Smell You Later: How Comfort Smelling Can Relieve Quarantine-Related Stress

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vadimguzhva/iStocck via Getty Images / vadimguzhva/iStocck via Getty Images

Your weeks of home quarantine, with all the excitement that FaceTime cocktail hours and Zoom yoga classes have to offer, may be making your life feel increasingly lonely and confusing. But your nose knows a good way to beat those blues: comfort smelling.

If you’ve been meeting your romantic partner, parents, children, or BFF online, and not getting the bang for your buck that you want from these encounters, your nose can help. The best way to conjure a loved one you can’t be with is to smell something they wore; sniff a scent connected to them, like their distinctive shampoo or fragrance; or cook their signature dish.

Several studies have shown that smelling the clothes worn by an absent loved one makes us happy and soothes our loneliness, and that the foods associated with specific relationships, like your mom's blueberry pie or your boyfriend’s barbecue, can act as social surrogates—an emotional stand-in for the real thing. They elicit a sense of social and emotional connectedness. If you have an unwashed sweater left by your person of interest in your closet, bring it to your nostrils and inhale. You'll be greeted by a wave of emotional memory and a sense that the person is right there with you.

If you don’t have any scents or ingredients on hand to conjure the person you're missing, try smelling a scent that's personally meaningful. Make a mental tally of joyful scents that are accessible in your home— you don’t want to put yourself at any extra risk right now by going out to purchase something. How about the soap you swiped from the hotel on your honeymoon? Or a jar of cinnamon or cloves to evoke holiday memories? Or a favorite old book whose pages remind you of whiling away the hours in libraries? When you have the item in front of you, breathe in, and you'll be transported by emotion, memory, and nostalgia. This “aromatherapy” works only because you have past emotional associations with the scent you're smelling.

Why Scent is So Powerful

How can scents trigger such powerful feelings and memories? It comes down to the uniquely intimate connection between the area of the brain that processes smell and those that process emotion and emotional memory—especially the amygdala, a key structure of the brain's limbic system that governs our emotional responses. When we smell something good, we have an instant emotional reaction to the memories the scent evokes, and that can make us feel calmer and more content. Ironically, loss of smell is now a diagnostic symptom of COVID-19, making the power of smell even more poignant.

It is possible to overindulge in comfort smelling with the same scent, however. Whether you’re summoning your partner through their T-shirt or slipping into a peaceful reverie with your favorite fragrance, dip into that scent a few times per day at most. Otherwise, you'll adapt to that odor and become inured to it over time. When the scent loses its aromatic potency, it won't trigger the emotional connections you seek. So, ration your comfort smelling to the days when you need it most, or rotate between various scents to evoke an assortment of emotional connections. For example, the next time you have a Zoom-based rendezvous with a loved one, have the scent of that person near you. You’ll be able to see, hear, smell and feel them all at once.

No matter how you do it, comfort smelling will alleviate stress—at least temporarily—and can help you endure some of the worry, loneliness, and frustrations of life in quarantine. So if you can’t join them, smell them.

Rachel Herz, Ph.D. is a neuroscientist and leading world expert on the psychological science of scent. She is on the faculty at Brown University and Boston College, and the author of several popular science books, including The Scent of Desire and Why You Eat What You Eat.