Smell Your Way to Better Mental Health

Photo of lilacs showing how to smell your way to better health.
Photo by Christine John

The weather is starting to warm, and there are signs of spring outside. I went out to water my lilac yesterday and saw the first signs of tiny purple buds. I immediately smiled as I imagined that sweet smell that I look forward to every year. Lilacs are my favorite. Not just because they smell amazing. But because every time I smell that scent, I imagine myself sitting in my grandmother’s kitchen. There was a large lilac bush just outside her window, and every year we would cut some blooms, place them in a blue maple syrup jar, and put them in the kitchen window. The smell of lilacs reminds my brain of moments of nurturing, and that is what brings the smile to my face.

Science Suggests That It May Be Possible to Improve Mental Health by Using Smell.

It’s no surprise that smells can bring up powerful memories. Smells are handled by the olfactory bulb, the structure in the front of the brain that sends information to the other areas of the body’s central command for further processing. Odors take a direct route to the limbic system, including the amygdala and the hippocampus, the regions related to emotion and memory. In fact, smells can help us to remember things that we may not remember otherwise. Typically, when a person smells something connected to a meaningful event in their past, they will first have an emotional response to the sensation and, then a memory might follow. But sometimes, the memory won’t ever resurface. The person might feel the emotion of something that happened in the past but won’t remember what they experienced. This is unlike any of our other sensory experiences.

So what do scent, emotions, and memory have to do with mental health? Science suggests that it may be possible to reduce certain mental health issues such as anxiety by using smell. Because smell is so closely connected to emotion, we should be able to create new experiences just using scent. Try finding a smell that you love, and then put yourself in an extremely relaxing situation. Maybe take a bath, play relaxing music or step outside. Release the smell and let yourself relax and enjoy it. Try doing this a few more times and always allow yourself to be in as stress-free an environment as possible. Once you’ve associated that smell with the relaxing environment, try smelling the scent when you’re feeling stressed. You may find that the scent relaxes you because you’ve associated the smell with relaxation.

Photo of Lilacs in vase showing how to smell your way to better health.
Photo by Christine John

Scents Such as Lavender, Coffee, or Roses can Reduce Stress and Anxiety and Boost Mood.

According to Psychology Today, scents can have positive effects on mood, stress reduction, sleep enhancement, self-confidence, and physical and cognitive performance, By becoming more aware of the way specific odors affect you personally, you may be able to enhance your health and well-being. Scents such as lavender, vanilla, coffee, and roses can help. Clinical trials have shown that the smell of lavender can help with insomnia, anxiety, stress, and post-operative pain. There is scientific evidence to suggest that aromatherapy with lavender may slow the activity of the nervous system, improve sleep quality, promote relaxation and lift mood. The smells of coffee and vanilla can have a calming effect as well. A study in Thailand showed the smell of roses reduces both breathing rate and blood pressure.

A few years back, I took a tour of an outdoor facility that used nature as one of its healing aspects. I stepped away from the group to smell a pine tree, another one of my favorite childhood scents. ‘Are you hugging the tree?’ someone in the group asked with a bit of sarcasm. ‘No, I’m smelling it.’ I replied. I received a confused look from the group, but it didn’t matter. The smell of that pine tree immediately took me back to happy days spent in the mountains as a child. I felt calm and relaxed as I finished the tour. Smells in nature are a great way to engage in practicing creating a relaxing environment and lowering stress. For me, I know that the smell of lilacs or a pine tree will calm me down in any environment. What smells work for you?

Photo of lilac bush showing how to smell your way to better health.
Photo by Christine John