Is it just me, or does everything stink?
I’m kidding. But if you’re a highly sensitive person like me, you’re probably nodding your head in agreement (at least on some level) right now. That’s because many — perhaps most — HSPs are sensitive to smells.
Highly sensitive people (HSPs) are the 15 to 20 percent of the population whose nervous systems process stimuli very deeply. That doesn’t just mean smells — we’re more sensitive to lights, sounds, and textures. We notice the subtle expressions on people’s faces or an almost imperceptible change in their tone of voice. We even process emotions and ideas very deeply, making us natural creatives and highly empathetic.
But it all comes at a cost, and when your sensitivity includes smells, that cost often means living in a world that is loaded with too-powerful scents.
What It’s Like Being Sensitive to Smells
If you’re highly sensitive, you already know what I’m talking about because you have likely experienced fragrance sensitivity yourself. But if you aren’t, or you need help explaining the idea to friends or coworkers, here’s a look at my typical day as someone who is sensitive to smells.
As soon as I step out of bed in the morning, I’m inundated with smells. Some of the smells are good ones, because like many HSPs, I’ve carefully cultivated every feature in my home to be exactly as I want it. For instance, I breathe deeply in the steamy shower, refreshed by the delicately-scented shampoo I’ve chosen. Later, the simple, comforting aroma of coffee drifts through the kitchen as I pack my lunch. A single spritz of perfume is all I need — or want — to further brighten my morning. These smells, experienced one at a time and at my own pace, are never overwhelming. In fact, they add a bright drop of beauty to my day.
But then, I step outside.
It’s immediately obvious that my neighbor, who lives four houses away, has already enjoyed a cigar this morning. I smell its remnants in my carport. Yuck. Who needs to have a cigar at 6 a.m., anyway? I plop myself into my car, only to discover evidence of my husband’s late-night run for burgers and fries. Did he leave a wrapper behind, one might ask? No, he did not. I can tell he went out because the scent of meat and vegetable oil left in the car is as strong to my nose, 12 hours later, as if the bag of fast food was still right beside me.
Annoyed, I arrive at work, sure that I smell like a cheeseburger. Work is where the real fun begins. I am a receptionist in a small medical office. My desk is comfortable, but I am in uncomfortably close contact with each patient. Each inhalation will reveal if the person standing in front of me has just finished a cigarette, whether or not they’ve been outside a lot that day, or if they’ve used fabric softener. I want to tell one patient he should have a contractor come out and check his house for leaks, because he smells like a musty basement. Another patient, bless her heart, must have neglected to change her cat’s litter for several days. She reeks of it.
My only saving grace is that my desk sits perpendicular to the suite door. My boss doesn’t mind if I keep the door cracked. The fresh air from the hallway helps to neutralize the smells that people track in with them. It’s literally the only reason I haven’t pushed my desk upside-down in rage from the constant, varying odors.
What Is ‘Smangry’?
You know that word, hangry? It means someone is so hungry that they start to feel angry. We all get hangry sometimes. But I’m going to coin a new term for the fragrance-sensitive people out there. Fellow HSPs, we might be smangry!
A person who is not highly sensitive wouldn’t even notice these smells, and here I am, barraged by the stink. I start to feel worn down, then stressed and overwhelmed, and finally, it makes me irritable and on-edge.
I guess I get smangry a lot. Do you ever get smangry?
The irony is, even when I’m smangry, I don’t want to look or act angry to people who are just living their lives and not meaning to overwhelm my senses. In an attempt not to hurt their feelings, I often excuse my need to leave the door open:
“I like to keep the door cracked because that handle gets stuck and people think the door is locked,” I might say.
Or, “It just gets so stuffy in here. Hot flashes, you understand,” I stage-whisper.
I can’t tell them the real reason that door is open: they smell!
5 Tips for Dealing with Smells When You Have Fragrance Sensitivity
I wish I could share with you a long checklist of action steps to take to keep overwhelming odors to a minimum. The truth is, there’s only so much you can do. If you’re sensitive to fragrances, you’re often going to find yourself in situations where you can’t control how the people, places, or activities around you smell.
But there are steps I take to minimize getting overwhelmed by fragrances. Here are five strategies that help me, and if you have fragrance sensitivity, may help you too:
I do my shopping as early in the morning as possible, when fewer people are around. Fewer people = less pungency.
In the car, I keep my windows rolled up and the recirculation on. Bonus: when the windows are up, I can blast the oldies station as loudly* as I want.
*Not as loudly as most people, because as an HSP, it literally shakes my nerves and rattles my brains.
Whenever I clean or paint, I wear a dust mask to help filter out smells. I also prefer unscented or natural cleaning products, if I can find them.
It can also help to wear gloves so that none of the chemicals or their scents stay on your skin.
4. The Emergency Handkerchief
I always have a clean handkerchief in my pocket, in case I have to share space with an unpleasant smell for a while. It helps if I unfold the handkerchief and breathe into it to filter out the bad scent. I would like to think I look like a grieving, beautiful ingénue out of a 1940s war movie who just waved goodbye to her lover leaving on a train. In reality, I probably look more like I’ve got a perpetual nosebleed. Either way, self-care trumps embarrassment and makes it worth it every time.
5. When a Scent Is Already Affecting You
Many fragrance-sensitive people recommend using a simple saline nasal spray — just saline water, no harsh chemicals, no scent — that you can carry with you.
A spritz into each nostril (and then blowing it out) helps clean out a smell and its effects, including many allergens, which can help head off migraines and other reactions. An alternative if you’re at home is a neti pot.
Being sensitive to smells can also be one of the biggest workplace struggles for highly sensitive people.
The Secret Upside of Being Sensitive to Smells
But the most important thing I want to share with you if you’re sensitive to smells is that you’re not alone.
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While our high sensitivity may feel like a burden sometimes, keep in mind that you and I are members of a special group of people. The science is clear that highly sensitive brains are normal, healthy, and can be a powerful advantage. We may have to navigate the world a little more deftly than others in order to sidestep any salmon-scented citizens, but wouldn’t you agree that the positives — like empathy, patience, attention to detail, creativity, and deep thinking — outweigh the negatives?
Try to hold on to that thought the next time you’re forced to run full-speed back to the parking lot, away from that store in the mall that pumps cologne into the air. Take a few deep breaths of clean, fresh oxygen. When you have recovered and the wind tickles your nose with a delicious whisper of lilac from a half-mile away, know that there’s an estimated additional 15+ percent of the population doing the same thing.
Friend, you could say we’ve all passed the “smell test.”