Have you ever wondered why sniffing something belonging to a loved one immediately comforts you? Well, a psychological study may have found the answer. Researchers at the University of British Columbia's psychology department found that smelling your partner's clothes could reduce stress levels and help those suffering from loneliness and anxiety.
The study, which was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology earlier this year, tested 96 women who were in a relationship with a member of the opposite sex. Their partners were asked to wear a T-shirt for 24 hours in order for it to retain their natural scent. Each T-shirt was then frozen to keep the scent fresh.
The women were asked to smell one of three scents: either the one belonging to their partner, one belonging to a complete stranger, or the neutral smell of an unworn T-shirt. They then underwent stressful activities including being subjected to a mock job interview and being asked to carry out a maths task.
Researchers obtained the results by asking women to verbally describe their stress levels and by taking a swab of saliva to determine levels of the stress hormone cortisol throughout the study. What they found was rather interesting.
Women who sniffed their partner's scent had lower stress levels while those who experienced the smell of a stranger appeared to be more stressed. Oddly, this is only thought to happen when a woman smells a man's scent.
"Research suggests women have a better developed sense of smell and men are more visually stimulated, so men would be more likely to experience stress reduction through seeing their partner's clothing," psychotherapist and psychologist Peter Klein explained to the Guardian. "How close a woman feels towards her male partner — how much oxytocin she experiences when she's with them or how happy she is in the relationship — will also affect how comforting she finds smelling the clothing."
There's also an explanation for why stress levels increase when smelling a strange male scent. "From a young age, humans fear strangers, especially strange males, so it is possible that a strange male scent triggers the 'fight or flight' response that leads to elevated cortisol. This could happen without us being fully aware of it," explained the study's lead author Marlise Hofer.
The psychology department believes its research could help the increasing number of women who report feelings of loneliness. "With globalisation, people are increasingly travelling for work and moving to new cities," assistant psychology professor and senior author of the study Frances Chen commented. "Our research suggests that something as simple as taking an article of clothing that was worn by your loved one could help lower stress levels when you're far from home."
Scent is a powerful thing. Just one whiff of something can conjure up memories (both good and bad), warn us of danger, and even spark the start of a romantic relationship. But this is the first time there is proof that smells can calm a person. And in this turbulent world, that's a nice fact to know.