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Scents, Sense and a Journey to the Land of OZ

27 Nov

Almost before we consciously register a note, scents have the power to evoke another time for us, another way of being. I have long since stopped wearing perfume, but every time I smell anything by Estee Lauder, I can immediately identify it, so strongly have their fragrances been linked to memories of my maternal grandmother and her sisters – all women who were very influential in my upbringing. The link exists exclusively of any liking or not – even the perfumes I actively dislike are immediately and paradoxically associated with feelings of being cared for.

This link between our sense of smell and key people, events, or feeling states is due to the fact that the olfactory bulb is located near other brain structures responsible for how we form and process memories and emotions. Instantly, and without any conscious volition, scents transport us.

Power Self-Esteem Pack with AromatherapySeveral years ago, when I was working with the now famous Dr. Oz, I had essential oil samples in my office for a study we were considering conducting. We’d had several other projects going on already, and the potential for stress was high (yes, even we experience stress from time to time…). Late one day, as I headed toward the escalator on my way to a meeting with him, I had the sudden and unusual (even for me) idea to take a detour to my office and dab a few drops of Turkish rose oil on a post-it. I stuck this to my note pad before proceeding to the meeting. A legendary multitasker well known for his ability to cram an hour’s worth of information into five minutes, Dr. Oz began by firing off a rapid list of questions about each project, adding numerous tasks to my already enormous to-do list, and querying me about any new ideas I might have. This was par for the course. Within a minute or so, however, he began to slow his pace a bit before asking, somewhat incredulously, “Is that…Turkish rose oil I smell?” I nodded. “I love Turkish rose oil. It reminds me of my childhood, when I spent summers in Turkey, with my family.” He smiled and paused to reflect silently for a moment before continuing with the meeting. I still chuckle when I think about how a few drops of oil resulted in one of the easiest, most laid-back meetings we ever had.

In addition to linking the present with the past, and in part because of their association with both memory and emotion, scents can be deliberately employed as tools for enhancing recall of new patterns and feeling states that we hope to foster. In cognitive behavioral therapy, the repeated pairing of one thing with another can link the two such that eventually, the scent alone will be enough to trigger that particular feeling. A pleasant aroma can be paired with hypnosis or guided imagery to further enhance the experience, and then the scent can be used independently to evoke the same inner state – whether of calm, self-confidence, commitment to change, or restorative sleep. I use scents in my clinical practice, and to enhance my own meditation and self-hypnosis. My favorites remain lavender and bergamot, but I also enjoy sweet orange oil, sandalwood, and pine. I find lavender to be calming, bergamot and orange oil uplifting, and sandalwood and pine to be wonderfully grounding. Choose what you like, and try pairing it with hypnosis, imagery, or meditation. Using scent in this way is one of the easiest, least expensive, and most pleasant tools for training your mind and body.  

Be well!

To see a guided imagery video by Dr. Traci Stein created to counteract the anxiety of having blood drawn, go to

Traci Stein

Traci Stein, PhD, MPH, is a practicing psychotherapist and Columbia-trained
clinical psychologist, ASCH-certified in clinical hypnotherapy. She has combined integrative therapies, including hypnosis, with conventional medical and psychotherapy practice. Her passionate commitment to mind-body healing has spanned two decades.