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The impact of smell distortion on mental health

On World Mental Health Day, we examine the effect on mental wellbeing when living with a smell disorder.

The recently published research Altered smell and taste: Anosmia, parosmia and the impact of long Covid-19 captures the real life experience of people living with smell disorders and sheds light on the impact of sensory deprivation on mental health.

We know that there is a link between depression and sense of smell, or olfaction. As Prof Barry Smith explained in our September 2020 webinar, smell has several key functions:

  • Ingestion and the enjoyment of food
  • Avoid hazards
  • Hygiene behaviour
  • Social communication

Take away smell and you take away these important functions which can understandably cause anxiety and a sense of bereavement. 

Physical changes

What’s less well understood is the physical change in the brain. The olfactory channel feeds into the emotional part of the brain. We can see that people living with smell disorders have fewer of these connections, which in turn appears to reduce the functionality of emotions.

Also in the mix are feelings of frustration and isolation when others don’t understand the effect of the impairment. And uncertainty, as any recovery doesn’t happen in a straight line. Our group members continually report frustration and despair as any progress they had observed seems to go back to square one.

So it’s no wonder that living with altered smell and taste can bring you down. As Dr Duika Burges Watson observed, “The impact of Covid-19 on the senses cannot be viewed as a mild effect, particularly given the impacts may last for months.”

A helping hand

Understanding the underlying causes of why you feel low can help to start addressing the difficulties. We can’t change the circumstances, but we can change how we react to them. This might be seeking out other ways to find pleasure in food (think textures and temperatures) or sharing concerns with other people living through it - the AbScent Network provides a safe space for discussion and picking up tips.

It’s not always an easy fix, so if you have been feeling persistently low for a few weeks, talk to your doctor. The NHS website has advice on this. Your doctor won’t be able to treat your smell disorder, but there is other support they can offer to get you through this difficult time. 

Remember, you’re not alone - there are millions of us living with some kind of smell disorder. Together, and with more research, we’ll find a better quality of life.

October 10, 2021