Smells can trigger vivid memories, memories that are years, even decades old. It has been said that the activity of eating engages a larger portion of the brain than any other activity. In many ways, eating and smell are very similar- or at least very closely related. While smell stimulus may not engage the same volume of brain matter that eating does, it certainly does go directly to the brain via the olfactory nerve. The olfactory nerve has a direct connection to the frontal cortex, as do the eyes. This is how some drugs can trigger psychoactive effects instantly just by snorting them.
So, with such intense stimulus acting directly on our frontal cortex, our imagination, memory, and intellect, it might seem to stand to reason that a fear of smells would exist in some people. It goes by two names; Osmophobia and Olfactophobia. It refers to an aversion to or fear of hypersensitivity toward, or anxiety regarding the sensation of odor. Naturally, we want to know what it is, how it develops, what forms it takes, and how it is treated.
What is Osmophobia?
To put it simply, osmophobia is an irrational fear of the sensation of smell. For many people, this seems somewhat understandable. Nobody wants to smell a stranger’s gas in an elevator. Some people say they feel violated by that sort of thing. But an osmophobe is not always afraid of just one of more unpleasant smells, they can be afraid of smelling anything at all, even flowers or perfume.
Those with the worst cases of the condition go to great lengths to avoid smelling anything, not just bad cooking or dog droppings, but anything at all. If an acute osmophobe smells an odor, he or she finds fearsome, they will cover their nose, avoid the room, or suddenly leave the area. In the worst cases, they may become afraid, faint, or even succumb to a state of panic.
Indeed, an osmophobe who fears only the bodily gas of others might be able to get by unnoticed. Should he or she exit a room in a panic after someone lets one go, it might just be funny. But imagine someone running from a flower bed screaming in terror. That might be funny too, but it is certainly maladaptive. So how do people develop this phobia?
What Causes the Fear of Smells or Odors?
In most cases, phobias arise from the connection of a stimulus with a traumatic event. Some appear to be congenital and arise as a hereditary feature. It appears that osmophobia can be a learned (or self-taught) disorder. It can arise from congenital sensitivities. It can also develop as a response to trauma, or it can be the result of a combination of these three factors.
In the first instance, let us consider the following example. A young person is made to sit next to a student in an elementary school class who is especially gassy. Perhaps the experience of smelling the other child’s bodily eructations is quite unpleasant. It could also happen that after her classmate had a particularly gassy day, that she developed a case of stomach flu. In this instance, it could be easy to see how someone might develop an unusually strong aversion to the bodily odors of others. But this does not yet get into the realm of the bizarre.
In the instance of self-taught osmophobia, we might say that the most likely explanation of the condition is as a kind of anxiety disorder. With anxiety disorders, the sufferer experiences fear, then fear of the consequences of fear, and then increased fear. This is a kind of psychological feedback loop that can cause someone to have a classic panic attack. In an acute case of anxiety driven osmophobia, we might suppose that the imagination of the osmophobe is on overdrive. Perhaps she imagines that the sensation of smell will never end. Maybe she has an intense impression of being violated by odors. While it is not unheard of for a person to talk or think themselves into an unusually strong aversion to bad smells, it is not likely that they would respond this way to pleasant smells.
In the worst instance, we could have an individual with a congenital, irrational fear of smells. This might not be as strange as it seems. There are a number of semi-rational congenital fears that are relatively common. These include fear of heights, water, snakes, spiders, darkness, cramped spaces, and the like. These are examples of natural fears which vary from person to person but have a simple evolutionary explanation.
For any one individual, it makes as much sense to have an acute fear of snakes as it does to courageously confront such a dangerous, poisonous creature. The person with the overriding fear avoids the snake, stays alive (hopefully), and performs other duties essential to the tribe. The person who confronts the snake is not overridden with fear and is able to remove the dangerous animal (hopefully) from the area, possibly saving a life or two. Human beings have a wide range of naturally occurring dispositions to things of this nature, and at the end of the day, we hope that the collective dispositions of everyone in a hypothetical group compliments each other.
It may be possible that osmophobia could arise from an evolutionarily driven mechanism. It could be that somewhere in the ancient past of early humans, gasses from the earth could cause illness or death. Perhaps the dangerous scents came from highly specialized poisonous plants, or from animals that could expectorate a toxic cloud. Perhaps a storm front could push a cloud of fetid air from a nearby estuary toward the ancestors of our dear osmophobe. These do seem like strange speculations to consider, and perhaps unlikely.
Even so, osmophobia does appear to be congenital in nature often times, and when it does, the worst cases of the phobias develop.
Symptoms of Osmophobia
The prevailing symptoms of osmophobia are not unlike those of any other major, unlearned phobia. In the worst cases, the condition can be quite taxing for the osmophobe. They can make the activities of day to day life difficult or impossible.
The symptoms of this phobia include but may not be limited to:
- Anxiety: varying levels of anxiety are a hallmark of any phobia. In the worst cases of osmophobia, anxiety can be frequent and extreme.
- Shortness of breath: a common symptom of anxiety, shortness of breath can be dangerous when acute.
- Shallow, rapid breathing: a typical fear related issue, shallow, rapid breathing can trigger further anxiety.
- Arrhythmia: characterized as heartbeat irregularities, arrhythmia often contributes to anxiety, triggering a spiral effect.
- Sweating: another common symptom of anxiety, extreme or persistent sweating often accompanies anxiety disorders.
- Nausea: a feeling of unease or illness centered in the stomach or abdomen, acute cases can cause vomiting or the inability to take in food.
- Dry mouth: often an early sign of an anxiety attack, persistent dry mouth can contribute to oral health problems.
- Difficulty speaking: in a state of fear or panic, difficulty articulating speech is common.
- Tremors or shaking: another sign of extreme fear or high anxiety, trembling is often an early sign of a panic attack.
This brings us to the question of treatment. How are persons suffering from this often debilitating phobia treated, and can they recover?
In psychiatry, there is one most favored form of treatment for persons with acute phobias, like the ones mentioned above. It is known as cognitive behavioral therapy coupled with exposure therapy.
In traditional cognitive behavioral therapy, a therapist, counselor, or licensed clinician sits with the patient for an hour or so once or twice a month. During these sessions, the patient and her therapist will discuss whatever seems most on the forefront of the patient’s mind. The therapist will take notes, and eventually offer advice, make prescriptions, and so on.
When the patient suffers from osmophobia, or any treatable fear disorder, another course of action that can be taken is exposure therapy. In exposure therapy, the patient is slowly and progressively introduced to greater and greater levels of exposure to the thing of which she or he has become so deathly afraid.
It could begin with merely mentioning an odor. This is particularly effective with this disorder since the sense of smell and the imagination are so closely linked. The therapist may make a single mention of the smell of flowers to start. At a later session, he might bring in a flower and set it within smelling distance to the patient. In time, if the patient has progressed well, the therapist might introduce stronger smells like the smell of motor oil or something somewhat more offensive.
As this progression continues, the therapist may couple pleasing stimuli with that of the smells. Perhaps he will encourage the patient to take a piece of chocolate while also subtly introducing an odor of some kind. In some cases, drugs that are used in marriage counseling to generate a feeling of pleasant intimacy may be used.
The therapist will choose smells in accordance with the patient’s particular predilections. If the patient is particularly afraid of the smell of baked ham, for example, the therapist might use that smell – or he might use another smell if the smell of ham is too offensive to be tolerated straight away.
Over a period, the therapist will continue in this way with the ultimate goal of getting the patient to respond in socially acceptable ways to a variety of smells. He will aim to get the patient to wrinkle her nose at an unpleasant smell, but to not become anxious or panic. Likewise, the therapist will aim to have the patient respond with pleasure to pleasant smells such as the aroma of flowers, warm soup, or what have you.
This is the way many irrational, unlearned fears are treated and the success of this technique is equal to or better than drugs, cognitive behavioral therapy, or other means alone. It is not always successful, of course. Sometimes the osmophobe succumbs to fear and anxiety each and every time she or he is exposed to a smell of any kind. In these cases, cases where the triggered response to odors is so strong and persistent that it interferes with daily life, it is possible for a person to have the olfactory nerve removed. This is a rare and extreme form of intervention, but it is not unheard of.
In the course of reading this, it may have occurred to you that a series of sessions treating osmophobia with exposure therapy can lead to humorous situations. Indeed, these can be a great help to the talented therapist, as laughter remains the best medicine.