Anxiety And Phantom, Odd Smells

Written by Jim Folk
Medically reviewed by Marilyn Folk, BScN.
Last updated September 12, 2022

phantom smells anxiety symptoms

Phantom Smells, such as odd, strong, acrid, metallic, blood-like, sour, ammonia-like, acidy, and repugnant smells, to name a few, are common anxiety disorder symptoms.

Many anxious people report having phantom and odd smells as an anxiety symptom.

This article explains the relationship between anxiety and phantom and odd smells.

Common Phantom Smells Anxiety Symptom Descriptions

  • You have an odd, awful, or bad smell in your nose.
  • You have a “blood-like” smell in your nose for no apparent reason.
  • You have an ammonia or bitter smell in your nose, yet you haven’t eaten or smelled anything that could cause this smell.
  • This unusual smell is not related to anything you’ve eaten or been exposed to.
  • Common descriptions of the smell include, “tinny,” “metallic,” “ammonia-like,” “blood-like,” “sour,” “bitter,” “acidy,” “vinegary,” “rotting-like,” and repugnant, to name a few.
  • No matter what you do, the phantom smell won’t go away.
  • This phantom smell isn’t related to anything medical or dental.
  • Even after you brush your teeth or use mouthwash, the bad smell in your nose remains.
  • This odd smell can change from one type of smell to another.
  • This “bad smell” can also be associated with a bad taste in the mouth, or only tasted but not smelled.
  • This symptom is often referred to as “phantosmia” – the illusion of a smell.

This odd smell can occur rarely, frequently, or persistently. For example, you have a bad smell once in a while and not that often, have it off and on, or have it all the time.

This odd smell can precede, accompany, or follow an escalation of other anxiety symptoms or occur by itself.

This phantom smell can precede, accompany, or follow an episode of nervousness, anxiety, fear, and stress, or occur “out of the blue” and for no apparent reason.

Phantom smells can range in intensity from slight, to moderate, to severe. They can also come in waves where they are strong one moment and ease off the next.

Phantom smells can change from day to day and from moment to moment.

All the above combinations and variations are common.

To see if anxiety might be playing a role in your symptoms, rate your level of anxiety using our free one-minute instant results Anxiety Test, Anxiety Disorder Test, or Hyperstimulation Test.

The higher the rating, the more likely anxiety could be contributing to or causing your anxiety symptoms, including feeling like impending doom symptoms.

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Causes

Medical Advisory

Talk to your doctor about all new, changing, persistent, and returning symptoms as some medical conditions and medications can cause anxiety-like symptoms.

Additional Medical Advisory Information.

When phantom smells are caused by stress, including anxiety-caused stress, there can be many reasons why it occurs, including:

1. The stress response

Anxious behavior, such as worry, activates the stress response, causing many body-wide changes that prepare the body for emergency action – to either fight or flee.[1][2]

Visit our “Stress Response” article for more information about its many changes.

Part of the stress response changes include slowing saliva production and heightening the body’s senses, including the chemosensory system that includes the sense of smell. The body does this so that we are more able to quickly detect a threat should one be present. These changes are beneficial when in real danger.

olfactory anatomy

Since smells come from two pathways – the nostrils, and a channel that connects the roof of the throat to the nose – reduced saliva and an altered sense of smell can cause odd and phantom smells when the stress response is active.

Moreover, research has found that stress can modulate sweet and salt thresholds,[3][4] such as via the endocannabinoid system (which plays an important role in appetite and taste),[5] creating odd tastes and smells.

The higher the degree of the stress response, the more dramatic the changes.

Since stress responses push the body beyond its balance point, stress responses stress the body. As such, anxiety stresses the body.

Many anxious people notice odd smells when a stress response has been activated.

An active stress response is a common cause of odd smells.

2. Hyperstimulation (chronic stress)

When stress responses occur infrequently, the body can quickly recover from the many stress response changes.

However, the body can't completely recover when stress responses occur too frequently, such as from overly apprehensive behavior.

Incomplete recovery can leave the body in a state of semi-stress response readiness, which we call “stress-response hyperstimulation” since stress hormones are powerful stimulants.

Hyperstimulation is also often referred to as “hyperarousal,” “HPA axis dysfunction,” or “nervous system dysregulation.”[6][7]

Visit our “Hyperstimulation” article for more information about the many ways hyperstimulation can affect the body and how we feel.

Hyperstimulation chronically stresses the body, causing chronic stress response changes, including those that affect the chemosensory system (chemical senses).

Having phantom smells is a common indication of hyperstimulation (chronic stress) and how it can affect olfactory processing.

3. A reduction in saliva can cause harmful bacteria to flourish in the mouth, causing odd smells in the nose

As mentioned, the stress response suppresses saliva production. Consequently, hyperstimulation can cause persistent saliva suppression.

A chronic reduction in saliva can allow harmful bacteria to build up in the mouth. The buildup of harmful bacteria can alter the flora in your mouth, which can lead to having a bad tastes and smells from the growth of bacteria.

4. The stress response affects the stomach and digestive system

The stress response also affects the stomach and digestive system.[8] For example, the stress response suppresses digestion so that all the body’s resources are available for emergency action. These changes can be helpful when in real danger but can cause problems when the stress response is activated too often.

When the body becomes hyperstimulated due to the chronic activation of the stress response, such as from overly apprehensive behavior, we can experience many stomach and digestive system problems. These problems can cause gas, bloating, stomach upset, and fermenting food, which can affect the taste in the mouth and smells in the nose.

5. Stress adversely affects the nervous system

Even though the stress response is beneficial when we’re in real danger, the stress response has a dramatic effect on the nervous system. When the nervous system becomes hyperstimulated, it can cause many nerve and nervous system anomalies, including affecting the olfactory sensory cells that are responsible for the sense of smell.[9]

Moreover, hyperstimulation can cause the nervous system to behave erratically, which can cause the “misreporting” of sensory information, such as smell.[10] Many anxious people get phantom smells due to hyperstimulation and how that affects the body’s nervous system and chemosensory system, including the olfactory cells.

6. Hyperstimulation can suppress the body’s immune system making the body more vulnerable to intruders

The stress response also suppresses the body’s immune system.[8] While short-term immune system suppression isn’t harmful, chronic suppression, such as that caused by hyperstimulation, can allow intruders to take hold.

Sinus infections can cause bad, unusual, and phantom smells in the nose.

7. Hyperstimulation can cause an increase in Candida.

Candida albicans is a pathogenic yeast that is a natural microflora found in the GI tract, mouth, and vagina. Most of the time, it causes no issues.[11]

However, stress, which suppresses the immune system and causes an increase in blood sugar, can cause Candida to flourish. An overgrowth of Candida in the mouth can cause a bad taste and odd smells.

Any one or combination of stress and anxiety factors, can cause phantom smells, which can be intermittent or persist for as long as the body is hyperstimulated.

8. Side effect of anti-anxiety and antidepressant medications, especially when withdrawing.

Many medications, including anti-anxiety and antidepressants, can cause phantom smells as a side effect,[12] especially when withdrawing.

Phantom smells can also be a side effect of other mood-altering and gastric medications.

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Other Factors

Other factors can create stress and cause anxiety-like symptoms, as well as aggravate existing anxiety symptoms, including:

Select the relevant link for more information.

Treatment

When this symptom is caused or aggravated by other factors, addressing those factors can reduce and eliminate it.

When this symptom is caused by an active stress response, calming yourself down will end the stress response and its changes. As your body recovers from the active stress response, this anxiety symptom should subside.

Keep in mind it can take up to 20 minutes or more for the body to recover from a major stress response. But this is normal and shouldn’t be a cause for concern.

When this symptom is caused by hyperstimulation (chronic stress), we need to eliminate hyperstimulation before this symptom subsides.

When this symptom is caused by hyperstimulation (chronic stress), eliminating hyperstimulation will end this anxiety symptom.

You can eliminate hyperstimulation by:

  • Reducing stress.
  • Containing anxious behavior (since anxiety creates stress).
  • Regular deep relaxation.
  • Avoiding stimulants.
  • Regular light to moderate exercise.
  • Getting regular good sleep.
  • Eating a healthy diet of whole and natural foods.
  • Passively-accepting your symptoms until they subside.
  • Being patient as your body recovers.

Visit our “60 Natural Ways To Reduce Stress” article for more ways to reduce stress.

As the body recovers from hyperstimulation, it stops sending symptoms of hyperstimulation, including phantom smells.

Hyperstimulation symptoms subside as the body regains its normal, non-hyperstimulated health.

However, eliminating hyperstimulation can take much longer than most people think, causing symptoms to linger longer than expected.

As long as the body is even slightly hyperstimulated, it can present symptoms of any type, number, intensity, duration, frequency, and at any time, including this one.

Even so, since phantom smells anxiety symptoms are a common symptom of stress, including anxiety-caused stress, it's harmless and needn't be a cause for concern. It will subside when unhealthy stress has been eliminated and the body has had sufficient time to recover and stabilize. Therefore, there is no reason to worry about it.

Anxiety symptoms often linger because:

  • The body is still being stressed (from stressful circumstances or anxious behavior).
  • Your stress hasn't diminished enough or for long enough.
  • Your body hasn't completed its recovery work.

Addressing the reason for lingering symptoms will allow the body to recover.

Most often, lingering anxiety symptoms ONLY remain because of the above reasons. They AREN'T a sign of a medical problem. This is especially true if you have had your symptoms evaluated by your doctor, and they have been solely attributed to anxiety or stress.

Chronic anxiety symptoms subside when hyperstimulation is eliminated. As the body recovers and stabilizes, all chronic anxiety symptoms will slowly diminish and eventually disappear.

Since worrying and becoming upset about anxiety symptoms stress the body, these behaviors can interfere with recovery.

Passively accepting your symptoms – allowing them to persist without reacting to, resisting, worrying about, or fighting them – while doing your recovery work will cause their cessation in time.

Acceptance, practice, and patience are key to recovery.

Since the body can take a long time to recover from hyperstimulation, it's best to faithfully work at your recovery despite the lack of apparent progress.

However, if you persevere with your recovery work, you will succeed.

You also have to do your recovery work FIRST before your body can recover. The cumulative effects of your recovery work will produce results down the road. And the body's stimulation has to diminish before symptoms can subside.

Eliminating hyperstimulation will bring results in time!

Remember: Focusing on your sensations and symptoms makes them more pronounced. If you'd like to lessen their impact, learn to focus your attention elsewhere through distraction, enjoying your hobbies, undertaking pleasing and calming activities, regular deep relaxation, and by recalling pleasant memories or experiences.

When you do the right work, the body HAS TO recover. As the body recovers, it stops sending symptoms of hyperstimulation, including phantom smells.

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Therapy

Unidentified and unaddressed underlying factors cause issues with anxiety. As such, they are the primary reason why anxiety symptoms persist.[13][14][15]

Addressing your underlying factors (Level Two recovery) is most important if you want lasting success.

Addressing Level Two recovery can help you:

  • Contain anxious behavior.
  • Become unafraid of anxiety symptoms and the strong feelings of anxiety.
  • End anxiety symptoms.
  • Successfully address the underlying factors that so often cause issues with anxiety.
  • End what can feel like out-of-control worry.

All our recommended anxiety therapists have had anxiety disorder and overcame it. Their personal experience with anxiety disorder and their Master's Degree and above professional training gives them insight other therapists don't have.

If you want to achieve lasting success over anxiety disorder, any one of our recommended therapists would be a good choice.

Working with an experienced anxiety disorder therapist is the most effective way to treat anxiety disorder, especially if you have persistent symptoms and difficulty containing anxious behavior, such as worry.

In many cases, working with an experienced therapist is the only way to overcome stubborn anxiety.

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Prevalence

In an online poll we conducted, 46 percent of respondents said they had phantom smells as an anxiety symptom.

Considerations

If this symptom is caused by stomach and digestive system problems that don’t resolve through stress reduction, you may want to talk with your doctor and a Nutrition Science Practitioner for more information.

If this symptom is caused by a persistent sinus infection, you should talk with your doctor and find ways to boost your immune system.

If this symptom is caused by an overgrowth of Candida, you may want to talk with a Nutrition Science Practitioner for natural ways to reduce Candida.

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Frequently Asked Questions

Can anxiety cause phantom and odd smells?

Yes, anxiety and the stress it causes can cause many odd symptoms, including phantom and odd smells. Many anxious people get phantom and odd smells symptoms. I (Jim Folk) did, too, during my 12-year struggle with anxiety disorder.

Is anxiety-caused phantom smells serious?

No, anxiety-caused phantom smells are not serious because this symptom is just another symptom of anxiety and chronic stress (hyperstimulation). It will subside when you address your anxiety and stress issues. I (Jim Folk) have not had it since I recovered in 1986.

Can anxiety phantom smells symptoms become permanent?

Because anxiety-caused phantom smells is a symptom of anxiety and chronic stress (hyperstimulation), it isn’t permanent. It will subside when you address your anxiety and chronic stress issues. However, it can persist for as long as you are anxious and your body is chronically stressed.

Should I be worried about anxiety phantom smells symptoms?

No, there is no reason to be worried about the anxiety symptom phantom smells. It will subside when you address your anxiety and chronic stress issues.

However, worry, an apprehensive behavior that creates anxiety and stress, can prolong phantom smells. So, there is a good reason not to worry about it. But, as long as the body is chronically stressed, it can exhibit symptoms, including phantom smells.

That said, since many medical conditions and medications can cause phantom smells as a side effect, especially when withdrawing from a medication, we recommend discussing all new, changing, persistent, and returning symptoms with your doctor to ensure it is solely anxiety-related. If it is solely anxiety related, there is no reason to worry about it.

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The combination of good self-help information and working with an experienced anxiety disorder therapist, coach, or counselor is the most effective way to address anxiety and its many symptoms. Until the core causes of anxiety are addressed – which we call the underlying factors of anxiety – a struggle with anxiety unwellness can return again and again. Dealing with the underlying factors of anxiety is the best way to address problematic anxiety.

Additional Resources

Return to our anxiety disorders signs and symptoms page.

anxietycentre.com: Information, support, and therapy for anxiety disorder and its symptoms, including phantom and odd smells anxiety symptoms.

References

1. Berczi, Istvan. “Walter Cannon's ‘Fight or Flight Response’ - ‘Acute Stress Response.’” Walter Cannon's "Fight or Flight Response"  - "Acute Stress Response", 2017.

2. Godoy, Livea, et al. "A Comprehensive Overview on Stress Neurobiology: Basic Concepts and Clinical Implications." Frontiers In Behavioral Neuroscience, 3, July 2018.

3. Ileri-Gurel, Esin, et al. "Effect of Acute Stress on Taste Perception: In Relation with Baseline Anxiety Level and Body Weight." Chemical Senses, 2 Sep 2012.

4. al’Absi, Mustafa, et al. "Exposure to Acute Stress is Associated with Attenuated Sweet Taste." Psychophysiology, 19 Sep 2011.

5. Yoshida, Ryusuke, et al. "Endocannabinoids selectively enhance sweet taste." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 22, Dec 2009.

6. "The Physiology of Stress: Cortisol and the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal Axis." DUJS Online. N.p., 03 Feb. 2011. Web. 19 May 2016.

7. Yaribeygi, Habib, et al. “The Impact of Stress on Body Function: A Review.” EXCLI Journal, Leibniz Research Centre for Working Environment and Human Factors, 2017.

8. Teixeira, Renata Roland, et al. “Chronic Stress Induces a Hyporeactivity of the Autonomic Nervous System in Response to Acute Mental Stressor and Impairs Cognitive Performance in Business Executives.” Current Neurology and Neuroscience Reports., U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2015.

9. Bear,Connors, Paradiso (2016). Neuroscience: Exploring the brain - Fourth Edition. In Sensory and Motor Systems (pp. 265-517). New York, NY: Wolters Kluwer

10. Z, Fatahi, et al. "Effect of acute and subchronic stress on electrical activity of basolateral amygdala neurons in conditioned place preference paradigm: An electrophysiological study." Behavioral Brain Research, 29 Sept. 2017.

11. Jill Seladi-Schulman, PhD. “Candida Albicans: Infections, Symptoms, and Treatments.” Medical News Today, MediLexicon International, 9 Aug. 2018.

12. Bainbridge, Kathleen, et al. "Prescription Medication Use and Phantom Odor Perception Among US Adults." Chemosensory Perception, 1 Oct 2022.

13. Hofmann, Stefan G., et al. “The Efficacy of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: A Review of Meta-Analyses.” Cognitive Therapy and Research, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 1 Oct. 2012.

14. Leichsenring, Falk. “Is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy the Gold Standard for Psychotherapy?” JAMA, American Medical Association, 10 Oct. 2017.

15. DISCLAIMER: Because each body is somewhat chemically unique, and because each person will have a unique mix of symptoms and underlying factors, recovery results may vary. Variances can occur for many reasons, including due to the severity of the condition, the ability of the person to apply the recovery concepts, and the commitment to making behavioral change.