“I wonder if something important happened around here?”

Part of an occasional series about phrases that this therapist finds himself repeating, often.

As a clinician in private practice, one of the questions that I frequently hear myself asking is this: “I wonder if something important happened around here?” And while the question sounds as if it is about location, there is more wondering/wandering behind the question. The question could be about space, place, or time. Let me explain.

My definition of trauma is perhaps … expanded. One can certainly see trauma in the horrors of war and abuse. But you can also see trauma in many other events that happen to us that are outside of our control. These events can feel chaotic and invasive. Our sense of self can be unseated. Then, on the other side of the event, life is changed.

Trauma does happen at a particular time and place.

While I am not fond of physical/mental dichotomies, let’s first think about physical trauma. Wars happen in a specific place. Abuse happens in specific circumstances. That location could be as specific as a bedroom in a particular house with lighting, sounds, and smells that bring back the sensory experience of that place. As I have had many war veterans tell me, there are certain traffic intersections, stoplights where one could easily place an IED while remaining hidden due to the nature of the landscape.

Our brain’s system of protection works to remember places where we have been hurt in order to protect us.

So when we encounter a place that has just enough reminders of that other, “specific” place, our brains signal for our body to respond: our heart races, our muscles tighten, our breathing changes so that we are ready to fight or run. This is not a cognitive process in that we do not sit there and think to ourselves, “Hmmm. That smell reminds me of what it was like when I was …”; because this is about survival, the freeze/fight/flight system is activated.

Our brain is protecting us from a perceived threat.

Granted, the intersection through which you are passing does not have an IED hidden behind a nearby car or just down a hill. And although this house reminds you of the trauma, it is not happening again. Yes, our brains are sophisticated; but our perception is geared toward survival. Your perception may trigger that freeze/fight/flight response even if there is no direct threat at that moment.

Yet even though a threat may be perceived in a location, a physical place, there are also threats that happen at a specific time.

As strange as it may sound, there are ways that specific times may trigger our stress response just as if we were in a physical location that reminded us of the earlier trauma. This most often happens around the trauma of loss, especially death.

I know that for me, but also for a lot of people with whom I have traveled alongside, there are times of the year that remind you of a specific event. These times may be the anniversary of a loved one’s death, but could just as easily be a birthday, a time of year that you left one parent to visit the other, or even the anniversary of a difficult diagnosis that led to a long cycle of treatment.

Just as much as a trauma or loss was situated in a particular place, it can also be located to a specific time. When our brain perceives that time drawing near, we react to that trauma again.

If you talk with physicists, they will tell you that time does have a location just as much as the coordinates of latitude and longitude tell you where you are on a map. So when we get close to that location in time, our bodies and brains take note that there may be danger there. This can happen at a level where we are not thinking about the time of year, but yet we feel that we are in danger again.

This is why some of us tend to have difficulties at particular times of the year. We would do well to sit back and wonder “if something important happened around here”.

So what do we do? How do we respond once we recognize that we may be reacting to trauma or loss that has happened not only in a particular physical location but a location in time?

Prepare.

Once you recognize that coming around to this time of year may be challenging, give yourself some room to prepare. If you knew a strong storm was coming, you would make sure that you had supplies, that you were ready. This does not mean panicking, but it does mean preparation.

Be easy on yourself.

Trauma and loss are injuries. The word injury conjures an idea of the physical, the way that our experience of a physical injury takes time to heal and recover; when we have a strong loss in our lives this is an injury to our sense of safety, to our sense of community, to our sense of family. As you cycle around to the anniversary of that loss, treat yourself gently. You may feel some of the pain again. You may find yourself tightening around the place that is still sore.

Honor the pain.

While there is the temptation to ignore the pain, this does not help long term. The pain is still there. Instead, as with a physical pain, one learns to live with the injury instead of pretending that the injury did not occur.

Know that this is a point in time; time does move on.

While walking through the memory of the loss or trauma may be important, there will also be a point at which one may remember that time continues. The memory of a loved one’s death is painful, but that day will turn to night. The night will turn to morning. Be ready for what is next too.

So when you notice yourself feeling particularly down or anxious, sad or nervous, consider asking yourself if “something important happened around here”. Remember that this question is not only about a place on a map. There are also times at which trauma and loss happened in our lives that are part of our memory and especially of our brain’s attempts to protect us.

clinical social worker, spiritual director, author, husband, father, son, runner in Georgia, co-author of When Anxiety Strikes from Kregel Publications.

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