The Power of Scent in Creating Personal Calm

Dr. Samantha Morel September 21st, 2020

The Power of Scent in Creating Personal Calm

Let’s talk about the power of scent in creating personal calm. Full disclosure- my life is in a bit of disarray right now. Wonderful things are happening. And although wonderful, these things do often create stress and chaos that I am not used to. I am OK, I promise (thank you for your concern, ha.). But I had the most powerful moment this morning sitting alone in my office that I wanted to share with you. I thought it was an important teachable moment related to mental health, neuroscience (how cool our brains are), and about how we can create calm for ourselves even in the most chaotic of times.

Like I said, my life is in a bit of a whirlwind right now. In an effort to connect just as a human, I don’t mind sharing that I am moving homes this month. If you’ve ever been through this, you know it’s weeks of packing, organizing what feels like a circus, culminating in a day of dozens of people touching everything you own and then dropping it randomly around a new space. Because who actually bothers to read the labels I wrote on the boxes anyway?! And then as exciting as it all is, the work of unpacking sinks in and you contemplate just how much you like or want this “stuff,” and if you’ve lived without it for weeks now, what’s to say you actually need it at all. So, I know I haven’t felt exactly grounded or centered in quite a bit because for me, that grounding usually hinges on a comfortable space to rest and recover.

This morning, I came into my office early. I have a lovely, comfortable space that I enjoy being in and I smile every time I walk into the door. As I started working on my long list of tasks, I noticed myself breathing just a little lighter. My chest felt a little less heavy. I found myself sinking into the chair with greater ease and less muscle tension than I have in days. And I started to check in with myself- what’s allowing me to find calm right now even though I’m working on a list of stressful tasks? And once I did that – the answer was obvious. It was the scent of my office. 

Some of my friends might say I have a signature scent. When they smell it, they think of me. This particular scent is something I’ve integrated into my various therapy rooms for years now, but I also bring it into my home, my car, and my personal scent . It’s fresh but warm, light yet noticeable, and seems to just live perfectly in the background and adds to my day. I’ve done this because while sure, it is a scent that I love, it is one that grounds me to who I am, what I’m about, and how I want to live my life. I didn’t realize how much I have missed that in these past few weeks, and something about being here, surrounded by that scent, brought me right back to a place of calm.

The Science Stuff

Enough about me. Let’s talk about why this is important! I talk often about grounding with clients. Often in therapy, we use grounding tools to help people gain some control over their overwhelming emotions while we work towards understanding and eventually shifting them. Grounding tools are those things that pull you out of your head- especially when it’s spinning, overwhelmed, or approaching shut down. They are not going to “make things better.” They are going to help center you so that you can engage and approach the struggles with more clarity. Tools for grounding often pull from our 5 senses…  taste, touch, smell, sound, and sight.

This is where the idea of feeling a fluffy blanket on your skin providing comfort comes in. Why hearing music we love leads to joy. How the taste of coffee helps energize me for the day (on top of the caffeine, but that’s another story). Grounding is about connecting with our environment and our bodies to come out of our heads and into the present moment. And scent is a super powerful grounding tool!

Did you know that the part of our brain that processes scent lives in the olfactory bulb, which actually has a direct line to our amygdala and hippocampus. This is important for two reasons.

#1. Our amygdala controls our sense of emotions.  The amygdala serves a HUGE role in processing fear and leads to specific emotions and behaviors in our bodies based on what the amygdala says. So if we need to be in fear, our body does certain things to help protect us. And if we don’t need to be in fear, our body does certain things to help us rest, recover and relax!

#2. Our hippocampus is our primary memory storage center! Memory is connected to all sorts of emotions and behaviors. For instance, if you’ve just been in a car accident…  the experience of being in another car might be unpleasant and activate your memory of that experience leading to emotions and behaviors from which you would then operate.

So the direct connection between scent and these two areas of our brain is like, super mega huge when it comes to our emotions! Have you ever smelled something and have this feeling of “that reminds of X”? That’s because the scent is associated within your hippocampus, and thus a memory. A scent can trigger positive memories… or it might trigger memories associated with pain. A scent can trigger our amygdala to tell our bodies that we are in a state of fear or a state of safety.

OK, so how can I use this?

In grounding techniques, we want to use these parts of our brain to work FOR us, rather than AGAINST us, and we can do this in intentional ways. We can use the power of scent to create calm when needed. When we are in moments of frustration or chaos, we can intentionally seek out a scent that provides comfort of calm. Bringing a familiar scent close to you and taking a few moments to breathe it in can be so helpful and grounding.  Do you know what these are for you? Is that a candle or a lotion you use? Is it the scent of the fresh air or an ocean breeze? Take some time to think about what scents you find calming so you can LEAN on them when needed.

Coming full circle, this smell that I noticed this morning is so associated with calm and comfort for me that even passively being around it, I found myself reconnected with those things in a way that felt so needed today. It reminded my body that I was safe and that I could relax. It’s incredible because even though I “know” all of these things, this morning it was so darn powerful…. I couldn’t help but write a blog post about it.

And if you’re curious- the scent that does all this for me…. is Bath and Body Works, Rose Water and Ivy.

Stay well, and get curious about some of the scents around you!

-Dr. M

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Samantha Morel, Ph.D.

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