How Anxiety and Smell Are Related

Micah Abraham, BSc

Written by

Micah Abraham, BSc

Last updated October 31, 2020

How Anxiety and Smell Are Related

Anxiety is a comprehensive condition that involves much more than just fears and phobias. It's something that affects not only your mood and body but your senses as well.

Your sense of smell is probably not something that you associate with your mental health. But everything in your life is affected by your anxiety, including - in some ways - your sense of smell. We'll explore the relationship between anxiety and smells in this article.

The Complex Development of Anxiety

Anxiety is a unique and complex disorder. It's not something that is easily cured by any one treatment or caused by any one issue. It's something that evolves over time and requires a considerable amount of work and effort - something that depends on your symptoms and what you're experiencing.

Anxiety Can Develop Because of Scent Sensitivity

Your sensitivity to smells can actually play a role in the development of anxiety, particularly if these smells make you self-conscious. The biggest issue that plays a role here is the way you perceive your own scents and the smells around you. If you find that your body, your clothes, or your environment smells too often, you may develop a negative self-image that is associated with those smells.

Scents are incredibly powerful, and there is substantial evidence that your sense of smell is actually better associated with memory than your vision or other senses. So it's possible that when you worry about your own smell - even if you don't smell at all or smell "normal" - you start to overthink your own presence, and that can lead to the development of social anxiety and generalized anxiety.

Anxiety Can Create Smell Sensitivity

Anxiety itself can actually create a sensitivity to smells. Anxiety puts you more "in touch" with your senses. Those with anxiety become more receptive to different scents in a way that those without anxiety are not, especially with regards to bad smells.

If you start to notice that when you have anxiety you smell almost every negative smell around you, especially as you walk, or you feel as though you're smelling bad things that aren't actually there, you may have developed an increase in your smell sensitivity. Normally your mind filters out scents it doesn't think are important, but when you have anxiety, it may pick up on those scents more than ever before, leading you to feel as though there are more negative smells either on you or around you at all times.

Anxiety Can Create Smells

Most people that are concerned about their own scent actually don't smell. They've simply grown self-conscious of their scent and assume that they smell poorly all the time. They even smell themselves and any time they smell anything even remotely bad, they assume everyone else can smell it too and experience anxiety as a result.

What's unfortunate is that anxiety itself can actually create smells that weren't originally there. That's because anxiety can cause sweating, which may make your armpits and other areas start to smell more like sweat. Anxiety may also cause mouth breathing, which appears to increase bacteria and lead to slightly worse breath.

The results are not very dramatic, and this shouldn't be something you worry about too much. But it is there, which is why changes in a person's scent may actually be a sign of anxiety.

Anxiety Can Be Reduced By Smells

Finally, it may be possible to reduce anxiety through the use of smells. The traditional practice of this is called aromatherapy. Aromatherapy is not a well-researched practice, and most of the claims made by aromatherapy specialists are probably placebo.

But there is some evidence that pleasant smells can help with anxiety, especially if they're combined with a relaxing atmosphere. One strategy is to take advantage of classical conditioning - a behavioral tool that you can use to associate relaxation with smells.

Find a smell that you love - consider an aromatherapy smell too, since they are well regarded - and put yourself in an extremely relaxing situation. Maybe take a bath, play relaxing music, etc. Then release the smell and let yourself relax and let yourself enjoy it. Try doing this a few more times for a while, and always allow yourself to be in as stress free an environment as possible.

Then, 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.

Overcoming Anxiety and Smell Issues

No matter what the cause of your anxiety or what its symptoms are, you need to work with a comprehensive strategy to cure it.

Questions? Comments?

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Where can I go to learn more about Jacobson’s relaxation technique and other similar methods?

– Anonymous patient


You can ask your doctor for a referral to a psychologist or other mental health professional who uses relaxation techniques to help patients. Not all psychologists or other mental health professionals are knowledgeable about these techniques, though. Therapists often add their own “twist” to the technqiues. Training varies by the type of technique that they use. Some people also buy CDs and DVDs on progressive muscle relaxation and allow the audio to guide them through the process.

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