What is Olfactophobia? (An Overview)
In this blog we will discuss the symptoms, causes and treatment of Olfactophobia.
Fear of smells is called Olfactophobia. Olfactory is one of the six senses one has. It helps one to smell different things or odours.
Smells are of different types, some are pleasant and others are not.
Everyone has a different taste in terms of smells. One will like the fresh smell of roses while others will prefer the smell of certain foods.
Smells are not harmful instead, if one likes the smell of a particular thing, they’ll find it to be very pleasant and soothing.
Though, if someone doesn’t like a particular smell, they won’t be fearful of it but will find it unpleasant.
One may avoid certain smells (especially strong smells) if they are allergic to them. These smells can cause migraine or nausea to one.
But someone who suffers from Olfactophobia will experience extreme anxiety when exposed to certain smells or all types of it.
It is a specific phobia which is a part of anxiety disorders in the DSM-V, one suffers from extreme anxiety not just at the exposure with their fear stimuli, but also when thinking about it.
Excess anxiety causes hindrances in a sufferer’s daily activities. This results in social and occupational dysfunction.
One avoids getting exposed to smells in order to eliminate anxiety.
For example, a sufferer will avoid using perfumes or going near someone who has applied it. They will refrain from going near people or places that stink.
Also, this fear can be specific to certain smells, thus one will avoid the smell(s) he is fearful of. Like not going near a particular flower.
If someone is afraid of certain food smells they won’t eat that food item.
These repeated actions makes the sufferer feel safe and nice, in the absence of smells. These pleasant feelings however, are very short-lived.
Acts of avoidance are recurrent and they maintain one’s fear of smell. Olfactophobia can lead to OCD and depression.
If smells become unavoidable, an individual will undergo extremely high levels of anxiety, giving rise to full-blown panic attacks.
Olfactophobia is an irrational fear of smells. It is a type of specific phobia which is very common in people who suffer from odor related migraines.
Symptoms of Olfactophobia
All anxiety disorders, including specific phobias, have anxiety as their pivotal symptom.
Therefore, someone suffering from Olfactophobia will experience extreme anxiety when exposed to their fear stimuli, smell.
Olfactophobia is irrational because of the fact that smells aren’t harmful (only if someone isn’t suffering from an allergy or odor related migraines).
Despite the fact, someone suffering from this phobia is unable to rationalise his fear and ends up getting anxious.
Avoidance as mentioned earlier is repetitive. These recurrent actions maintain one’s fear by producing feelings of security, which makes one believe that smells is to be feared of.
Therefore, their fear intensifies over time.
According to the DSM-V, to be diagnosed with Olfactophobia, one needs to experience anxiety lasting for at least 6 months and at least 3-5 symptoms (from the list mentioned below).
- Excessive anxiety when exposed to smells
- Excessive anxiety when thinking about smells
- Inability to manage anxiety
- Full-blown panic attacks
- Avoiding smells
- Increased heart beat
- Muscle tension
- Feelings of dizziness/fainting
- Fear of an impending doom
- Feeling depressed
- Excessive sweating
- Hot/cold flashes
- Butterflies in the stomach
- Drying up of mouth
Causes of Olfactophobia
All anxiety disorders, including specific phobias have no real/definite cause. They are caused by either a genetic predisposition and or environmental factors.
According to the genetic/biological model, specific phobias are developed due to a genetic predisposition.
Someone who has a family history of anxiety disorders has a higher chance of developing Olfactophobia.
This is because any alteration in the genes of his parents will be transferred to him.
An imbalance in the neurotransmitter levels of the brain can also be one of the many reasons as to why one develops Olfactophobia.
These alterations are low dopamine levels and high serotonin levels.
This genetic tendency to develop a specific phobia is further explained by the Diathesis-stress relationship.
This suggests that someone with a genetic predisposition will develop Olfactophobia only in the presence of the correct environmental trigger event.
An individual, suffering from odor related migraines or allergy is most likely to be fearful of certain or all smells because of the physiological symptoms it produces.
Someone whose parents have this problem and or are fearful of dislike smells can also develop Olfactophobia.
After listening to someone else’s unpeansa encounter with a certain smell can also trigger this phobia.
One might be faraid of a certain smell to be poisonous, thus they’ll generalise their fear to all types of it.
Therefore, it is evident that Olfactophobia has no one cause. It is developed by both genetics and a number of environmental reasons.
Treatment of Olfactophobia
Olfactophobia, like all other specific phobias, has no exclusive type of treatment that is specifically designed to treat it.
Like all the other specific phobias, Olfactophobia is treated by a number of different methods: Psychological treatment and Biological treatment.
- Psychological Treatment
• Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT)
It is one of the most frequently used treatments for patients with almost all kinds of mental disorders.
Olfactophobia is defined as the irrational fear of smells. Thus, the therapist helps the patient in replacing these irrational thoughts with more rational ones.
The patients are helped out in analyzing and justifying the way they feel about their fear stimuli.
Therapists assist them in uncovering the reasons behind their fear and later they provide them with alternate, pleasant thoughts.
The patient is told to maintain a thought diary (with ABCD column) which provides them a replacement for every irrational thought they have, when thinking about a particular situation.
The ABCD stands for:
i. A (antecedents) a situation or triggering event.
ii. B (belief) the thought that comes to one’s mind when in that triggering situation.
iii. C (consequences) the symptoms/feelings caused by that event/thought
iv. D (dispute) alternate, rational thoughts provided by the therapist in an attempt to dispute/challenge those irrational beliefs.
This last section of the thought diary is what really plays a role in helping the person feel good/less anxious.
• Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR)
MBSR is a meditation therapy, used to manage stress or anxiety. It is an 8-week program which includes group sessions.
Mindfulness meditation and Hatha yoga are practiced in these sessions.
Lectures and group discussions are also done to talk about mental health and increase interactivity.
In mindfulness meditation the person is told to, for example, focus on the sensations felt while breathing or the rhythm of the chest rising and falling during the process.
This distracts the person’s attention from something stressful to something which is neutral and soothing.
For quick and effective treatment, patients are also given a set of home works, for example 45 minutes of yoga and meditation sessions for 6 days a week and to record their results/feelings in a book or diary for 15 minutes a day.
• Exposure Therapy
It is one of the most frequently used ways of treating patients with Olfactophobia (or any other kind of specific phobia).
In this therapy, the patient is exposed to the source of his fear over a certain span of time.
To begin with the therapy, the therapist exposes the patient to the least triggering stimuli, a picture of an object whose smell he is fearful of.
As the therapy progresses and the patient is able to control his anxious feelings, imagery can be used to take the treatment a step further.
In this part of the treatment the patient is asked to visualize/imagine a situation in which he is exposed to the smell he fears.
During this process of imagery, one actually feels that he’s in that particular situation or place, experiencing various senses.
Once the person successfully, without feeling anxious, clears this step of the therapy, he is then exposed to a real smell.
While the patient is being exposed to different levels of fear during the various stages of therapy, the therapist simultaneously teaches them coping exercises.
These include, breathing techniques or muscle relaxation methods to lower their anxiety, when in an actual fear causing situation.
This teaches them how to remain calm when exposed to their fear stimuli.
Before actually starting the exposure therapy, the therapist needs to figure out the intensity of the patient’s fear, as to deduce whether they will be able to undergo this treatment, without any physical or psychological harm caused to them during the exposure processes.
However, these steps desensitize one to their fear of smells, by exposing them to that stimuli repeatedly, until they learn to undergo the situation without anxiety/panic attacks.
• Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR)
This another form of treatment used with patients suffering from specific phobia or anxiety disorders. It is used with patients who know the cause of their phobia.
First, the therapist collects the patients’ history of different fears. They then identify the real cause of the particular fear/phobia the patient has.
They then discuss any new/latest event that triggered their anxiety and fear in the past few weeks.
People coming with specific phobias are told to imagine their distress causing stimuli.
The therapist then works with the individual in order for them to overcome their fear. In the case of Olfactophobia, the patient will be advised on how to overcome his fear of smell.
They do this by creating a positive imagery for the patients’ feared stimuli.
• Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT)
This is another effective therapy used to treat Olfactophobia.
It is more commonly used with people suffering from personality disorders, but is also useful with patients suffering from this type of animal specific phobia.
Coping skills are taught in the DBT group which lasts for about 6-months and can have a number of people (depending on how many join the group).
i.Half-smiling is the first module of DBT. It is a technique that is used with patients who are distressed because of their irrational thoughts.
The technique is known as ‘Half-smiling’ because the person is first advised to think about the stimuli that fears or upsets them, and while doing so they are told to lift the corners of their mouths by subtly smiling.
Smiling is not that will help one get rid of these unpleasant thoughts, it is the person’s ability to constrain itself from thinking about those thoughts while half smiling.
ii.Mindfulness, the second module, is another technique used in DBT groups which helps the individual in getting rid of those negative thoughts.
Individuals are told to focus on the present and be attentive to what is going on around them at the moment.
This helps in breaking the link between their mind and any negative thought that might come to them then.
For example, a person is told to focus on his breath or on the sound of the wind around them, making use of their auditory sense.
iii.The third technique or module of the DBT is distress tolerance skills. This module teaches people to calm themselves down in healthy ways when they are distressed or emotionally overwhelmed.
Individuals are allowed to make wise, rational decisions and take immediate action, rather than being captured by emotionally destructive thoughts that might make the situation worse.
Reality acceptance skills are also learnt under this model so that people fully accept reality and later make plans on how to address the problem.
They are not just one of the many treatment therapies used for Olfactophobia, instead they are one of the most common ways of relaxation used by many people.
Yoga tends to stimulate the meditative state of one’s mind while the person is in a particular yoga posture.
Through yoga/meditation the mind is diverted towards something more productive and calm, allowing the person to escape the negative, distress causing thoughts.
Out of a number of yoga types, one can benefit from any yoga type/pose they like. Hatha yoga is one of the different types of yoga.
The breathing techniques or the imagery one creates while in a yoga posture are the real factors that makes the person feel less anxious and diverts their mind, away from the thoughts about their fear stimuli.
- Biological Treatment
• Drug Therapy
Drugs are used to reduce the physical symptoms caused by Olfactophobia.
Drugs are very quick in effectiveness, as they start showing progress in the patients’ health at least 2 weeks after the medicine is taken.
This type of biological treatment is usually more effective if the cause of the phobia is only genetic.
However, these drugs/medicines are not to be taken without a doctor’s prescription or consultation.
Two types of drugs are used in the treatment of this phobia:
i. Antidepressant Drugs
These drugs, as the name suggests don’t only treat depression but are also very effective in treating phobias.
Medicines like Paxil reduce the anxious feelings of a person and makes him feel calm. They need to be taken on a daily basis but not without a doctor’s advice.
Medicines like Klonopin are anti-anxiety drugs.
They are most commonly used with patients who experience panic attacks and also lowers their anxiety by binding to receptor cells of the brain that cause these unpleasant symptoms.
Whether the cause of Olfactophobia, or any other type of specific phobia is genetics, environmental or both, the best and the most effective way of treating them is by using a combination of both biological treatments (drugs) with cognitive treatment (for example CBT/exposure therapy).
Side Note: I have tried and tested various products and services to help with my anxiety and depression. See my top recommendations here, as well as a full list of all products and services our team has tested for various mental health conditions and general wellness.
Titles to read
by Alicia H. Clark and Jon Sternfeld
- Anxiety Relief: A Complete Guide to Eliminate Negative Thinking, Stress, Dерrеѕѕiоn, Anger and Panic Attасkѕ
by Elliot Wood and Bill Franchuk
by David D. Burns
by Ellen K. Quick
What we recommend for Phobias
- If you are suffering from Phobias then ongoing professional counselling could be your ideal first point of call. Counselling will utilize theories such as Cognitive behavioural therapy which will help you address the fears you are facing.
Weighted Blankets may help you sleep better if your phobias are affecting your quality of sleep. Weighted blankets apply enough weight on you that they make you feel much more relaxed and calm at night.
Frequently Asked Questions
Q1) What is the fear of odors called?
Fear of odors or smells is called Olfactophobia.
Q2) Why are people afraid of smells?
Some are farid of smells because they suffer from odor0-related migraines which give rise to unpleasant feelings and severe headaches.
Q3) Is Olfactophobia treatable?
Yes. Olfactophobia can be treated by a number of different therapies including cognitive-behavioral therapy, exposure therapy or Dialectical behavioral therapy.
Medicines can also be taken under a doctors’ prescription.
Q4) What are the symptoms of Olfactophobia?
Olfactophobia can be identified by a number of symptoms such as extreme anxiety, inability to control that anxiety, panic attacks or muscle tension.
Below is a complete list of all Phobias which we currently cover.