Breathe in Love, Breathe Out Stress

Our sense of smell, new research shows, elicits deeply loving feelings—and lowers our stress levels.

Posted in , Feb 9, 2018

Breathe the scent of a loved one to reduce stress

I’ve noticed a trend in clothing catalogs over the past several years—more and more clothes are given cute names like “The Boyfriend Shirt.” The idea that a boxy shirt can elicit positive feelings if they remind us of a love partner is an interesting marketing tool. But perhaps clothing companies would sell even more of these if they could find a way to infuse these products with the smells of our beloveds.

A new study conducted by researchers at the University of British Columbia invited women to smell shirts scented with one of three odors—the smell of their romantic partner, the smell of a stranger or a neutral scent. The women were then subjected to a stressful situation, like a math test, and two measures were taken. One recorded the participants’ perceptions of their stress levels, while the other used saliva samples to measure their cortisol levels—cortisol being the infamous “stress hormone” that elevates along with our stress.

Unsurprisingly to anyone who has ever deeply inhaled a loved one’s shirt, jacket or pillowcase, the results were striking. Women who had smelled their partner’s scent had both lower perceptions of their stress, and lower levels of cortisol in their systems. Compared with those who smelled neutral shirts, the women who smelled a stranger’s scent had higher cortisol levels.

There is a fascinating explanation for this, having to do with how our sense of smell connects to our brains. Our olfactory bulb, which registers smell, communicates directly with two parts of the brain—and notably is not connected to our language centers, which could explain why the loving feelings you get when you inhale your love’s shirt are difficult to articulate.

The two parts of the brain our sense of smell connects most directly to are the amygdala, which process our emotions, and the hippocampus, which is responsible for “associative learning,” otherwise known as memory. So when you breathe in something that smells like someone you love, your memory of happy time together awakens in your brain, as do the emotions you associate with being loved by that person.

If you cuddle up to your Valentine or a loved one this week, take a deep breath in—visualize the primal connection you are inhaling, and imagine it hovering inside your brain, ready to help you relax whenever stress next comes calling.

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