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September 22, 2020

How smell affects your feelings

From the webinar: Smell loss and well-being

Professor Ilona Croy, of the Technische Universität, Dresden, and Professor Barry C Smith,  Director of the Institute of Philosophy, University of London came together with AbScent’s Chrissi Kelly to learn how smell and mood are closely linked. Here’s a short summary of some of the points they covered.

It’s still an area of research interest, but it’s recognised that the olfactory channel feeds directly into the emotional brain and this physical link could explain our emotional connection to smell. It’s seems to be a two-way street, so someone who has depression may have a reduced sense of smell, and someone with a reduced sense of smell can be more vulnerable to depression.

Our sense of smell is entwined with so much of our experience of the world. It is how we enjoy food, it helps us avoid hazards and is so much part of what makes us social animals. There have been a number of studies where participants’ emotional response has been linked to their ability to smell. Even intimacy is affected by what you smell, and anosmia has been shown to have a negative effect on personal confidence.

Smells often provoke a strong emotional response. Odours are very rarely received as neutral, people always have an opinion and they are not afraid to voice it! Sometimes it’s a happy memory, but if you have an altered sense of smell - parosmia - that response could be disgust. Dealing with disgusting odours on a daily basis is wearing, and not smelling them at all leaves you a real sense of loss.

Talking about loss is important to come to terms with it, but it can be difficult for others to understand and empathise. We don’t have the language to communicate this sensory impairment. To other people, it doesn’t stop us being able to do anything so it’s hard to understand what the problem is. But the reality is that olfactory disorders severely impact the way we experience daily life.

Another common emotion in people with smell disorders is anxiety. The fear that you may be missing a hazard that can cause you harm can be constant. From personal hygiene, to eating something rotten, to not noticing the smell of gas; suddenly the world is full of potentially harmful situations you can’t protect yourself from.  

Disappointment is another common negative emotion, and Barry and Ilona agreed that this is one of the most difficult things for people with smell disorders to deal with. The process of recovering your sense of smell is often devalued because it’s not perceived as the same, or as good as before. A patient may technically have a good sense of smell, but because things are perceived differently, it doesn’t feel good. Recovery never happens in a straight line and a minor set-back can feel like a real blow.

With all these different elements in the mix, the impact on well-being is a complex picture and it’s no surprise it can leave you feeling low. Accepted therapies for managing low mood and depression will help, and anyone who has been feeling unusually low for a long time should talk to their doctor. For many people, time and being kind to yourself, will bring you through these difficult days. Talking to others with the same experience is strongly recommended too. Coming to terms with a different way of experiencing the world around you is not easy, but you will not always feel so bad about it. 

As Chrissi describes it, recovering from smell loss is like emigrating to a new country. At first, everything is strange and difficult, but as you start to become more familiar with your new surroundings you gain confidence and enjoy life once more. Accepted, it’s not where you started from, but it’s made for a richer life experience and it’s part of what makes you who you are today.

You can see the whole discussion here. For more information and support about low mood and depression, please go to the NHS website

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