"Scentimental": The power of fragrance on our mental health!
Published 24 Feb 2022 • By Claudia Lima
Mental health is an essential component of our physical health. It corresponds to a state of well-being that depends on many factors such as living and working conditions, significant life events, and familial and social factors, which can play an influencing role. Alteration of our mental health by physical or mental illness can trigger the development of disorders and require treatment.
Taking care of our mental health is therefore very important, and can be done in many different ways. A little-known method uses our sense of smell - a method not often thought of when we think of mental health.
How are scent and mental health related? What impact can fragrances have on our mental health? How does it work?
We explain it all in our article below!
Good mental health is a state of psychological and social well-being that enables people to lead a fulfilling life, relate to others, cope with difficulties, but also to work and to achieve their goals. It is unique to each person and is influenced by the person’s education and life experiences, but also by social, cultural, occupational, economic, political and environmental factors.
It is important to know that good mental health does not necessarily mean that one does not suffer from any mental problem. It is possible to experience certain disorders such as anxiety and still feel mentally well.
How to look after one's mental health?
Each person can and should take care of his or her mental well-being. Simple actions can sometimes transform your daily life. Here are some examples of what you can do to help yourself feel better:
- Appropriate physical activity releases endorphins and improves mood,
- Contact with nature provides space for relaxation and increases exposure to sunlight,
- Socialising has numerous emotional, mental and physical benefits,
- Touch and physical contact produce oxytocin, the happiness hormone,
- Having a good sleep improves physical and mental well-being,
- Healthy eating reduces the risk of mood disorders,
- Knowing how to let go is essential for a more realistic approach to everyday life,
- Gratitude helps you focus on what is going well in your life,
- Stress management prevents tension.
Various methods exist to create a good mental health routine, and the implementation of these simple actions helps to preserve it.
In recent years, the medical world and especially the world of psychotherapy has witnessed the arrival of aromachology, which studies the power of fragrance on our psyche, and is closely related to neuroscience.
What is aromachology and aromatherapy?
Aromachology is a discipline that studies the influence of scents on our behaviour and focuses on the psycho-emotional sphere. It is described as the science of odour-related phenomena.
A distinction must be made with aromatherapy, which is the art of healing using essential oils.
Another concept is olfactotherapy, a type of aromatherapy that uses fragrances to help the patient find and heal past traumas, for example, it can help reveal and heal an addiction.
Theoretically, a human being is able to detect billions of different smells, but in everyday life this number is as low as fifty. A specialist, such as a perfumer, can detect between 2,000 and 3,000 different smells.
The sense of smell is an undeniable source of pleasure and information. It is the only sense directly linked to our brain. It is a physical sensation that shapes our responses to various stimuli (triggers).
From a scientific point of view, olfaction is based on the physical contact of molecules released into the atmosphere by a substance, with receptors located in the olfactory organ, the nose. These molecules are carried along by a current of air (breathing or smelling) and reach the sensory mucous membrane located in the nasal cavity, which comprises about 400 receptors; they dissolve in the mucus before reaching the membranes of the sensory cells. The latter are connected to the limbic system, the emotional centre of the brain, and also to the hippocampus, an area essential for memory. This is why we have a long memory for smells, for example the smell of felt-tip pens sometimes takes us back to school.
What power do fragrances have on our psyche?
A simple smell can trigger sensations or emotions, sometimes even without our knowing it. It may be the smell of freshly brewed coffee, of rain falling on the grass, or the smell of fresh bread from a bakery. Smells help refresh our memory. And we are becoming more and more certain that they can also be calming or stimulating.
Numerous studies have established the link between exposure to certain fragrances and unconscious reactions of the neuro-vegetative system, such as a change in heart rate or pupil dilation, among others.
In fact, by transmitting information to the nervous system, scents influence our behaviour: they trigger physiological reactions and release hormones such as adrenaline, dopamine or serotonin. Our brain reacts to the odours we smell by emitting CNV (Contingent Negative Variation) waves, which have enabled scientists to measure, for example, the effects of the scent of roses, which would reduce heartbeat, and of lemon, which would reduce the level of cortisol (stress hormone). The smell of lavender also has a positive effect on stress and helps people fall asleep, chamomile helps us relax and the scents of mint or jasmine stimulate the brain.
However, not all smells are pleasant and some can generate negative escape responses, such as the smell of a sewer.
From a psychological point of view, the sense of smell is directly connected to the reward system of our brain, so it deserves to be stimulated and can have therapeutic potential.
The development of aromachology and aromatherapy would be a complementary tool in the treatment of psychological disorders, in the same way as hypnotherapy or Chinese medicine.
Thus, some therapists already use scents during their sessions and sometimes prescribe essential oils inhalation. However, these products must be used with care and should be avoided in the case of allergy or nasal irritability.
In the case of Covid-19, symptoms frequently observed include loss of taste (agueusia) and smell (anosmia). In addition to simple discomfort, these symptoms can lead to loss of appetite and even to social isolation, which will have a negative impact on the well-being of patients. One third of anosmic people suffer from depression.
Smells are thus capable of influencing our psyche, while one can make us nauseous or irritated, the other can give us energy, help us relax or stimulate our creativitý, and thus contribute to our physical and mental well-being.
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