Late last month, a groundbreaking new study hit the headlines – Hideki Kashiwadani, a physiologist and neuroscientist at Kagoshima University in Japan, found certain odours had promising anti-anxiety effects. Linaloo, a compound in lavender, along with the scent of citrus peel and pinene, the smell of pine trees, caused brain changes scientists likened to popping a Valium. Yes, the research may have been conducted on anxiety-stricken mice, but plenty of anecdotal human studies appear to confirm Kashiwadani's findings. It's a major step forward for both the fragrance world and the way in which we treat mental health conditons.
I’ve never spoken publicly about my anxiety before; finding the right words always eluded me. A nebulous beast to describe, I can only analogise it as a strange sense of inwardly capsizing. Sometimes words, things, people, places rush by whilst my mind weighs heavy; as if stuck in thick molasses. At others, it’s just a dull sense of dread nagging at my solar plexus, like leaving your house without your keys, again and again on repeat. The ubiquity of ‘mindfulness’ may put the practice at risk of becoming just another buzzword, but it really has been a saviour for keeping the tides at bay – meditation in the evenings and my own 'fragrance ritual' before I head out each day (I’m yet to reach the ‘proper person’ stage where I can set an alarm early enough to practice yoga first thing).
If you're dealing with anxiety too, or are one of the millions affected by the UK's so-called 'stress epidemic' (a very real and pressing problem employers are scrambling to deal with), I urge you to consider the way you choose and apply your scents. Not only can fragrances be transformative – our sense of smell the most profound of all senses; odours stimulating synapses govern every bodily function and action – even the act of spritzing them can be a simple way to be more mindful.
In an often-overstimulating world, taking the time to really value a fragrance is an opportunity to tune in to the present moment. And while you may think you do, in fact, treasure those little glinting bottles of luxury on your dressing table, the truth is most of us don't spend a lot of time appreciating the wonder of our olfactory system (one global survey even suggested over half of millennials would rather lose the ability to smell than give up their laptop or smartphone).
That's why I make fragrance not a habit, but a ritual. As Kate Moss’ go-to wellness gurus, Nadia Narain and Katia Narain Phillips, explain, rituals aren’t all “witchy pagan séances”, but a way of “making ordinary things special, and special things extra special”. Released later this month, the duo’s new tome, Rituals for Every Day details how these small moments of slowing down can help us move through busy times in a way that feels graceful and deliberate, instead of rushed and routine.
When it comes to which scent to choose, leading British perfumer Roja Dove tells me certain notes in particular are best for relieving stress and bolstering resilience. In the top notes of a fragrance, he says to look for citrus notes: “These have been used for centuries to revive, uplift, inject life, and boost vitality. Think about the effect of someone peeling an orange in a stuffy train carriage: it instantly recharges the stale, stagnant air. It’s like a burst of energy.”
But, on the whole, he advises choosing scents that sit lower in the fragrance pyramid to create a ‘grounded’ feeling. What this essentially means is base notes; notes that are bold and complex and stay on the skin for the longest amount of time. "When you smell base notes – notes that are anything along the lines of woods and mosses to animalic, balsam and leather facets – you literally smell them lower in your nose than you do with things like fruits and flowers," Dove explains. "They quite literally pull your sense of smell downward.”
Big on the base notes, he says, are the two fragrance families, chypre and oriental: the former deep and verdant, the latter a more sensual affair; warm and exotic and musky. I tell Dove I've always leaned towards orientals, and he perfectly articulates why: "Materials like vanilla and amber and the like envelop you. They make you feel secure." Chypres, on the other hand, are tailored and refined, communicating a "clear sense of self". One of his own, Risqué Pour Femme, is a bright-yet-earthy masterpiece; smooth and assured, it's the woman who knows what she wants.
For me, drawing on my inner strength is all about comfort, and Guerlain's Tonka Imperiale delivers it in droves – fresh and aromatic at first, thanks to a jolt of bergamot and rosemary, before softening into a powdery embrace of vanilla, amber and tonka, with a faint tobacco trail; occasionally punctuated by hits of syrupy white honey that take me back to my childhood. Creamy, spicy tonka stars in another favourite, Jo Malone's Myrrh & Tonka; mingling with an airy, almost medicinal hay-lavender accord and the resinous, balsamic depth of Omumbiri myrrh (on a side note: never have I received so many compliments on a scent). And vanilla in Sana Jardin's Tiger By Her Side, married with the velvety depth of Moroccan rose and smoky Somalian incense; quite aptly inspired by myths of powerful ancient Egyptian high priestesses.
On off-duty days, when I'm feeling more carefree without a jam-packed commute to contend with, I'll go a little more experimental. Miller Harris' Étui Noir is the equivalent of slinging on a trusty, well-loved leather jacket – all atmospheric woods, butter-soft leather and addictive, soil-like patchouli; dirt under the fingernails of the carefree 'cool girl' notes. Whilst one sniff of Penhaligon's Lothair on my wrist – with its gin and tonic accord and smoky black tea heart, sweetened with a dash of fig milk – is enough to get me through the toughest of moments (it may be the Brit in me talking, but either a good cup of tea or a cold, stiff drink really does seem to solve everything).