For as long as I can remember, I have been inexplicably preoccupied with scent in all its forms. The smell of Lanvin’s Arpege hurls me into a Proustian memory of my grandmother whenever I catch a trace, which is rare these days. While having an afternoon walk, I can't help crushing rosemary sprigs or pine needles and then inhaling them as I stroll.

A day hasn't gone by, at least in recent memory, where I haven't been consciously interacting with scent. Whether it’s inhaling, blending or purchasing, I am habitually olfactorily at work. It wasn't until I began my clinical work that I started to think about the role of scent in psychotherapy.

I smell a rat

The scent of your therapist, their waiting area, and consulting room, may all, consciously or unconsciously evoke in you ideas about them as a person. 

Do they take care of themselves? What's their financial status? Do they want me to be comfortable? Who was in their consulting room before me and what happened in there? (In perfumery, the phenomena of a scent lingering in the air after a person has left is referred to as sillage (/siːˈjɑːʒ/)).

Before I started my training, I had a therapist who I was certain had a dead rat under his floorboards. I went twice weekly, for months on end, anticipating the intensity of a decaying rat corpse before every session. But he didn't bring it up. It filled me with a mixture of thoughts and feelings: anger, revulsion, pity and guilt. Did he expect me to put up with this putrid stench week after week? Maybe he couldn't afford to fix it or he had an impossible landlord. Maybe the rat was his pet and he's too bereft to do anything about it. Why is this such a big deal to me? 

It wasn't until a few months later that he apologised for the smell and admitted that it was bothering him. After he raised the matter, I had a glimpse into his humanity and the smell ceased to be such a preoccupation for me.

I've used the above anecdote to illustrate how scent can, in psychoanalytic language, impact upon or contaminate the therapeutic transference. Scent can make you think about what kind of person your therapist is, what kind of lifestyle they have, whether you like them or hate them, and whether you want to attend your sessions or not.

An illustration of scent contributing to positive transference is in Terry McMillan’s novel A Day Late and a Dollar Short, when Charlotte goes for her first session with a new therapist after a negative experience in an initial session with a previous one.

“First of all, Dr Cecily Greene’s office ain't even in no office building. It's in a brownstone. It's pretty. I smell incense burning. Whatever kind it is, I like it. 

‘Hello Charlotte. I'm Dr Greene, but feel free to call me Cecily’. 

‘Okay,’ I say. She smells good too. What is that she's wearing? If I get a little closer, maybe it'll hit me. When she turns around, I'm almost staring at her in the face. I feel like a damn fool. ‘What’s that perfume you wearing?’

‘It’s a combination of essential oils.’ 

‘What kinda oils?’

‘Jasmine, ylang-ylang and geranium.’ 

‘Never heard of ‘em.’

‘I've got an extra bottle I keep here you can have.’

‘No, I wouldn't want you to do that’.

‘I mix them myself, it's no problem.’

‘Thanks’.” (McMillan, 2001: 388)

This exchange makes me imagine Dr. Greene as someone who on the one hand is attuned to material comfort and opulence and on the other unostentatious and connected to the natural world. By the end of their encounter, a positive alliance is built between them. Upon leaving Dr. Greene’s office, Charlotte says “I really felt like curling up in that chair with a blanket and drinking some hot tea with her and rubbing some of her oil on my wrists and behind my ears while I explained why I wasn't speaking to my mama when she died and how bad I feel about it and why I don't confide in my sisters no more” (McMillan, 2001, 392-393).

For Charlotte, who has lost her mother and doesn't feel she can go to her sisters for support, Dr. Greene’s office, with its aromas of incense, jasmine, ylang-ylang and geranium, represents a sanctuary within her mind where she can be soothed, listened to and held.

Scent and trauma 

In contrast to the presence of scent and its impact on therapy, David Treleaven (2018, p. 147) advocates for the use of a scent-free environment when working with traumatised individuals in order to avoid the risk of retraumatisation. He says that “trauma-informed practice involves creating a fragrance-free space. This means refraining from wearing perfumes and clothes washed in scented detergents is a practice that prioritises safety, accessibility, and health and wellbeing. Creating a scent-free space is particularly relevant for survivors. Smell is a powerful sense that can quickly arouse traumatic triggers: a specific cologne or perfume may produce a painful memory.”

Whilst I can't say I’ve used fragrance-free laundry detergents for the purpose of my work, Treleaven’s suggestions speak to the power of scent to elicit feelings and memories.

In some instances, these associations could indeed be positive, such as tranquility in a room decorated with plants and eucalyptus branches. In others, the risk of retraumatisation is real. For example, the smell of cannabis may trigger traumatic flashbacks of a “bad trip” or a drug-induced psychosis. 

Emotional regulation

On the other hand, scent can also be utilised in the context of trauma to self-soothe, ground oneself or regulate acutely painful emotions. For example, there is some evidence that linalool, a molecule present in many essential oils including lavender, interacts with GABA-A receptors, the same brain receptors through which anxiolytic drugs such as Valium and Xanax exert their effects (Harada et al.: 2018). 

The relegation of scent

The psychotherapist and perfumer Mandy Aftel suggests that the sense of smell is undervalued because it is considered the most primitive of all the senses. Our ancestors walked on all fours with their noses close to the ground and often close to others’ behinds. This gave them information about others, including their gender, sexual maturity and whether they were sexually interested or available. 

Freud suggested that, as we evolved and began to stand upright, we became less attuned to the olfactory cues we depended upon for connection (Aftel, 2001: 14). Our experience of our external environment became visually panoramic. This was likely both a source of stimulation and engagement and this began to be the foreground of our sensory experience. Consequently, scent is often experienced as permeating a space or creating a backdrop for our experience rather than being the focal point.

With Freud's idea in mind, it’s clear to me that scent continues to provide us with useful information even though other sensory experiences are considered more compelling. We overlook its primacy and value despite it being in front of our noses. I hope with time, we can begin to appreciate the impact that scent can have on the way that we imagine, relate and heal.

Jake Freedman is a verified Welldoing psychotherapist in London and online

Further reading

What do therapists wear?

Watching the clock: How time-keeping and trust relate in therapy

Why are therapists so fascinating to their clients?

What does a therapist consulting room look like?


Aftel, M. (2001). Essence and Alchemy: A Natural History of Perfume. North Point Press: New York.

McMillan, T. (2001). A Day Late and a Dollar Short. Viking: New York.

Harada, H., Kashiwadani, H., Kanmura, Y., & Kuwaki, T. (2018). Linalool Odor-Induced Anxiolytic Effects in Mice. Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, 12. Retrieved from

Treleaven, D. A. (2018). Trauma-sensitive Mindfulness: Practices for Safe and Transformative Healing. W. W. Norton & Company: New York.