How to Reduce Your Stress with a Sniff

When you are doing too much, your stress can cause your body to change in harmful ways. My post Recognize Your Stress Levels lists several ways your body changes. But did you know that stress affects your sense of smell? And did you know that certain scents can allow you to reduce your stress with a sniff?

Your Sense of Smell

In evolutionary terms, your sense of smell is the oldest of your senses. How does it work?

Air comes through your nose and passes over a patch of specialized sensory cells found high inside the nose. These cells send messages to the brain when they detect molecules of a scent. Your brain identifies the odor. But your nose is only part of your sense of smell.

There is a tiny channel that connects the roof of your mouth to your nose. Chewing food releases scents that travel through this channel. If congestion blocks this channel (like when you have a cold) food doesn’t taste the same.

image of a red onion and onion slices

Another aid to your sense of smell is something called the common chemical sense. It’s made of thousands of nerve endings in the moist areas of your nose, mouth, and eyes. They detect irritating substances such as an onion’s tear-producing odor.

What Can We Smell

Your sense of smell is important. It can alert you when there is a danger (smoke from a fire, food that’s gone bad, or potentially toxic chemicals). Certain aromas bring us joy—the scent of a new baby, your spouse’s scent, freshly made bread, or a delicious meal. 

Until 2014, we thought humans could only detect about 10,000 different scents. But a study quoted in Discovery Magazine determined that we can distinguish at least one trillion different odors. Unfortunately, no human language has a trillion words describing unique scents. But even without words, the scents have meaning.

What Affects Your Sense of Smell

Congestion can block the passageways that scents must travel, however stress changes your sense of smell as well.

In 2013, a report in the Journal of Neuroscience detailed this discovery. Using brain imaging technology, they studied how the brain reacts to anxiety-inducing pictures (car crashes and images from wars). They discovered that viewing those images scrambled their subjects’ sense of smell. Normally neutral odors became distasteful ones. (Read the full story on Science Daily. )

That sets up a feedback loop that can (theoretically) increase your stress, anxiety, and depression.

The Speed of Smell

Unlike our other senses, the olfactory nerves do not proceed directly to the brain’s thalamus, the gateway to consciousness.

Marta Zaraska, Discover Magazine

Scent information travels directly to the brain. This information can instantly trigger emotions, the fight-or-flight response, or memories. So even though stress alters your sense of smell, aromatherapy can reduce your stress.

Reduce Your Stress with a Sniff

Image of a sprig of lavender and a bottle of essential oil, one way you can reduce your stress with a sniff

Aromatherapy is the use of aroma to enhance a feeling of wellbeing.


There is over 6000 years of historical evidence that civilizations used scents from natural plants as therapy. 

According to Psychology Today,  six scents are helpful in treating stress. 


One of the most studied essential oils, Lavender can lower blood pressure, heart rate, and skin temperature and change your brain waves to a more relaxed state.

Lemon or Yuzu

Yuzu is a citrus fruit in East Asia that is similar to lemon. Japanese researchers have found that yuzu citrus scent can soothe stress and anxiety and lower your heart rate in just 10 minutes. The results of studies on the effects of lemon scents are mixed.


Citrus bergamot is a hybrid fruit grown for its essential oil. Clinical studies conducted between 2009 to 2013 found that Bergamot essential oil aromatherapy reduces heart rate, blood pressure, and stress.

Ylang Ylang

  This is a sweet floral scent extracted from the flower of a tropical tree in Southeast Asia. Not well studied, the Ylang Ylang essential oil may have calming effects, such as lowering blood pressure and heart rate.

Clary sage

A close relative of the common garden sage, this aroma has calming and antidepressant effects.


The sweet smell of Jasmine is another essential oil that needs more research. One study suggested that even the aroma of jasmine tea is calming.

Treat Your Stress

You’ve always been told that stress is bad for you. Perhaps, after reading this series of posts, you understand better why it’s bad. Hopefully, you’ve learned how your body reacts to stress and how to treat your stress with sleep, a better diet, exercise, music, and even reduce your stress with a sniff. Has this series of posts helped your understanding of stress? What’s your favorite stress-reducing strategy?

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