How Scent Can Aid in Recovery

Woman smelling lavender / Photo by Elly Johnson / Unsplash

Smell is the strongest of our human senses. That makes it both a gift and a curse. If you want to inhale the beautiful, soft scent of the newest rose in your garden, it’s a gift; but if you’re passing the sewage treatment center, well, think again!

In the book, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, Patrick Süskind writes:

“Odors have a power of persuasion stronger than that of words, appearances, emotions, or wills. The persuasive power of an odor cannot be fended off, it enters into us like breath in our lungs, it fills us up, imbues us totally. There is no remedy for it.”

This powerful piece of writing could summarize the struggles that an addict battles with – and the key to their healing. Scent has the power to heal – but it also has the power to take us back to a place that we don’t want to go.

How scent imprints itself on our memories

There is a scientific explanation for how scent gets up our noses – literally – and stimulates the part of the brain where our memories are stored. But in this article, I want you to think about your own memories associated with scent. I have heard stories from clients that they cannot use anything associated with roses, for example, as the scent reminds them of a grandmother who treated them unfairly as a child. Even though rose is an excellent aroma to help in healing, if “bad memories” are associated with it, it most likely will have negative connotations on any attempts in using it as part of the healing process.

I, too, have dissociative memories when it comes to the smell of beer. I grew up in the north of England where pubs (public houses) were community meeting places, and nothing was thought of from “having a pint or two” with a friend down at the “local.” Back then, the aroma of beer was comforting to me, and reminded me of misspent times with college friends. However, fast forward twenty years to my former relationship with an abusive spouse, who started popping beer cans at 6.30 in the morning, and both the sound of that ring pull, and the aroma of the beer, washed anxiety, and nausea, over me in waves. It has taken me literally years to lay that ghost to rest.

Yet, in my work as an aromatherapist and a botanical perfumer, I surround myself daily in scents and know that scent can be healing – if you know how to utilize it, and know the history of your client, to avoid any backward steps. In this article, we are specifically focusing on how scent can help addicts in recovery.

Positive odor stimuli for recovery

Scent has the power to heal – but it also has the power to take us back to a place that we don’t want to go.So, as discussed above, aromas sometimes have negative associations. This means that the successful outcome to an addict’s recovery using scent is to provoke a positive memory, and not overexpose them to a scent that may provoke a negative response. This is summarized by this quote from one particular study which looked at The Role of Odor-evoked Memory in Psychological and Physiological Health:

“Any odor that for a given individual evokes a happy autobiographical memory has the potential to increase positive emotions, decrease negative moods, disrupt cravings, lower stress and decrease inflammatory immune responses, and thereby have a generally beneficial effect on psychological and physiological wellbeing. Odor-evoked memories may also be able to stimulate specific emotions, such as self-confidence, motivation and vigor, and thus energize behavior as a function of the specific emotions that a given odor-evoked memory evokes.”¹

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However, the secret is not only in using the “right” scent, but also at the “right” amount for that person. For example, lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) is perceived as a “calming” aroma and is often used to help insomnia issues for this reason. But if you use too much lavender, you will find that it suddenly becomes a stimulating aroma and has you wide awake through the small hours of the morning, desperately searching for that elusive sleep. Provoking positive memories with odors can be a tricky business if you don’t know how to use them!

Addressing the symptoms of addiction with scent

Regardless of the type of addiction, most addictions trigger similar problems in the long run if left untreated. These include issues such as depression, anxiety, insomnia, panic attacks, stress, feeling of hopelessness, restlessness, and digestive issues. An example of aromas which may help with some of these problems include:

  • Ginger (Zingiber officinale): Nausea and digestive issues.
  • Grapefruit (Citrus × paradisi) and black pepper (Piper nigrum): Reduce cravings.
  • Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia): Insomnia and stress.
  • Peppermint (Mentha × piperita): Improves concentration and focus.
  • Clary sage (Salvia sclarea): Helps to manage panic attacks.

Inhaling aromas for scent recovery

For people who don’t like to be touched by anyone, or apply anything to their skin, inhalation of scents is probably the best place to get started in aiding addict recovery. Scent diffusers are commonplace and often used to pump out a “pleasant” aroma in doctors’ waiting areas and perhaps therapists’ offices. However, there are a few problems with this method.

There is no “one size fits all” when it comes to aroma-therapy. As discussed, some scents can trigger negative responses based on people’s memories or associations with it; too much of a particular aroma can end up having the opposite of the intended effect. And some aromas should not be diffused around vulnerable groups such as pregnant women, seniors, babies and children, and those suffering with particular diseases. So, putting a scent in a diffuser and putting it out there for everyone is not the best way to go.

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If you are at home, and have a well-ventilated space, using a diffuser might be an option, if you know which scent to use and how to use it. Otherwise, a personal inhaler (a bit like the old Vicks inhalers) is probably the most discreet and more successful tool to use in recovery.

Touch therapy in scent recovery

Some people find comfort in being touched, and if this is you, you might benefit from a combined massage and aromatherapy treatment. Not only do you get to inhale the scent, but it also absorbs through your skin (through the application of a massage oil) and through the touch of a qualified therapist. Studies have shown that the use of massage therapy in the alcoholic’s recovery journey can help with the detoxification process.²

Does scent therapy aid in recovery?

Used correctly, scent can be an important tool in helping recovery.There are several things to consider when thinking about the use of scents in an addict’s recovery program. To summarize, you need to think about:

  • Does the scent trigger any negative memories or emotions?
  • Does the scent promote a positive mood?
  • How much of the scent should you use?
  • Which method should you utilize to take advantage of scent therapy?
  • Will the scent be appropriate to manage the symptoms that you intend to address?

If you are thinking about using scent as part of your own recovery program, or in helping a patient or addict overcome their addiction, it’s important that you work with a qualified aromatherapist or scent therapist, who is working as part of a team of professionals in managing the addict’s overall recovery plan. This might include medical supervision, emotional support, and therapist intervention. Consider the individual’s needs, history, and preferences first and foremost.

Used correctly, scent can be an important tool in helping recovery. You just have to know how, and when, to use it.


  1. Herz RS. The Role of Odor-Evoked Memory in Psychological and Physiological Health. Brain Sci. 2016 Jul 19;6(3):22. doi: 10.3390/brainsci6030022. PMID: 27447673; PMCID: PMC5039451.
  2. Reader M, Young R, Connor JP. Massage therapy improves the management of alcohol withdrawal syndrome. J Altern Complement Med. 2005 Apr;11(2):311-3. doi: 10.1089/acm.2005.11.311. PMID: 15865498.

Sharon Falsetto Chapman is a published author and editor with exceptional experience writing about plants. To connect with her, or visit her website.

Last Updated on September 4, 2023

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