Feeling stressed? Put down the chocolate and pick this up instead

Feeling stressed? Grab your beloved's shirt.
Feeling stressed? Grab your beloved's shirt. Photo: Shutterstock

If you're feeling stressed and overwhelmed put down the chocolate and reach for your beloved's shirt. That's according to a new study, which found that for women, a lover's scent could lower stress levels, making them feel calmer.

"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 realise why they engage in these behaviours," said lead author Marlise Hofer,"Our findings suggest that a partner's scent alone, even without their physical presence, can be a powerful tool to help reduce stress."

As part of the study, published in The Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 96 opposite-sex couples were recruited for the smelly challenge.(Women were selected as "smellers" because their sense of smell is typically better than men.) Male participants were given a clean T-shirt to wear for a day and told to skip the deodorant or any kind of "scented body products". Men were also told not to smoke or eat foods that could affect their smell. The worn t-shirts were then frozen to preserve the scent.

Women in the study were randomly assigned to sniff one of three shirts: a fresh, unworn T-shirt, one worn by their beloved or one worn by a stranger. Afterwards, they underwent a "stress test", consisting of a mock job interview and some mathematics, before answering questions about their stress levels. All women provided saliva samples so researchers could measure their cortisol.

When they analysed the results, the team found that women who smelled their partner's T-shirt felt less stressed both before and after the stress test. Additionally, women who smelled their partner's shirt and correctly identified that it was their beloved's smell had lower levels of cortisol. In other words, the stress-busting effect of a lover's scent was stronger when women knew they were smelling their significant other.

The findings were very different, however, for those given a stranger's shirt to sniff. These women had higher levels of cortisol during the stress test, a result the authors believe may have an evolutionary basis. "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," said Hofer. "This could happen without us being fully aware of it."

Study co-author Frances Chen says the results could have practical implications for those occasions when people are left navigating stressful situations without their loved ones by their sides. "With globalisation, people are increasingly travelling for work and moving to new cities," Chen said. "Our research suggests that something as simple as taking an article of clothing that was worn by your loved one could help lower stress levels when you're far from home."