For a long time, I believed that certain smells would have an effect on me because they were like some kind of airborne drug. After all, we do call it ‘aromatherapy’, and I associate the word ‘therapy’ with a literal effect on the mind or body by an external influence. Through my Happiness therapies research and spiritual practices, I became quite interested in the idea of mental triggers and how we can train ourselves to respond to different situations with chosen reactions; like a form of self-hypnosis. It was during this time that I started experimenting with smells as triggers.
Here’s an example: I have never been a huge fan of cardio exercise, I’ll admit it. I’ll pump weights till the cows come home, but show me a treadmill and my brain will find some kind of excuse to scurry far, far away. So for a couple of months I would drag myself to cardio through a number of other brain-convincing techniques and as part of my post-exercise hygiene routine I would put on a particular perfume. I would take a moment to breathe in the scent and think about how good I felt after exercising with the endorphins flowing around my body and a great sense of accomplishment. I built an association between that smell and that feeling, and soon I had a powerful elixir on my hands. But I had to be careful- use it too much and I would retrain my brain to associate that smell with other things. My aim was simple- I wanted to remind myself why I did cardio exercise. So the next time I was dragging my heels to the gym I put the perfume on before exercising and my brain remembered that wonderful feeling I got after exercising, reminding myself why I was doing it in the first place. More than that, it remembered that post-exercise euphoria and I instantly felt more relaxed.
Realising the success of this experiment, I began reflecting back on my previous belief that certain smells created specific reactions because of a chemical process on me: Lavender for relaxation, Citrus to perk me up, Mint for cleanliness. I wondered if instead this was the power of my belief about the smell’s effect and that perhaps it only started having that effect on me after I believed in it? There was no way for me to remember my first experience with every scent so I started doing research around this topic and discovered that in most cases, it is not the medicinal effect of the plant based extract that is making us have this reaction, especially if a synthetic smell is being used. It is the mental association we have created with the smell. The Scientific American had an article around this topic and also concluded that “odors influence mood, work performance, and many other forms of behaviour via their learned associations and particularly their learned emotional associations.”
But some smells are a lot more pleasurable then others, right? Surely the beautiful Turkish delight smell of rose will create more positive triggers then the smell of a Stinking Corpse Lily? I wanted to believe so I but I had a hunch that is was based off whether the memory or experience was positive or negative when the smell’s association was created, more than the smell itself. Psychology Today had a thought-provoking article called ‘The Hidden Force of Fragrance’ which gave a hilarious example of exactly this when Rachel Herz, world-renowned expert on the psychology of smell, told us how “an emotional link was forced between the happy experience of [a] car ride and the distinctive aroma of skunk.”
Wait, Pip, are you telling me that flower essences have no actual effect on me and that everything I experience is just an aromatic placebo? Luckily, no I’m not, because I’m sure there will be an outrage at such a statement. No, I am saying that our brain is powerful enough to override anything that would be happening on a chemical level. The previous mentioned Psychology Today article has some great examples of scents that have a very measurable psychical effect on us-
Peppermint increasing brain activity, Jasmine increasing the brain waves associated with sleep, and Lavender decreasing heart rate. The good news or bad news is that a positive or negative experience we associate with a particular smell has a chance of replacing a chemical reaction for a learned response or behaviour. But don’t focus on the negative, let’s focus on the positive! We can increase and aid the effects of fragrances to improve our health, mood and lifestyle by developing purposeful triggers! We can literally bring together the magic of flowers and our mind to create something even more powerful- just think of the possibilities for those who suffer from pain, depression or illness. You know the saying “stop and smell the roses”? I think the saying should be: “stop and smell the roses while embracing happiness” because the next time that smell wafts past, you will experience more than a chemical aphrodisiac.
Pip “Odyssia” Stoneham is the creator of The Serenity Oracle project.
The Serenity Oracle YouTube channel is a place where you can find serenity through videos inspiring happiness, healthiness, and a more holistic lifestyle.
Or you can follow The Serenity Oracle Facebook Group to get updates on the unique oracle deck which has been designed to inspire relaxing meditations, activities and divinations.
The Serenity Oracle was born out of Pip Stoneham’s creative advertising & production background, and years of studying various belief systems & happiness psychology.
She became a serenity seeker to overcome daily anxieties.