Sensory Memory- A Possible Trigger for Mental Health Issues

There are a lot of reasons why the holidays are stressful times. While they also bring a lot of joy, there is a plethora of reasons why people find their anxiety and depression levels to be elevated in the winter months. Family conflicts, financial difficulties, travel worries, and busy schedules can all create a rise in stress during the holidays. There are more subtle things though that I believe impacts more people than they are aware. The holiday season seems to be a time where people report a general feeling of anxiousness or sadness that they can’t necessarily contribute to one of the previously mentioned issues. In fact, many people report that they are currently in a good place overall in life and yet this time of year they feel a drop in mood. A lot of these individuals say holidays have been difficult in the past but the issues of previous years, like those mentioned above, are not a current issue. So, what causes these challenges in mood around this time of year?

SAD- Seasonal Affective Disorder

There is a particular mood disorder called Seasonal Affective Disorder (humorously abbreviated as SAD), that has garnered some attention from people in the winter months. This is due to SAD being caused by longer periods of darkness, a lack of sunlight, and colder temperatures. Essentially the best theory on this disorder is that these winter conditions decrease our body and brain’s production of feel good chemicals and an increase in the chemicals that promote sleepiness and inaction. This may be a leftover evolutionary trait from ancient ancestors, particularly other mammals who tend to sleep/hibernate and be overall inactive in the winter. While this is a real disorder that has methods of treatment like light therapy and talk therapy, in Florida it is less common that the winter months would cause true SAD. It is possible for this condition to strike someone in Florida, but we all know that our days are shorter but we do not go days to weeks without sunlight as they do in the more arctic areas of the world. Our temperatures drop, but we do not get the oppressive dangerous cold conditions that many other areas of the world get. So, while not impossible to have SAD in Florida, I feel that some people assume that is the cause of their winter blues when in reality there is a more subtle but equally interesting reason that is more likely.

Sensory Memory- Subtle Reminders of Tough Times

Since the holidays are quite stressful and most people can recall a holiday season or two where they had some personal struggles or even tragedies, it makes sense that something that reminds us of a past tough time would create a rise in anxiety and depression. Sensory memory triggers however, are more subtle reminders than obvious ones like being in the same place or seeing a person involved in a past problem. Sensory memory refers to our senses, smell, touch, taste, sight, and hearing, being reminded by a sense from the past which triggers an emotional reaction without there being an obvious reason. Let’s look at an example from my own life:

Over 10 years ago me and my family went through a particularly tough November. The details are not important for this example, but essentially there were multiple mental health crises for family members in the same month. Now, there is no particular reason this happened in November. The troubles had nothing to do with Thanksgiving, or the weather, or any other of the typical environments we find ourselves in during the month of November. And yet, every year since then when the weather starts to change and I find myself driving on the highway at night, I notice a small increase in my anxiety regardless of what I am thinking of. To be clear, that tough November years ago had nothing occur relative to it being night, being on a highway, or again the weather. So why is my mind triggered to feel slightly anxious in this environment? To put it simply, my brain is picking up on sensory triggers like the way it looks and feels outside and transferring that information the emotional areas of my brain. Those areas take this info and ask, “how are we typically doing when things look/smell/feel like this?” Even over 10 years later there is a small part of my emotional brain that answers, “I remember one time it was horrible when it looked/smelled/felt like this.” The details of the tougher time do not come to my conscious mind nor do I have any flashbacks, but I catch my mind wandering into anxious thoughts and an overall tension in my body.

Our sensory processing is very strongly attached to our memory, but not always in the explicit memory category. Our brain retains a lot of sensory memory information that is not accessible to our conscious mind. Almost everyone can remember a time where a particular taste or smell brought up a feeling, but they aren’t really sure what exactly the memory was that was attached to that sense and feeling. Our emotional brain loves to check in with itself constantly to keep us safe. The problem is when it asks how we are doing, and the sensory info is telling it that there was a past time where things looked or felt this way and there was trouble. Since our emotional brain is powerful but not too smart, it doesn’t need an actual negative thing happening to start the process of feeling anxious or upset. It takes that sensory info and assumes that to be safe we better be on high alert to protect us from an event that is not even happening. The way to best manage this is to practice mindfulness, particularly staying in the present moment. When you notice an uptick in your negative emotions but can’t identify a trigger, know it could just be a sensory memory and we can counter it by consciously asking ourselves, “what is actually happening right now?” To go back to my own example, I will answer myself with the facts that I am on the highway in the dark, but I am driving safely, my family is in a good place overall, there are no major crises occurring in the immediate moment, and nothing about my sensory experience is truly dangerous. It takes quite a bit of practice but shows definite results over time.

If you would like to learn more about sensory memory and how it can trigger our emotions, please contact Life Enhancement Counseling Services today at 407-443-8862 to schedule an appointment with one of our experienced mental health counselors.


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