being.
But I assured her, that if she starts listening to her self and uses scents to calm and heal as well: then her nose is going to help get her out of it, too.