Shopping, blizzards, school cancellations, cooking, parties, relatives, work. December brings a storm of activities and situations that combine to create the possibility for a great deal of fun or madness. Somewhere in between is the edginess and breathlessness that most of us feel for at least a day or two this month. What can you do to relieve the stress? Yoga and exercise are great if you have the time, but something that doesn't require any of your time is using your nose. Lavender and orange citrus scents have both been scientifically validated to produce relaxation, enhance sleep quality, increase positive mood and reduce tension during stressful situations. These scents are cheap and easy to find, and just a momentary whiff can be enough to turn down your emotional temperature and slow your heart rate. Sound like magic? Well it's not.
Scents are not magic potions or drugs. If a scent affects your mood and physical state it is because of the emotional association you have to it, and the physiological consequences that emotional state induces. Feeling relaxed slows your heart-rate, feeling excited quickens it. If lavender creates the feeling of calm for you it's because you have experienced deep calm while exposed to lavender in your past. You may have been getting a gentle message and your message therapist was using lavender oil, or you may have been soaking in a warm tub with lavender scented soap, or something else personally comforting. Experimentally, the scent of lavender has been found to make people feel more relaxed and sleep better. Similar outcomes have been found for orange-citrus aromas. Experiments have even shown that a citrus orange scent is better than mood music at making people feel happier and less tense during a stressful situation. The reason why scent is so good at inducing mood is because olfaction has a more direct and immediate connection to the area of the brain that processes emotion than any other sense does.
Since the effects of aromas are due to our own personal past history with the scents in question, they can be idiosyncratic. If you don't like the smell of lavender or orange then you aren't going to feel relaxed after smelling them; you may even feel annoyed. And, if you've never smelled lavender or orange before you won't be soothed by them either. What's more, if you're exposed to a scent such as lavender, but are led to believe that you're smelling something else, with for example, invigorating qualities, lavender aroma won't relax you and in fact may make your heart-rate jump. This underscores how psychologically susceptible our experience of scent is.
An orange scented candle or a bar of lavender soap may be just what you need for a reviving and relieving time-out during the holidays. But the most important point is to find a scent that makes you feel good, and any scent will do. The remnant of fragrance in an old perfume bottle, the smell of a loved one's sweater, the aroma of macaroni and cheese dinner, or the scent of a special flower-- if it makes you feel comforted then it can be your aromatherapy for the holidays and beyond.
One cautionary word, don't use your therapist in a bottle too frequently. If you continuously expose yourself to a scent you will adapt to its aroma and not be able to smell it. And if you can't smell it, a scent can't help you.
Rachel Herz is the author of The Scent of Desire and on the faculty at Brown University.
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