Those with anxiety are more likely to interpret scents as unpleasant which can, in turn, heighten distress, creating even more anxiety and depression, a study published in the Journal of Neuroscience shows. In fact, the researcher which has led the study, Dr. Wen Li, states that, "It is more a rule than exception that our sensation and perception are tied to the internal state of our body."

The sense of smell has long been tied to emotions, with many reports indicating that anxiety actually increases olfactory perception, and is more closely linked to memory than anything we hear or see. This relationship has been so widely shared and recognized that it has even sparked an increase in the public awareness of more alternative remedies for anxiety despite a lack of clinical evidence, such as aromatherapy.

Smelly Findings

The most recent study linking anxiety to scent was conducted using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The researchers first had a group of subjects rate neutral smells. The physicians then subjected the same group to disturbing images of war and car accidents, and had the group re-evaluate the same smells. After encountering the more disturbing images, the individuals labeled smells they once found neutral as negative.

Essentially, the study has proven that when experiencing anxiety, smells are more likely to be unpleasant. The most important aspect of this study, according to Dr. Li, is that, "mundane sensory, particularly, olfactory, experiences can be shifted by anxiety."

Stopping the Vicious Cycle

Close correlation between anxiety and the olfactory receptors becomes a vicious cycle, because even a decrease in the pleasantness of a smell leads to a more pessimistic view of the world. As anxiety increases, these once neutral smells become yet another dissatisfactory experience in anxiety-sufferers' reality.

That said, these findings might have a positive outcome for researchers; the team is optimistic that these revelations might better help them understand the way anxiety changes the hard-wiring of the brain, perpetuating these negative thoughts. Additionaly, Dr. Li notes, these findings might help in re-targeting and intervening in anxious situations.

"The reconstructed perception of an neutral odor that turns negative in anxiety points to a new intervention target: train anxious patients to pay close attention to their sensory experience instead of jumping to a quick conclusion and starting an anxious bout without knowing why," she explains.

Dr. Li and her team are now trying to elucidate sensory processing in clinical anxiety samples.

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Date of original publication:

Updated: September 04, 2016