Stress Relief And Scent
Smelling and nostalgia can soothe the mood
Glimmers of hope are maybe (finally!) poking through the economic gloom. And while a squirt of perfume won't replace your depleted 401(k), it could dull the sting. How so? "Aromas can elicit dramatic changes in your emotional state and cause you to think back to a person, place, or time when you first experienced a particular smell," says Pamela Dalton, Ph. D., a sensory scientist at Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia. If the experience was a joyful one, you'll feel happy again—almost as powerfully—with a whiff of the same notes.
Which could explain why so many fragrance designers are creating women's perfume that evoke their own memories triggered by scent. For Estee Lauder's Private Collection Jasmine White Moss, Aerin Lauder chose scents, including jasmine, orange flower, and patchouli, that remind her of spending time with her grandmother, Estee Lauder. Actress Reese Witherspoon, who helped formulate the new Avon fragrance In Bloom, says she was influenced by the aroma of the Southern flowers and fruits from her childhood in Tennessee. And Donatella Versace's new fragrance, Versense, smells faintly of the olive trees that are abundant in her native Italy.
Consumers, too, are reaching back in time. When the NPD Group, a marketing research company in Port Washington, New York, released sales data for the top five perfumes sold in department stores earlier this year, three of the fragrances that appeared on the list (Chanel No. 5, Cashmere Mist, and Beautiful) were launched before 1995, and two were from 2001. The explanation: "People tend to move toward familiar scents during times of stress," says Edgar Chambers IV, Ph. D., director of the Sensory Analysis Center at Kansas State University's College of Human Ecology. "They're a source of comfort."
Cash-flow issues may also be influencing the recent drive to rewind: "Women are still taking fewer chances with their money," says Susanne Langmuir, a Toronto-based perfumer and creator of Sula fragrances. "They're picking what they know they like and makes them feel good."
Your Brain on Fragrance
Classifying a scent is an inbred survival mechanism, Dalton says. Back in caveman days, she explains, humans learned to avoid danger through smell and experience (by noticing the unpleasant effects of eating spoiled meat, for example). Even today, our sense of smell can protect us: Maybe you won't touch tequila because you got violently ill one night drinking it in college and now one whiff of the stuff causes your stomach to lurch.
That's an easy scent association to make, but the scent/memory relationship is actually pretty complex. The CliffsNotes version: When odor molecules enter the nose, they're filtered through olfactory nerve cells and go into the limbic system, the emotional center of the brain. That emotion becomes fixed to the odor memory and gets locked in your gray matter until it's revived with a whiff. Put more simply, emotion + smell = a scent memory.
Emotional baggage is powerful—that's why odors can elicit a physical response. If your first kiss took place in your eighth-grade boyfriend's tree-filled backyard, you may find your heart beating a little faster when you smell a woodsy fragrance. "Scent can bring back more emotionally intense and evocative memories than other senses, like sight or touch. You feel transported to the time and the place," says Rachel S. Herz, Ph. D., a visiting professor of psychiatry and human behavior and psychology at Brown University and the author of The Scent of Desire.
Case in point: "Looking at a bottle of Chanel No. 5, might make you think of your Aunt Jane. But when you smell the perfume, you'll remember more emotionally, like how you felt about her, and that she was your favorite aunt," Herz says.
How To Find A Scent That Soothes You
Because everyone's past is unique, odor associations vary wildly. Some people love roses, while others might hate the smell because it reminds them of a grandmother's funeral or a creepy prom date. But there are a few scents with broad appeal. Studies have shown that citrus scents tend to make people feel positive, while lavender makes people feel relaxed, Herz says. If you don't know what your feel-good odors are, think back to the scent you wore in high school, or the magnolia trees that bloomed outside your college dorm window. Or go even younger, to childhood, and recall happy holiday meals or a special dessert you and your mom used to make (sweets make for powerful scent associations—comfort foods lead to comforting thoughts). As the designers of this fall's nostalgic fragrances can attest, childhood is a great source of inspiration, primarily because most of us link being a kid with innocence and happiness. Plus, childhood is loaded with firsts—like the first trip to the beach (that salty-air smell!) or the first trip to the circus (the cotton candy scent!)—that tend to offer up powerful frames of reference.
Got nothing? Then try plan B: "Pay attention to the everyday odors that give you a tingle now— like sugar cookies baking or a cup of herbal tea—and jot them down in a journal," suggests Sean O'Mara, a perfumer and creator of Royal Apothic fragrances. You'll start to connect the dots and find patterns in the scents you like.
Next, research the odors you love by seeing which fragrance family they fit into. (Fragrance families are groupings of scents. Everything in one family won't smell exactly the same, but they'll have the same vibe. If you like a perfume in one family, you'll probably like other scents in that family.) Say you identify your favorite everyday scents as cinnamon and vanilla. You can log on to the Fragrance Foundation's web-site (fragrance.org) to see what family that combo fits into (FYI, it belongs to the oriental/floral family). The site will also suggest fragrances available in stores that fall into that category.
Have An Off-The-Body Experience
You don't have to wear a fragrance to feel its positive effects. Choose a room spray or a candle with a main note from your nostalgic scent. "When you wear the same fragrance for a long time, receptors in the nose become less sensitive to it, and you'll stop smelling it," Dalton says. "Using a dominant note for your home once in a while will have greater impact because you don't smell it every day."
Mist scent sprays onto tissues or quilted cotton pads (quilting holds fragrance longer, O'Mara says) and hide them around the room.