Many experts believe that smell is the most primal of all senses, according to the American Psychology Association. Certain smells can leave a lasting imprint on a person. Oftentimes, these smells are pleasant and bring back fond memories. For example, holiday decorations, or even the sound of seasonal carols, might bring back the smell of Christmas cookies baking even though nothing is in the oven. This type of phenomena oftentimes is referred to as psychological odor. It is also is called phantosmia (or phantom smell) or olfactory hallucination.
Trigger for Psychological Odor
Unfortunately, when it comes to experiencing psychological odor, the association that triggers the experience can be of something profoundly negative. This can occur in the aftermath of a person finding the body of a loved one in a situation where the death was not immediately discovered. In addition to the person who made the discovery experiencing this false odor, the possibility exists that others close to the deceased will experience it as well, even though they were not involved in finding the body.
A person can experience this type of psychological odor even after the premises have been thoroughly cleaned and sanitized. The olfactory hallucination is likely to persist every time the person enters the scene.
Odor Persistence Beyond the Scene
In severe cases of olfactory hallucination, the foul odor experienced at the death scene can persist beyond that physical space. In other words, the phantom stench can “follow” a person around. Cases exist in which individuals experience a psychological odor persistently (everywhere) and for what proves to be an extended period of time without professional intervention, according to a summary of cases in Smithsonian magazine.
There exist some cases in which a person experiences a psychological odor at the death scene on a fleeting basis. Ultimately, the condition appears to resolve. However, from time to time after that initial experience with psychological odor, the phantom stench reoccurs occasionally (and not necessarily at the death scene) into the future. In most cases, this occurs when an individual is experiencing some type of stressful situation.
Addressing a Psychological Odor
The first step in ascertaining whether a true odor remains, or a person is having a psychological reaction, is to have a neutral third party visit the location. Such an individual is not advised beforehand what happened in the room. The person is asked if he or she smells anything unusual in the room. This strategy assists in determining whether the odor exists or is, in fact, a psychological one. In some cases, the act of having a trusted, neutral third party confirm that there is no untoward odor in the room alleviates the problem for the person experiencing a phantom odor.
Bear in mind that this seemingly simple tactic may not work in resolving a psychological odor. If a person experiencing what by objective accounts appears to be a psychological odor finds no relatively immediate relief from the problem, professional intervention is recommended. This includes an appointment with that person’s primary care physician. There are cases in which phantom odors, including those associated with traumatic events, are associated with physical ailments and conditions like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. In some cases, phantom odors are a precursor to previously undiagnosed migraine headaches.
Once an underlying physical cause of the phantom odor is ruled out, a sufferer should pursue professional assistance from a psychologist experienced in treating patients with this condition. In the alternative, a psychiatrist may need to be consulted to obtain appropriate medication to address a mood disorder like depression or anxiety. Research suggests that a phantom smell of this nature can be eliminated by treating the underlying depression, according to the report of researchers in the peer-reviewed journal Ovid.
Emotional Support of a Person Experiencing a Psychological Odor
When a person experiences a psychological odor associated with the scene in which that individual discovered the dead body of a loved one, emotional support and understanding are crucial. The individual’s olfactory hallucinations must not be dismissed or minimized. The experience is profoundly real to that individual and is as if that person is smelling a truly horrible stench, associated with death.
Never placate a person experiencing a psychological odor by dishonestly supporting the presence of an unpleasant odor when none exists. However, reassure the individual that the phantom odor is understandable, and that assistance is available to aid in eliminating the psychological response associated with the death scene.