Managing anxiety

Does Anxiety Cause Phantom Smells?

Max. D Gray
By Max. D Gray. Updated: April 9, 2020
Does Anxiety Cause Phantom Smells?

Our sense of smell is perhaps the most evocative of our senses. It is certainly the one which is most connected to memory. If smelling something can bring to us certain emotions and sensations, then is it possible it works the other way round as well? If they can, then it is found in the idea of phantosmia or phantom smells. They are not actual smells, but our brain creates the reaction as if we had smelled one. Just as we might see certain things out of the corner of our eye which aren't actually there, these olfactory hallucinations can be disturbing. If the emotion which lead to this hallucinatory smell is anxiety, then it might might make our state of being even worse. Fortunately, oneHOWTO answers whether anxiety causes phantom smells to see how better understanding can help.

  1. What is phantosmia?
  2. What is anxiety and how does it relate to smell?
  3. Why does anxiety cause phantom smells?

What is phantosmia?

Phantosmia can be simply defined as olfactory hallucination, i.e. smelling a smell which isn't actually present. However, phantosmia isn't very simple at all. The reasons why it might be present can be myriad. It can be caused by both physical and mental conditions, especially neurological disorders which affect the signals sent and received by your brain. It can also be caused, understandably, by issues regarding the nasal passage or even by tooth problems. This is because the olfactory nerve, the one which responds to smell, is linked to the ear, nose and throat.

There are various causes of phantosmia:

  • the common cold or influenza
  • head injury/trauma
  • sinusitis (an inflammation of the sinuses)
  • nasal polyps
  • temporal lobe seizure
  • certain cancer treatment like radiation therapy
  • brain tumor
  • allergic reaction
  • smoking or smell pollution
  • Parkinson's disease
  • Alzheimer's disease
  • epilepsy

Many of these are more common than others. A rare form of cancer which affects the olfactory nerve, known as neuroblastoma, can also cause this condition. However, it is actually the treatment of this condition, such as chemotherapy, which is more likely to cause phantosmia.

There are, however, some myths surrounding smells and their psychosomatic causes. One such myth is that you will smell oranges before you die. There is at least one report which suggests it is possible a loss of smell can be an indicator of death[1], however this is an inconclusive study and doesn't necessarily factor in pre-existing conditions, age, etc. The report that smelling a phantom orange smell indicates you (or even someone else!) will die is completely unfounded. It possibly stems from movies and TV shows such as the original The Godfather movie which used oranges as symbolism in the movie.

Another is the belief that smelling burnt toast is a sign you are about to have a stroke. While it is possible a stroke can alter your olfactory senses, there is little to no evidence to support that the smell of burnt toast is linked to strokes at all.

There are, however, certain types of smell which appear to be more common when people have a bout of phantosmia. These smells include:

  • bitter or off-putting
  • ammonia
  • spoiled or rotten food
  • burning rubber
  • metallic smell

Despite the commonality of these smells, phantosmia covers any hallucinatory smell. Of course, if you smell something you shouldn't you need to ensure it is not something else present in your environment rather than a hallucination. Somebody's cologne or perfume, something wafting in through an open window or even a fish down the back of the cough cushions all might be the actual cause of a smell you think you shouldn't register.

Does Anxiety Cause Phantom Smells? - What is phantosmia?

What is anxiety and how does it relate to smell?

There is a difference between anxiousness and an anxiety disorder. Anxiousness is simply the state of being anxious. You may be waiting to hear some news from the doctor, on your way to a job interview or be experiencing one of the many quotidian stressors we can experience. This anxiousness is understandable and usually a healthy reaction to circumstance. However, an anxiety disorder is when this fear or anxiety causes you to behave and/or experience physical symptoms in an irrational way. Often there is no direct cause of the anxiety in your environment or your future, yet you experience acute anxiety nonetheless. They are often part of a larger group of disorders and can be as a response to some other underlying problem such as substance abuse or emotional trauma.

The symptoms of anxiety can be varied and differ person to person. They are likely to include:

  • panic attacks
  • social anxiety
  • muscle tension
  • lack of sleep
  • increased heart rate
  • insomnia
  • dizziness
  • dry mouth
  • quickness to anger

However, the symptoms of anxiety are as various as the many different types of anxiety disorder from which you may suffer. You may even have generalized anxiety disorder which can be hard to pinpoint and sneak up on you when you least expect it. Anxiety itself can hide itself from you and rear itself in completely unexpected ways. Often it affects your self-worth as well as your relationships with others.

If someone is suffering from phantosmia, a doctor will check their anxiety levels when diagnosing the condition. This is because anxiety can cause these phantom smells.

Why does anxiety cause phantom smells?

The reason for the link between anxiety and phantosmia is a little harder to lock down, but there are theories on the matter. If you have been unfortunate enough to experience a panic attack, you will know that there are some off manifestations of this heightened feeling of anxiety. Your chest can constrict, your extremities feel numb and it can even affect your bowels. These are often a physical response which exists due to our wild living ancestors.

These feelings of panic exist to put us in a position where we can better deal with a threat, even if it is only perceived. We are panicking because we feel like something is happening or going to happen to us in the very near future. Often it is an irrational fear that we are dying.

Anxiety inducing a smell hallucination could be due to a fear response. We might pick up on an existing smell or even create a smell in our brain which makes us think we are in danger. All of our senses are working overtime and are in a confused state. This is why anxiety smells are quite often ones which might have another dangerous connotation, such as something rotten, something burning or something chemical. The sensitivity to a certain bad smell could be just like one of the other physical tricks our bodies play on us during acute anxiety feelings.

Another theory has a more biological explanation for a phantom smell. It clams that we go through a similar biological process as we do psychological. If we are feeling particularly anxious, we often take normal thoughts and twist them so they start to feel negative and have a negative impact on our minds. One study claims that our neurons connected to smell do the same. When we are in a state of fear or anxiety, it is not that we are smelling phantom smells, necessarily. Instead, it has to do with the wiring of our brain making regular smells appear more negative than they actually are.

For example, we may be standing beside a bouquet of flowers and then have a sudden feeling of anxiety. This anxiety take two usually isolated circuits in our brain, that of our emotional response and that of our olfactory response. At times of heightened anxiety, this report claims[2] that the two circuits become linked and provide this smell hallucination.

Whatever the reasons for anxiety giving us increased anxiety, it is only treatment of this anxiety which will lessen it. If you are experiencing phantosmia or hallucination smells you should seek a doctor's advice. They will be able to help you with a course of treatment whether it is a psychological anxiety disorder, another mental health issue or an underlying physiological problem.

If you want some advice on how to deal with stress and anxiety, you can take a look at our article on techniques to reduce anxiety and stress.

This article is merely informative, oneHOWTO does not have the authority to prescribe any medical treatments or create a diagnosis. We invite you to visit your doctor if you have any type of condition or pain.

If you want to read similar articles to Does Anxiety Cause Phantom Smells?, we recommend you visit our Mental health category.

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Does Anxiety Cause Phantom Smells?