Sports & Smelling Salts – Psychology of Smell

NFL’s Patriots Jimmy Garoppolo in last night’s game utilized smelling salts as part of his football experience. Whether you agree with this method or not, as a mental health professional I see the value when professionals in the public eye acknowledge an anxious moment. It reminds everyone of the normalcy of emotions and the importance of managing them. Even though smelling salts have been known amongst the sports industry for quite some time, viewers do not always notice it on air. With this recent example of sports and smelling salts in the news that is quite the water cooler talk today, as well as posted throughout various forms of social media, I decided to take a moment to utilize this high profile use of smell and consider it in the context of professional athletes. Additionally this blog article will address the role of smell for the non-athlete, and/or simply in consideration of the everyday – the psychology of smell. 

Smell Creates Mental & Emotional Mood Shift

As a Psychotherapist I would like to state, what most everyone knows, yet is often not talked about, and that is: each of our senses play a role in important ways in our experience of a given moment, smell is among them. Smell plays a powerful role in aiding in a mood shift, and aiding in a thought shift. Although smell does affect how we feel in a given moment, there is a psychological aspect of the smell experience that is not just only about the moment of the smell sensation. Specifically, it is the experience of what the smell does in the moment that forces a shift from one emotion to another emotion quickly, as it taps into our olfactory system. Then, that emotional shift has the potential to carry onward, for that is the new mood a person wishes to stay in. In essence, the sensation of the initial smell forces a mental and emotional mood shift. Then, once the quick shot of smell wears off, the person has made the shift and makes the choice to stay in the shift. For the “line” has been crossed over from mood and thoughts pre-smell, to the changed mood and thoughts post-smell.

The powerful odor of smelling salts sometimes used in professional sports for varying reasons, I do believe has the potential to jolt a person to shift from anxious/nervous energy to confident empowered action. The reason you ask? Answer: it’s in essence an olfactory trigger where the nostrils and the brain have a little chit chat. Here’s how I like to describe the impact of smell in the context of sports: the brain receives a message through the olfactory nerves which tells one’s cognitions and thus emotions: “hey buddy, it’s game time, you got this! So, bring it”. Thus, in the case of an athlete, whoever the athlete, one can analyze and suggest that if the athlete is experiencing anxiety before the game and uses smelling salts, then the athlete has helped himself to help himself by utilizing a trigger to snap out of whatever emotions/thoughts (e.g., anxiety features) may be ruminating in his head.

If I break this notion down even further, the concept would then be that once the smell wears off, you’ve already crossed over the line from feeling anxious to – in the zone, the zone of: “I got this”. Thus, it becomes a choice to remain in the zone. Think of smell as a tool to help a person to help themselves make that mental emotional shift.

Our Senses

Whether taking a slow deep breathe in for a count of about 6, and exhaling slowly for a slightly longer count of approximately 8 seconds, or listening to a particular soothing song or a song that is energizing, or having a verbal mantra one states to one’s self, looking at a photo or some other memorabilia, or smelling something, these are each examples of how our senses affect our mood/our thoughts, and thus our actions.

Sight- what are we looking at (e.g., photo). Sound- what are we telling ourselves cognitively or listening to (e.g., mantra, music). Touch- our body in touch with our own self or with another (e.g., are we stretching our bodies, are we moving our neck from side to side, do we clap our hands, high five a team-mate). Taste (do we take a sip of water, or rinse our mouth with mouth wash for a refresher not simply for our breath for others). Smell- what do we smell?

Below includes a few basic everyday examples to consider how smell affects one’s mood, thoughts and actions:

Home Purchase – Smell Affects

For example, to walk into a home that you are considering purchasing and smell home-made cookies may create a homey feel. Leading you to feel a sense of warmth for this potential new home you are considering purchasing, and contribute to your being interested in it. Your actions may lead you to take your time to look around, due to this experience of interest, potentially purchasing this home. In contrast, if the first smell upon entry is urine, not an inviting warm feel to say the least, which may lead you to experience the feeling of disinterest vs interest. Thus, you may walk right out.

Giving A Speech At Work – Smell Affects

Another example, if you are feeling stressed before a work meeting as you are going to be presenting a project, and you need something to relax you because you want to speak with calm confidence – smelling lavender, which is a soothing odor, may play a role in calming you down. Smell can affect your speech experience at work.

Sexual Arousal – Smell Affects

Smells can be arousing (e.g., a particular perfume or cologne on a date). This can play a role in leading you to engage in physical and/or sexual intimacy. In contrast if there is no odor or the odor of smoke if the person is a smoker may lead you not to be engaged in what the person is saying on the date.

Know Thyself – What Sense Is Your Powerful Affecter

I hope you my readers enjoyed the touching upon a topic that people don’t always talk about – how smell affects. Knowing thyself is key, whether in sports and/or in all things in life. For some, smell is a powerful affecter. For others, physical touch is more meaningful/impactful to shift one’s mood. For others, one’s cognitions, having a statement that one says to one’s self is extremely powerful. Thus, the take-away from this article is not that ‘smell’ is the answer to all things. For example, if your child is struggling to study, or your spouse is not motivated at work, etc. simply giving them something to smell may not be the answer. Rather, the take-away from this article is to offer you my readers the opportunity to consider your sense of smell, and all of your senses. Think about what choices you can make to access any of your senses and incorporate them into your life as a tool to mood shift in a healthy and productive way.

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