Why You Smell Worse When You're Anxious

If anxiety makes you feel like a sweaty, rumpled mess, you’re not imagining things. It turns out that, indeed, anxiety makes you smell worse. As Cristen Conger, host of Stuff Your Mom Never Told You, explains in a new video, anxiety makes people produce a special, extra-stinky kind of sweat. Yay, something new to be anxious about! (I’m crying).

Research has shown that not all sweat is the same. When we’re anxious, we make a different kind of sweat than we do when we’re exercising — a smellier kind. The sweat that pours off of you in the middle of spin class (or whatever your mode of exercise du jour might be) is made up of more than 90 percent water and doesn’t have much of a smell. This type of sweat is produced by the eccrine gland. When you’re seized by anxiety, you trigger a different set of chain reactions. As Conger explains, anxiety “triggers our fight or flight response, which then alerts our brain’s hypothalamus, to alert our adrenal glands to release some epinephrine, adrenaline, and cortisol, which then alerts our apocrine glands to release a whole different kind of sweat.” Unlike watery exercise sweat, this anxiety-induced fluid is made up of 80 percent water and 20 percent fats and proteins. Bacteria that live on the skin love these fats and proteins and gobble them up, producing an unpleasant odor. Aaah, the sweet smell of anxiety!

Scientists believe that this stress-related B.O. might have once served an evolutionary purpose; essentially, if one person smelled strongly of stress sweat, it was a valuable signal to everyone else that there might be something nearby to be stressed about, like a predator or other threat.

Now, sweat from anxiety causes mixed responses. One study shows that smelly stress sweat triggers empathy in some people. A 2013 study, however, suggests that people negatively judge others who bear the special “perfume” of anxiety. The researchers, led by Pamela Dalton, found that women who smell of stress sweat were deemed to be less “confident, trustworthy and competent,” particularly by men. That really stinks.

Images: YouTube (2); Giphy