Sense of smell. How neuroplasticity saved the day.

A few weeks ago I was hiking in the mountains with my husband. I was in  a terrible mood. I was irritable, sad, depressed and feeling sorry for myself. It was Father’s Day, and the first Father’s Day without my Dad. This was only 6 short weeks after going through the first Mother’s Day without my Mom. Trying to hide my bad mood, I did what I do best….I put my head down and stubbornly forged ahead, placing one foot in front of the other and forced myself up the mountain, oblivious to the spectacular scenery around me.

After about an hour we stopped to rest. The wind shifted, and  I caught the indescribable fragrance of clean mountain air, pine trees, melting snow and damp earth. As I stood there soaking in that incredible smell, my mood immediately began to shift. My spirits rose dramatically. The heavy burden of grief, sadness and self-pity melted away as effectively as the sun was melting the snow. I felt myself smiling. I was suddenly aware of the sensation of the cool air against my skin and the sun on my face. I heard the birds singing, the wind in the trees, and the sound of running water. I couldn’t get enough of the breathtaking scenery. All of my senses were acutely awakened and I was enjoying a truly embodied somatosensory experience. So, what happened? What drastically changed my mood and saved the day?

I got my love of the mountains and the snow from my father. I got my incomparable stubbornness and sharp wit from my mother. The smell of the mountain air triggered a flood of emotional memory stored deep in my brain in an area called the amygdala. Emotional memories are usually associated with traumatic and/or negative experiences, and unfortunately they get all the attention. But, positive experiences and happy memories are stored as well. The smell of the mountain air filled me with the memory of the many ski trips growing up, the smell of our fresh-cut Christmas trees, the smell of the trees in our yard after a storm, the visits my parents made out West to visit me and my husband, the hiking and even horseback riding expeditions we had (especially fun because my Mom was more of an indoor girl, but she sure was adventurous)! It was not the specifics of “Oh, I remember that”, but more the “felt sense” and the feelings of happiness related to all of those experiences that went through me at lightening speed that day.

The plasticity (flexibility) of my nervous system did a huge favor for me that afternoon. It was able to automatically switch from my cognitive ruminations to my emotional brain and as a result to fully embrace the pleasure of being in the moment on that mountain and the life long journey (and the parents) that got me there. What a gift!

The point is, we all go through difficult times, but we also have joyful memories that we may not fully appreciate, especially during the tough times. But your brain remembers. Trust the intelligence of your nervous system to help bring these positive and nurturing emotional memories to you, especially when you need them most.

Be healthy!

Cheryl Ilov, PT, GCFP

childhood memories, Colorado, gratitude, grief, hiking, joy, neuroplasticity., Rocky Mountain National Park, Rocky Mountains