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The scent of another person’s sweat may help significantly ease social anxiety. Luis Alvarez/Getty Images
  • A new pilot study suggests that exposure to certain odors found in sweat may help treat symptoms of social anxiety.
  • These odors appeared to improve people’s responses to mindfulness therapy.
  • Experts say, if proven effective this could be a non-drug alternative to currently used medications.
  • However, more research is needed to prove the concept.

According to the results of a preliminary study that was presented this week at the 31st European Congress of Psychiatry, exposure to certain odors present in human sweat could be used to help people with social anxiety.

Dr. Myo Thwin Myint, Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Pediatrics at Tulane University School of Medicine, who was not a part of the study, explained that social anxiety, which is also known as “social phobia,” is an extreme fear of social situations.

People with social phobia often feel self-conscious and fear criticism and rejection in social situations, he said.

Elisa Vigna, the lead researcher on the study, told Healthline that these odors, which she referred to as “chemosignals,” could be used to augment the benefits of mindfulness therapy, a type of psychotherapy that incorporates Eastern mindfulness practices with cognitive-behavioral therapy.

Mindfulness therapy has previously been shown to be effective in relieving both depression and anxiety symptoms.

“The benefit that our research could bring is a non-invasive method of treatment enhancement for people that suffer from anxiety,” explained Vigna. “By enhancing different forms of treatment that can be easily done independently at home, we also aim at reducing the pressure on the health care system whilst improving patient choice.”

The aim of the study was to look at how people with social anxiety symptoms might benefit from mindfulness training, especially when coupled with exposure to social chemosignals.

To accomplish this goal, 48 women ages 18 to 35 years with social anxiety were divided into three groups containing 16 people each.

The women were then instructed to watch film clips that were chosen to elicit a particular emotion — such as happiness or fear — and sweat samples were collected.

For two days, the study participants went through mindfulness therapy. Simultaneously, they were exposed to either odor extracts from the various samples or to clean air.

At the end of the study, it was found that those who were exposed to the odors had a better response to therapy.

After one therapy session, anxiety scores were reduced by approximately 39% in the odor-exposed group. In comparison, there was only a 17% reduction in scores in the group who received therapy alone.

Myint said that our emotions can be influenced by a range of factors, including environmental stimuli.

“We emit chemo-signals, like sweat, which may contribute to this process,” he explained.

According to Myint, those with social anxiety might have a heightened sensitivity to social odors.

“By combining chemo-signal analysis with other treatment options for social anxiety, such as mindfulness therapy, it may be possible to improve the effectiveness of treatment,” he said.

Dr. Sarah L. Martin, Chief of the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Texas Tech Physicians of El Paso, who was also not a part of the study, added that there were a few ways that the use of chemosignals could be helpful.

“If these ‘chemo-signals’ are found to be effective in treating anxiety, they would likely cause very few side effects compared to psychiatric medication,” she said, noting that many prefer non-drug methods of treatment due to concerns about side effects and the stigma that is attached to medication use.

“People who prefer ‘natural’ options might also prefer this sort of intervention,” she said, although she did note there is also stigma attached to body odor itself.

Myint said he finds the study design “intriguing.”

“These results suggest that human chemosignals in sweat may have implications for the treatment of social anxiety disorder, particularly in virtual or in-person settings.”

However, he says it’s important to keep in mind that this was a pilot study so further research is needed to confirm its findings.

Martin added to also keep in mind that it was a smaller study.

Additionally, she said that it might be a problem that the control group was exposed to clean air rather than sweat.

“[M]ost people would probably agree that the average study participant can easily tell the difference between the two, and so unless they change the control conditions, this could not be considered a blind study,” Martin said.

This doesn’t mean it’s invalid, she concluded, but it could be an area for improvement in future research.