Smell is the most primal of our six senses, and it has the power to drive human behavior both on the instinctive and subconscious level. Smells can be warning signs - think of when you smell gas - or they can welcome us and make us feel secure, like the smell of freshly baked bread or newly brewed coffee.
Smell is a deeply personal experience, intrinsically linked to memory. Marcel Proust popularized the notion of ‘involuntary memory’ in a famous passage from In Remembrance of Things Past: the character dips a madeleine cake into his cup of tea, invoking a long-forgotten childhood memory of sharing the same experience with his aunt Leonie. What’s become known as the 'Proustian Memory Effect', is the idea that smells invoke distant memories more powerfully than any other sense.
So how can we harness this power to our benefit? The personal aspect of scent is a great place to start. Think of any scents that bring up happy memories for you: the smell of the ocean taking you back to a particularly memorable vacation; a certain flower that grew in your grandmother’s yard that reminds you of her; a particular fruit or herb that evokes memories of a home-cooked meal. Having that fruit or herb in your home, or using candles, room sprays, oil perfume sticks, diffusers or mists can be a simple way to invoke happy memories and trigger a positive response.
Some of the purest, most natural scents are essential oils. Used for centuries, aromatherapy is the practice of using essential oils for therapeutic benefit.
Essential oils can be used many ways, so if you’re keen to give them a go, try a few ways and see what works for you: diffusers are great for filling your home with scent, whereas pulse-point rollers are a fantastic way to use aromatherapy on the go and at work. A few drops of oil in your bath is a way to add scent to your evening wind-down routine, or you can mix them with carrier oils (never put essential oils directly onto the skin) for a wonderful self-massage or for some quality intimate time with your partner.
One thing to remember is that you can get used to a smell - think about how you often can’t smell your own perfume - so it’s useful to switch things up.
To help you, here are some of the most popular uses of essential oils, and particular scents for you to try:
ESSENTIAL OILS FOR MENTAL CLARITY
- Rosemary: used for focus and memory, this is a good oil to use when you’re working.
- Spearmint: used in combination with rosemary oil, spearmint is thought to have beneficial effects on memory and learning.
- Citruses: citrus essential oils such as lemon, sweet orange and grapefruit are very uplifting and are often used to energize the mind.
ESSENTIAL OILS FOR STRESS AND ANXIETY
- Jasmine: jasmine flowers have long been used in Traditional Chinese Medicine, and there are some studies showing the antidepressant properties of jasmine essential oil, especially when mixed with a carrier and applied as a massage oil.
- Bergamot: this citrusy-smelling oil can help to relieve anxiety and improve mood. Best inhaled, try it in a diffuser.
- Chamomile: a calming cup of chamomile tea is a traditional herbal remedy for stress, but chamomile oil can also be used for relaxation. Try a few drops in the bath.
- Rose: the evocative scent of rose oil is thought to have many benefits, one of which is easing depressive symptoms. It is thought to do this by increasing dopamine in the brain.
ESSENTIAL OILS FOR SLEEP
- Lavender: the most commonly used (and most widely-researched) essential oil for sleep and relaxation. Try a pillow spray or put a bag of dried lavender in your pillowcase.
- Valerian: used for its calming effect, it can be combined with lavender in the bath or inhaled using a diffuser. Beware: its smell is quite divisive, so we recommend trying before you buy!
- Clary Sage: This oil is thought to have anti-stress effects and is associated with a relaxation response when inhaled. Try adding to a diffuser or using as a room spray.
As with anything you do for your health, always check with a doctor to make sure that the oils you choose are safe for your personal circumstances, including to ensure they are safe to use with any medications you might be taking.