Olfactory processes refer to those involved in the mechanisms activated by smelling certain scents. How these processes affect emotions and emotional reactions has been a particularly understudied area of research. For people with panic issues (PD) and other anxieties, attention is often focused more on threat-related stimuli and cues than on nonthreatening stimuli. Because of this, their predisposition to threats puts them at increased risk for elevated states of panic and anxiety.
One of the symptoms of PD is sweating. However, it is unknown how the sweat odor is processed by people with PD. To determine if PD causes an impaired olfactory process, Gloria-Beatrice Wintermann of the Department of Psychotherapy and Psychosomatic Medicine at the Dresden University of Technology and the Medical School in Germany recently led a study comparing the neurological activation that occurs during the olfactory processes among 13 people with PD and 13 without.
Using a natural sweat condition and an artificial odor condition, Wintermann compared the brain activity of participants with PD and those without. She found that the individuals with PD had differences in their brain activity during the olfactory process when compared to the controls. Specifically, the participants with PD had increased activity in the cingulate cortex and higher scores on anxiety, agoraphobic symptoms, avoidance, and general health anxiety during the natural sweat experiment.
For the artificial odor condition, the participants showed increased inferior frontal gyrus activity compared to the controls. These increases were also directly related to increases in expectant anxiety, general health anxiety and agoraphobic symptoms. “These differences in the neural activity might be associated with an increased severity of the psychopathology and dysfunctional threat-related cognitive processing,” said Wintermann.
These differences could make them more vulnerable to fear and threat responses, thus increasing their symptoms of panic. The result would be increased sweat production, and in turn, a cycle of escalating panic. Wintermann believes that these findings provide valuable insight into independent processes that contribute to panic symptoms. Further research should focus on other processes that may also increase vulnerability and bias.
Wintermann, G.-B., Donix, M., Joraschky, P., Gerber, J., Petrowski, K. (2013). Altered olfactory processing of stress-related body odors and artificial odors in patients with panic disorder. PLoS ONE 8(9): e74655. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0074655
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