What Are Scent Triggers?

When I ask people what they do to improve their physical health, I typically hear about some sort of exercise routine, an attempt to eat healthy foods and a goal of eight hours of sleep (12 if they're "overachievers"). When I ask about their mental health routine, I hear about reading books, watching movies, journaling, spending time outdoors and visiting a therapist. When I ask people how they use scent triggers for their overall health, I hear nothing. Just confused faces. Whatchya talking about, Anthony? Oh, nothing. Just the most powerful sense that we have. 

What are scent triggers?

Scent triggers are specific aromas that trigger your brain to take a trained action or instantly evokes an emotion. This could be to help you calm down, wake up, fall asleep easier, snap back into focus mode or instantly bring back a memory of someone you love. Those are the positive ways that scent triggers can affect your current emotional state.

Smelling an unpleasant aroma or something that brings back a bad memory can just as easily change your mood in the opposite direction. And guess what? All of this is uncontrollable because of how our brain is wired. This can work in your favor with a little bit of effort. 

Training the brain

First, scent triggers work because smells have a strong link to memory and emotion. Stronger than any of our other senses. That's why it's possible and necessary to train our brains to react to specific scents. 

The first scent trigger I ever used was to help me sleep. I was having a really hard time falling and staying asleep so I began experimenting with all sorts of methods. Nothing was working, but I was determined to find a solution.

One day, I came across an article that mentioned the power of scents. At this point, I already tried the recommended scents that help people fall asleep. They didn't work. However, I was using them in the wrong way. I was expecting to take one sniff of lavender and sleep like a baby. Maybe I was expecting too much and was looking for instant gratification. Silly me.

After reading the article, I decided to give scents another shot. This time, I was going to train my brain based off the new knowledge I learned. 

Around 30 minutes before bed, I would brush my teeth, wash the face and apply the sleepy time scent trigger on the top of my hands and a little under the nose. A few slow deep breaths and off to bed I went.

"Relax, Anthony." Chill, breathe and focus on the scent. Easier said than done. When my mind started to wander, I would attempt to just focus on the scent. It wasn't easy at first, but being persistent paid off. 

After three weeks of doing this, my brain started associating the scent with sleep. I can take one whiff of the sleep blend and my brain knows exactly what's coming. Now, it's very rare for it to take more than five minutes for me to fall asleep. Dimming the lights, reading, dropping the temperature and my typical evening routine also helps, but scent is the most powerful sense that we have. Adding it to any routine will only help accomplish the action you're trying to achieve. 

I know a lot of people want the instant gratification like I was searching for. That's probably why they turn to sleeping pills and other medication to help. I'm not a big fan of taking unnecessary medication so I was willing to put in the effort to see if the more natural route would work. It did. And like most things, effort was required to make change.  

The easiest analogy would be going to the gym and expecting perfect abs on day one. We all know that's not going to happen. Especially if you eat brisket for dinner because you "deserve" it. You don't. However, go to the gym consistently for three weeks  and you're going to notice a difference in those abs. 

The same effort applies when training your brain with a scent trigger. You won't see immediate results, but persistence will reward you in the end. Start by training one scent trigger and learn from that experience. I've been experimenting with scents for a long time and I only have two... for now. 

My scent triggers

I currently have two scent triggers that I use on a daily basis. Theo brings back memories and emotions of being outside so I use that to keep me calm and focused throughout the day. The bottle is either in my pocket while traveling around or next to my laptop while working. I apply it a few times a day, but never after dinner. After dinner, I let the smell fade because I use my sleepy time scent trigger before bed. 

Now that I'm comfortable with scent triggers and understand how powerful they can be, I'm experimenting with a couple new ideas. How can scents improve my workouts? Can a scent trigger make my relationship stronger? Maybe even more intimate? Let the experimenting continue... 

Where to buy scent triggers

You can use any product that has a scent! You can even make your own, which I recommend. I use essential oil blends because I prefer all natural fragrances and some of them can provide additional benefits. If I'm going to be sniffing and putting something on my body all day I want it to be all natural. If a product doesn't list the ingredients in their fragrance, you could be absorbing dangerous chemicals

You can buy essential oils from local health food stores or online. I'd recommend visiting a local store because they'll usually have a large selection of testers so you can find a scent that you like. 

If you enjoy exploring the outdoors, try the essential oil blend I created, Theo roll on.

Bonus section for you science nerds

The majority of odor responses are acquired during childhood, but any time we encounter a new smell, associative learning mechanisms can determine odor perception. This is why I started creating my own scent triggers. By combining different essential oils, I'm able to create a scent I've never experienced before. This allows me to train my brain so it responds with the desired emotion or action. Doing this allows me to control or at least effect my mood throughout the day. 

This is because scents influence our moods and moods influence how we think and act. In terms of how we think, mood has been shown to influence creativity, productivity, performance and the tendency to help others compared to individuals in a bad mood. Scents are capable of producing the same effects.

Can you think of a time when a coworker created an unpleasant scent and it killed your focus? I remember a specific coworker who constantly reheated fish in the microwave. After a few times of her doing that, I would anticipate the smell and negative feelings associated with that memory every time she walked to the kitchen. Talk about mood and productivity killer. 

So, we've learned that memories and scents are linked together and have the ability to instantly change our mood. What's going on in the brain to make this happen?

In 2017, scientists discovered something interesting about the processes that make odor-linked memories so vivid: Memories may be saved in a part of the olfactory bulb itself. The part responsible is a complex structure called the piriform cortex.

For a study published in the journal Cerebral Cortex, researchers used electrical impulses to try to make new memory connections in the brains of rats. Previous research has shown that these types of impulses can successfully form long-term memories in the hippocampus (our main memory center), and the team wanted to see if they could do the same thing in the smell-centric piriform cortex. 

The piriform cortex connects to all sorts of places in the brain, including a higher-level structure called the orbitofrontal cortex. This structure is generally responsible for making judgments about sensory input: this blanket feels soft, curl up with it again; the chicken in the fridge smells off, don't eat it. The researchers used the same impulses to stimulate this region, which triggered memory changes in the piriform cortex.

"Our study shows that the piriform cortex is indeed able to serve as an archive for long-term memories. But it needs instruction from the orbitofrontal cortex — a higher brain area — indicating that an event is to be stored as a long-term memory," Strauch said in a press release.

Not only does your brain's smell center connect right to its memory center, but it also stores long-term memories in-house. That's why training your brain with a scent trigger works. What you train your brain to do after smelling the scent trigger is just a side effect of the way your brain is wired.

The takeaway 

I take my physical and mental health very seriously. I have a routine that works for me, but I'm always open to trying new things. I know scent triggers aren't as popular as going extra gluten free, fasting or joining CrossFit, but if you're looking for something that can potentially enhance your life, I highly recommend experimenting with scent triggers. Hopefully sharing my personal experience and a little bit of science can motivate a couple people to try scent triggers for themselves. 

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