I spent a week trialling anti-anxiety perfumes and here’s what happened

Let us spray.

28 Mar 2019

With the conversation around mental health louder than ever, I feel incredibly lucky that I’m not all-consumed by one. But that doesn’t mean I cruise through life unaffected: there are moments where my internal dial has been drawn into anxiety, like the 1 in 6 adults in the UK who currently experience some degree of mental health issues.

I’ve found a way to ease my symptoms through fragrance, and if you’re up for trying a new approach to curb those restless emotions then do read on.

I used perfume as simulated-medication once before: when I was pregnant I was so nauseous from morning sickness that any strong smell would set me off – ashtrays, dustbins, food, body odour. I would carry a tissue drenched in sharp lemony cologne that I’d breathe through to neutralise the stench, and it really worked. My sense of smell has a profound effect on my physical and emotional responses; it’s also my job (I write maniacally about perfume) and my hobby (I own over 100 bottles). Perhaps there could be a scent that could slice through my anxiety?

For me, that anxiety stems from my fear of travelling on the Underground. Most of the time I just feel on edge and a little trapped, diving into my phone to hurry up the journey and get the hell out of there. But, on three occasions, I have unwittingly stepped off the edge and fallen into a full-blown panic attack. Cold, adrenaline-pumped panic. The kind that tightens your lungs, strangles your throat and pushes your entire body’s blood supply to your temples so that all you can hear is your own thudding heartbeat. I feel terrified, as if horrifying danger is imminent and my imagination spirals into worst-case-scenario places. It is horrible. It is upsetting and embarrassing: crying uncontrollably in public is absolutely not in my normal life schedule.

So I avoid the Underground as much as possible (I commute on a moped now; gloriously flying down the streets entirely in control of my own destination destiny. It is so liberating it’s verging on meditative). But there are the occasional times where I absolutely have to take the tube, which is what happened last week.

So does a panic-futureproofing perfume even exist? We know that aromatherapy tangibly works to relax the nervous system as our brain’s olfactory receptors are connected to the limbic system that regulates emotional responses. From the data I researched, woody smells can have an emotionally and physically grounding effect, quite literally anchoring your mind and body back down to the forest floor, as if curled up at the base of a strong trunk like a tiny fawn snoozing in dappled sunbeams.

Yes, I’d quite like to be a fawn actually, resting on a soft mossy bed against the nutty, earthy, warm and smoky bark of a strong and majestic tree. So I picked a beautiful woody scent by Ostens called Impressions Cedarwood Heart – its main ingredient of cedarwood smells like the deep, damp, sweet and mouthwatering centre of a freshly-chopped tree trunk. When I inhale it, my insides go a bit funny. Anyone else had that before? Like when your first crush leaves his denim jacket at your house, you realise you’re all alone with it so you inhale his body, skin, hair while listening to his favourite song. That.

And this sensation of swept-away safety and nostalgic comfort was my anxiety antidote. I had decanted some of the perfume into a Travalo atomiser and, just before entering the tube station, sprayed my scarf and coat sleeves. The nerves were rising, but – and I genuinely mean this – when I breathed in through my scarf I felt like my brain physically lowered itself downwards, like when you catch a helium balloon to stop it from floating off. By repeatedly inhaling lungfuls of scent every few minutes, I was gently pulled back from irrational, elaborate and dystopian fantasies to a very calm and sensible space, which kept my imagination (and consecutively I assume, my heart-rate) from spinning out of control. Maybe I’d just convinced myself so damn hard this would work and tricked my mind into believing it. But is that so bad? It got me through each journey that week. With the added bonus of smelling absolutely incredible.

I’m sure Ostens’ plan wasn’t for this perfume to be such a profound aromatic therapy. But in these times of gender neutral, marketing-free, consumer-steered beauty products, using fragrance as emotional support seems completely acceptable – logical even.

Here are five nerve-smoothing scents that might catch your anxiety balloon before it floats away:

Sunny Side Up Eau de Parfum

This will instantly appeal to all the sun babies out there: those who soak up that Vitamin D and relish the sensation of their bones warming up, their skin caramelising with the sweet, syrupy scent of coconut-laced tanning oil. This bottle captures a slow, hazy, lazy afternoon by a pool in Ibiza, hothouse flowers dripping with balmy nectar all around you. It was specifically designed to inspire happy feelings and to help you ‘let go’, as if you’re extinguishing bad vibes with a spray of pure hedonism.
Juliette Has A Gun Sunny Side Up Eau de Parfum 50ml, £76

Music For A While Eau de Parfum

Lavender can have a deeply relaxing effect on some people: if that’s you, wearing an haute couture perfume version of that concept could be your subliminal safety net. “Lavender is one of the very few plants we all know and recognise from infancy, so it is reassuring, accessible and familiar,’ explains James Graven, perfume archivist at Les Senteurs boutique. ‘It’s the star of this Frederic Malle scent; all mauve soft powderiness, green raw energy and fresh menthol pungency. Steady, empowering, comforting and encouraging.’
Frederic Malle Music For A While Eau de Parfum 10ml, £46

Herbae Eau de Parfum

If confined spaces are your foe, this is the scented equivalent to flinging the doors wide open. Inspired by the lush, wet, sparkling green pastures and forests of Provence in the South of France, this is about as bracing and refreshing as you can get. Think sharp pings of citrus, freshly-mown grass, dewy rose petals and a supersoft wisp of honey, as if a bale of sun-baked straw tumbled over and its sweet steamy scent drifted into the air. And breathe.
L’Occitane Herbae Eau de Parfum 50ml, £60

Impressions Cedarwood Heart Eau de Parfum

This cedarwood scent is enriched with fresh spices and buttery iris root, like digging your nose into the centre of a ball of wool, all nuzzly and reassuring with a creamy taste that stimulates all the serotonin hormones. Or in Ostens’ gorgeous words: “The warm, worn insides of an old wooden box, filled with secrets.” The brand uses ingredients exclusively from manufacturing company IFF-LMR, which means they are fully sustainable, natural, traceable and fairtrade, so your conscience will be as settled as your nerves.
Ostens Impressions Cedarwood Heart Eau de Parfum 50ml, £85

Goddess Perfume

To some this smells like an expensive version of Olbas oil – intensely invigorating, but also comforting in that sick-day-at-home-with-mum way. Stay with it and the oudh, sandalwood and jasmine mix together in a soft, smoky incense-burning ritual, like going to church with every spray. It is a hypnotic and healing spiritual scent and, being Lush, it is responsibly created and cruelty-free.
Lush Goddess Perfume 30ml, £45