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Can The Smell Of Alcohol Affect Behavior?

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Beating alcohol addiction is a major problem for millions of people across the country. The most recent statistics released by the National Institute of Alcohol Use And Alcoholism found that almost 17 million people in the US suffer from some form of alcohol use disorder. For many people, it is so hard to quit because they love the taste and the smell of liquor on such a deep level.

Scent Is One Of Our Most Powerful Senses

Have you ever noticed how strongly your mind reacts when you smell certain things? For example, maybe your mind instantly triggers positivity when you smell a perfume your mother used to wear. Or negative feelings might arise when you smell cut grass, because it reminds you of being pushed in the grass by a bully when you were young. It’s something we’ve all gone through: memory through scent.

This connection is powerful and scent remains the sense that is most closely related to creating and storing memories. Psychology Today describes this connection as being due to the way smells are processed in the mind.

Smells go through the following process in your body and mind:

  • Intake by your nose
  • Processing by the olfactory bulb (the area that sends scent information to your mind)
  • Passing through the amygdala and the hippocampus
  • Analyzing deep in the mind

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The third part of this process is the most important, as the amygdala and hippocampus are directly responsible for the creation and storage of memory. Other senses, such as sound and touch, do NOT pass through these areas. As a result, scent is highly powerful to memory and can, in many instances, change your behavior. And, unfortunately, this seems to be true of the scent of alcohol.

A Study Confirms The Power Of Alcohol Scent

This connection between scent and memory was recently tested by a group of researchers from Edge Hill University in the UK. They were looking to discover the ways in which various senses triggered addictive behaviors or memories in people dependent on alcohol.

For those of you who are confused about the importance of such a study, they were working to expand on findings that suggested people addicted to alcohol were psychologically aroused by the visual presence of alcohol. These people would literally salivate and be more likely to drink simply by seeing an alcoholic beverage.

To study this effect on scent, researchers took a rather interesting route: testing how “distracted” a person is when in the presence of alcohol. People were strapped into a face mask and asked to press a button when they saw the letter K or a bottle of beer on a computer screen. A mask that smelled like alcohol was used by some of the test subjects, while the rest used one that was not.

If a person pressed the button, the researchers considered the subjects as less able to control their actions. These “false alarms” were so much more common in the people who wore alcohol masks, that researchers believed the scent was changing their behaviors and making them do things they wouldn’t normally do i.e. increasing their impulsiveness.

The Dangers Of Alcohol Nostalgia

Many of you may be thinking that this discovery has little importance in your life or in your recovery. That’s not the case: understanding how scent affects your behavior is crucial to beating your addiction. Just think of the last time you sat down with a drink and remember the way the smell of it affected your body.

Did you suddenly flashback to a fun party where you last had this drink? Or did you remember drinking at your wedding after dancing with your wife? These triggered memories are considered “nostalgia,” which is a positive remembrance of the past, even if the event itself was not positive.

So you might not remember the fistfight that occurred at that wild party or how angry your wife was at you after your reception. Instead, you remember just the positive aspects of drinking; and didn’t you have so much fun the last time you got drunk? Why not do it again by chugging the drink in front of you and drinking more? This unfortunate reaction is possible, even if you smell somebody else’s drink.

Don’t take this behavior as a sign of weakness or lack of control. We all fight against nostalgic impulses like this on a daily basis and sometimes we give in to them. For example, we might try to reconnect or re-date an ex or visit our hometown thinking that everything will be hunky dory. But they won’t be.

Yes, there may be some positives, but when the negatives come back, they’ll hit us hard. Alcohol nostalgia works in the same way and is a terrible thing for a person who is recovering to experience. Smelling a beer and getting nostalgic about it may trigger a relapse that could lead to hospitalization after a bender, or even death, if the drinking is severe enough.

How You Can Avoid This Problem

Clearly, it’s necessary for you to avoid the scent of alcohol as much as possible. This may be a trickier problem than you realize, as there are people around you who are going to regularly be drinking alcohol.

Beyond avoiding businesses that serve liquor and alcoholic parties, there are a variety of things you can do to avoid smelling alcohol:

  • Opening windows during parties to keep the room well-ventilated
  • Masking the scent of alcohol with deodorizers
  • Never using rubbing alcohol or hand sanitizers
  • Asking friends and family to drink alcohol away from you
  • Cleaning the empty liquor bottles of friends and family after use
  • Storing those empties outside of the house

While simply avoiding alcohol is your best way to never smell it, there are times when that’s not possible. That’s why it’s so crucial to follow the party and family-based tips, or seek inpatient alcohol rehabilitation. While you should definitely try to encourage family members to limit their alcohol intake, don’t ask them to change their behavior unless you believe their drinking is a problem for them as well as you.