WELLBEING AND THE POWER OF SCENT, by Psychologist, Rachel Tomlinson

WELLBEING AND THE POWER OF SCENT, by Psychologist, Rachel Tomlinson

Natural Essential Oils: Unisex functional fragrances 

Wellbeing and the Power of Scent! by Psychologist, Rachel Tomlinson

Please note that I have received gifted products from Melissa Allen Mood Essentials. This consists of functional fragrances from her unisex collection that are infused with 100% natural essential oils; I Have Calm, I Have Focus, I Have Joy, and I Have Confidence. The opinions shared below are my own.

A smell is not simply a smell, they are portals to ingrained memories. The salty briny smell of the beach, or the aroma of your mother baking muffins in the kitchen, a gentle waft of lavender on the breeze which reminds you of a holiday you once took. Just one small sniff can leave us dizzy with emotions and recollections. Humans have five senses; touch, taste, hearing, sight and of course smell; however, smell is the only sense which is directly linked to emotional centre of our brain, which is why smell can evoke our past experiences.

As a psychologist this is something I am tremendously interested in, and I often employ the senses in emotional regulation, calming and mindfulness strategies. I typically rely on intuitive scent choices that I or the client like, but I have also been increasingly aware of essential oils and the potential role they could play in wellbeing. When I was gifted some functional fragrances by Melissa Allen Mood Essentials I decided to do a deeper dive into essential oils and the role of scent on wellbeing.


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Let’s get into the science of smell…

When we inhale an aroma, it travels through our nose to something called the olfactory bulb in the brain, the stimulus is then sent off to the amygdala for further processing. The primary role of the amygdala is decision making, memory and emotional responses, and it is part of something called the limbic system. A humans “emotional life” is typically housed within the limbic system which is responsible for our emotional and behavioural responses, heart rate, blood pressure, stress, hormone balance and memory retention. (1)

The molecules we inhale also then continue their journey through our upper and lower respiratory tract, and they then travel to the blood vessels in the heart to be pumped through our body via the blood stream to every tissue and organ. To put it simply what we breathe in circulates through both our mind and body, so it can be suggested that what we breathe in has the potential to influence us (2).

This trinity of emotion, memory and scent helps us to understand why smell is so evocative, and has such power to influence our mood and wellbeing.

Research into scent, particularly essential oils is relatively new in the psychological space. However, with key research indicating the power of scent to evoke memories, and also being processed through the same part of the brain (the limbic system) which influences emotion, many new papers have been focussing on either the general impact of aromatherapy or the impact of specific essential oils. I found some really interesting studies which I have summarised below for any additional reading you might want to do on the topic.

Mental health and wellbeing are critical to our individual lived experiences, and we need to ensure that as psychologists and trusted health professionals we use the gold standard, of well researched strategies to support our clients with. A new field of study has been launched in recent year; “psycho neurodoimmunology” which explores the relationship between psychological processes (like mood and wellbeing) and the nervous, hormone and immune systems in the body. Solid research exists, and there is a clear and established link that positive moods and emotions can be elicited via the inhalation of aromas. It will be exciting to see what the research will uncover, as many new studies are now looking into specific smells/essential oils and how they influence things like depression and anxiety. To be clear there is no research which says smells or the use of essential oils “cure” any type of mental illness; however, the use of scent in intentional ways can absolutely be brought into an individual’s “wellbeing toolbox”.


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Here are some of the ways I incorporate scent into my own wellbeing practices, as well as strategies I suggest for clients

Sensory self-care – I often encourage clients to create a sensory self-care box. Our senses (taste, touch, hearing, sight and smell) are closely entwined with our emotions, so we can hijack our senses and feed them stimulation that helps meet our sensory needs or to counteract particular feelings. In a sensory self-care box, we can curate a collection of things to help soothe and calm us, or to energise us. For example, picking music that makes you feel calm; it could be creating a playlist that has whale sounds, beach sounds, rainforest sounds, classical music…anything really, its so unique to each person. You might also have songs that pep you up with an upbeat tempo or great lyrics, or even songs that elicit positive memories for you. For touch you might consider including something like playdough or clay to squeeze and pull to release additional energy related to stress or anger. You could also roll it into a ball, or a cylinder shape for soothing via the rhythmic movements.

And smell could be a perfume or an essential oil that makes you feel uplifted, or calming. I have added “I Have Calm” and “I Have Focus” to my own self-care box. What I like is that they are a fragrance but also contain essential oils, with each one being carefully selected to simultaneously smell good and to have a function (which is love!). I also like to have a variety of scents and intentionally include one for relaxing me, and another for putting a bit of “pep” back in my step which is why I chose these two fragrances from the collection. I Have Calm has a lavender base (check out the research below on lavender on sleep and relaxation its fascinating) but it smells super fresh and “green” (hey, I'm no perfumier, its just what it smells like to me). And I Have focus is really citrusy and zesty which I love (again check out some emerging research into rosemary and being able to concentrate).

For taste you could add something like a piece of chewing gum, or a hard-lolly to suck on or crunch for the sensory experience. Or you could choose a luxurious little bite of chocolate or protein ball. For sight we could choose to add in a mindfulness colouring activity book (which also helps with the sense of touch), or include some photos of a beautiful landscape or even a personal photo of something that invokes a good memory. Self-care is about intentionally looking after yourself, and the mere act of putting together a sensory self-care box can make us feel good as well are re-iterating our own value by prioritising our needs.

Calm breathing. I also use scent when engaging in calm breathing strategies, it’s a behavioural conditioning technique where we pair a stimulus (in this case a scent) with an outcome, and for calm breathing we are pairing a scent with calm, and relaxation. If we pair things up often enough, we create a strong relationship, and the simple presence of the stimulus enough to have a behavioural reaction.  We do some relaxation breathing whilst inhaling a particular scent, and the relaxation breathing helps us to feel calm and regulated our nervous system, reducing stress hormones. Eventually if we pair these two things together often enough and we smell that same scent it can help us feel calm and relaxed without the calm breathing needed (although – calm breathing is great and it definitely does us a world of good to keep utilising this technique).

I have been using I Have Joy during my calm breathing practice, as a psychologist calm breathing is my jam and I do it multiple times a day to keep myself in check. This fragrance literally sits on my desk and I use it throughout the day when I feel my body getting tense or I'm getting tired. I use calm breathing to refresh myself and get grounded back in the moment, or to re-set if I'm feeling a bit frazzled. I’ve always loved the smell of bergamot, its another really refreshing, citrusy scent and when I found some interesting research on potential properties of fighting fatigue I added I Have Joy to my breathing practice as Bergamot is one of the key essential oils included.

These are obviously not the only ways to bring aroma into the self-care and wellbeing space, but these are two key strategies I employ personally. When we incorporate scent into our wellbeing strategies it can also bring about the added benefits of mindfulness and becoming aware of the present moment as you are focussed on the scent, or the touch, taste etc. So, what are you waiting for? What sensory wellbeing activities will you be bringing into your self-care practices?

Disclaimer – Please be aware that although natural, essential oils are still chemicals, and they can be hazardous if used incorrectly or potentially interact with some other medications/drugs. If pregnant, please consult your GP prior to using product. Also note:

 - Not for internal use

- Do not use on face

- Patch test prior to use of product.  If irritation occurs, discontinue using product

- Keep out of reach of children

- Store in a cool, dry place away from sunlight


Interesting Studies

1.       In a study conducted by Matsunga et al, in 2011 they concluded that participants who smelled a nostalgic odour (specific to each person) experienced an autobiographic memory (i.e., a personal memory). This was compared against a group who received a “control odour” and they did not experience any of these autobiographical memories. The participants who smelled the nostalgic scent were also noted to have an altered mood state, including self-reported increased feelings of happiness and comfort and reduced feelings of anxiety (3)

2.       A study by Kim et al, in 2011 identified that after 30 healthy participants inhaled lavender essential oils it was shown to have anxiety reducing and pain reducing properties. This was assessed through a stress questionnaire and a bispectral index (ECG brain scanning). After 5 minutes of smelling the lavender stress values and bispectral index were significantly reduced (4).

3.       Another study conducted by Kritsidima et al, in 2010 on lavender found (in a randomised controlled trial) that of 170 participants who inhaled lavender scent whilst waiting for a scheduled dental appointment had reduced anxiety (assessed by the tool STAI-6) compared to the 170 other participants who did not inhale any scent (5).

4.       A small study of 20 people was conducted by Moss, which looked at how varying levels of rosemary aroma impacted on cognition and memory. They used blood tests to determine the level of exposure to rosemary and found that as levels of exposure increased so did participants functioning on speed and accuracy tests (6).

5.       Bergamot may also help reduce negative emotions and fatigue, as determined by cortisol levels in saliva (cortisol is the bodies stress hormone). A study by Watanabe et al in 2015 found that after setting up 41 female participants ready for the study they gave them either rest, rest and water vapour (no aroma), or rest and bergamot vapour and those exposed to the bergamot vapour had lower heart rates and cortisol levels after 10 minutes compared to the other two opens (rest and rest/no aroma) (7).

6.       Please note that these are interesting studies, but in Psychology a meta-analysis comparing similar studies for quality is a good benchmark before we can say for certain that these effects were all caused because of the same thing. It’s making sure that we compare apples with apples and that the studies themselves are rigorous.




1.      Kiecolt-Glaser, J.K., Graham, J.E., Malarkey, W.B., Porter, K., Lemeshow, S., & Glaser, R. (2008, April). Olfactory influences on mood and autonomic, endocrine, and immune function. Psychoneuroendocrinology

2.      Babar Ali, Naser Ali Al-Wabel, Saiba Shams, Aftab Ahamad, Shah Alam Khan, Firoz Anwar (2015). Essential oils used in aromatherapy: A systemic review. Asian Pacific Journal of Tropical Biomedicine, 5 (8). 601-611. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.apjtb.2015.05.007.

3.      Matsunaga M., Isowa T., Yamakawa K., Kawanishi Y., Tsuboi H., Kaneko H., Ohira H. Psychological and physiological responses to odor-evoked autobiographic memory. Neuroendocrinol. Lett. 2011;32:774–80

4.      Kim, S., Kim, H.-J., Yeo, J.-S., Hong, S.-J., Lee, J.-M., & Jeon, Y. (2011). The effect of lavender oil on stress, Bispectral index values, and needle insertion pain in volunteers. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine17(9), 823– 826.

5.      Kritsidima, M., Newton, T., & Asimakopoulou, K. (2010). The effects of lavender scent on dental patient anxiety levels: A cluster randomised-controlled trial. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine38(1), 83– 87. 

6.      Moss M., Oliver L. Plasma 1,8-cineole correlates with cognitive performance following exposure to rosemary essential oil aroma. Therapeutic Advances in Psychopharmacology. 2012;2(3):103–113. doi: 10.1177/2045125312436573.

7.      Watanabe E, Kuchta K, Kimura M, Rauwald HW, Kamei T, Imanishi J. Effects of Bergamot (Citrus bergamia (Risso) Wright & Arn.) Essential Oil Aromatherapy on Mood States, Parasympathetic Nervous System Activity, and Salivary Cortisol Levels in 41 Healthy FemalesForsch Komplementmed. 2015;22(1):43-49. doi:10.1159/000380989

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