Need to travel for work? Have an important job interview coming up? Consider tucking a shirt from your partner into your bag.
Sniffing it just might help you relax.
It seems that the scent of a romantic partner can help ease stress, particularly when couples are temporarily separated or away from home, according to new research.
“Many people wear their partner’s shirt or sleep on their partner’s side of the bed when their partner is away, but may not realize why they engage in these behaviors,” study author Marlise Hofer said in a news release from the University of British Columbia. “Our findings suggest that a partner’s scent alone, even without their physical presence, can be a powerful tool to help reduce stress.”
Hofer, who’s a graduate student in psychology, and her fellow researchers asked 96 heterosexual couples to test the effectiveness of people’s scent in helping reduce stress in their partner.
Men in the study wore a clean T-shirt for 24 hours. During this time, they didn’t use deodorant or any scented body products. They also were told to not smoke and not eat foods that could overpower or affect their natural scent.
Then, women in the study were randomly assigned to blindly smell a shirt that had either been worn by their partner, worn by a stranger or not worn at all.
While they did the smell test, the women were given a stress test—either a fake job interview or a mental math test. They also answered questions about their stress level, and the researchers collected saliva samples to measure their levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
Smelling a romantic partner’s shirt, it turned out, made the women feel calmer, the study found. They felt less stressed both before and after the mock interview and the math task.
Those who smelled their partner’s shirt and recognized his familiar scent also had lower cortisol levels. That suggests that the stress-busting benefits of a partner’s scent are strongest when you’re aware that that’s what you’re smelling, according to the researchers.
On the flip side, women who smelled a stranger’s scent felt less calm and had higher cortisol levels during the stress test.
Evolution might help explain these effects, the researchers said.
“From a young age, humans fear strangers, especially strange males, so it is possible that a strange male scent triggers the ‘fight-or-flight’ response that leads to elevated cortisol,” Hofer said. “This could happen without us being fully aware of it.”
What to do with this information?
Keep something sniffable handy if you’re going to be away from home or facing a stressful situation, the researchers suggest.
“Something as simple as taking an article of clothing that was worn by your loved one could help lower stress levels,” said Frances Chen, the study’s senior author and an assistant professor of psychology.
The study was published in the January issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.