Most people can relate to the “sniff test.” You know, the one where you lift up your arm ever so slightly, put your nose toward your armpit and give a sly sniff for body odor? Or you put your palm in front of your mouth, breathe out, and take a sniff to check your breath? Maybe you check quickly to see if your hands have any cat food smell on them after feeding your furry friend.
That’s all completely normal—and natural. Who doesn’t worry about their hygiene or how they present to others?
That said, sometimes you can take the sniff test to extremes, and this fear that you “smell” in some way can interfere in your ability to live a happy, well-rounded life. In this article, we’ll explore the anxiety surrounding your desire to sniff yourself, why it’s happening, and provide ways that therapy can help you ease this fear.
Why are you always sniffing yourself?
It’s tough for us to tell you exactly what’s going on. But one reason really could be you forgot to put on deodorant, just went to the gym and are now going to meet up with friends, or didn’t brush your teeth this morning and now you’re in the office. You want to know if something’s amiss so you can get ahead of it by popping into the store to grab a travel-size deodorant or antiperspirant or brushing your teeth quickly. Other times, you want to make sure nothing stinky is on your hands before you grab your phone.
However, the fear can become a mental health concern in the context of obsessive-compulsive disorder, or OCD. OCD is a chronic mental health disorder featuring obsessions and compulsions:
Obsessions: Intrusive thoughts, urges, feelings, sensations or images that are unwanted and distressing.
Compulsions: Behaviors that are done to counteract the anxiety triggered by an obsession. Compulsions can surface both physically and mentally, such as checking, counting, hand washing, reassurance-seeking, excessive prayer, mental reviewing and more—including sniffing.
What often surprises people is that OCD can take many forms. Of the many subtypes of OCD, there are a couple that may relate to the reason why you’re sniffing yourself all the time:
In this subtype of OCD, your obsessions often center around fears of becoming contaminated or contaminating others. You might worry that your breath or body odor suggest that something is wrong with your health, and so you perform a compulsion like showering repeatedly or brushing your teeth far more than the recommended twice per day.
In addition, you can also worry about contaminating others, so these checks you’re doing—like sniffing your hands to make sure nothing “bad” is on them—serve to reassure you that you’re not going to unwittingly spread something like an illness to another person where you are then responsible for hurting them. And sometimes, they’re not really about illness or contamination at all, but rather a general sense of disgust.
If you have a drive to make sure that something in your life is exactly how you want it to be, that may be perfectionism OCD at play. Often, this involves a fixation on a certain body part to assure that it’s perfect. With sniffing yourself, you may find that you focus your attention on one specific body area of concern, trying to assure yourself that you are, in fact, perfectly clean.
Sometimes, your sniffing behavior might be due to a simple intrusive urge. Something might simply feel “off” or uncomfortable until you’ve “scratched the itch” of gaining a bit of sensory information about whatever it is you’re smelling.
It’s not just OCD, however. There are other mental health problems that can factor into constantly sniffing yourself, such as social anxiety disorder. Social anxiety, which has also been called social phobia, is a fear of being scrutinized, embarrassed, or humiliated in the company of others, according to the National Institute of Mental Health. It’s something that affects 7% of U.S. adults in any given year, and two-thirds of people with social anxiety report moderate to serious impairment due to their condition.
“Social anxiety involves a fear of rejection or embarrassment. When’s the last time you took a shower? Or Ew, your breath smells is not something someone with social anxiety wants to hear,” says April Kilduff, MA, LCPC, LMHC, licensed therapist and Clinical Trainer at NOCD.
In addition, sensory processing disorder or autism may also be linked to sniffing, says Kilduff. “Someone who is constantly playing with their hair or sniffing it, for example, may be using a method of sensory regulation. The smell of their hair can be soothing or calming,” she says.
Is sniffing myself a problem, though?
Here’s how to know if any completely normal behavior is tipping into problematic territory: “It’s all based on the degree of distress and impairment that behavior is causing you,” says Kilduff.
Are you sniffing yourself multiple times per day every day? Remember, it’s understandable if you have a thought like did I put on deodorant today? And so you sniff yourself to double-check. That kind of smell-checking can serve a useful purpose. It’s concerning, however, if you carry deodorant everywhere with you, put it on repeatedly throughout the day, and still sniff yourself just to be sure that you smell fine.
“Constantly sniffing is a sign that there might be something else going on,” says Kilduff.
Kilduff recalls a member she worked with who had OCD, which manifested as a severe fear of their breath smelling bad. “They had a friend who made a comment or joke about it when they were much younger. Now, they are housebound and won’t talk to other people without covering their mouth with their hands,” they explain. This member felt constantly driven to do the “breath sniff test” to ensure that they smelled okay.
The interesting thing is that OCD tends to latch onto themes that are important to you. So, if cleanliness is one of your values, it’s also likely that you don’t smell at all. You’re likely a clean, well-presented person. But then, there’s that one time someone made an off-hand comment about you smelling or mentioned someone else smelling, and now your OCD is triggered and you start doing compulsions centered around this fear.
Additional compulsions might include excessive cleaning and washing yourself. And this can cause real problems with your health. Kilduff points out that someone might brush their teeth 10 times a day to ensure their breath is fresh. However, more is not always better when it comes to self-hygiene, and you can cause damage to your teeth and gums by over-brushing or flossing. If you’re worried that your armpits stink, you could also cause irritation to your skin by constantly swiping deodorant, scrubbing the area, or taking multiple long, hot showers a day.
When sniffing yourself is part of OCD, you may also realize that you’re avoiding people and social situations out of fear that someone will think that you smell (or fear that you’ll contaminate someone else with your body). “If you’re turning down opportunities to spend time with other people, your relationships can weaken and you may end up isolated,” says Kilduff. Even if you’re looking to find a partner, this fear can also stop you from pursuing romantic relationships. And if you’re taking classes or at a job that requires you to speak up or give presentations, you may sit silently in the back, avoiding opening your mouth to speak, which can also affect your success in school or at work, she points out.
It’s completely normal to smell funky sometimes. You might go to the gym and play basketball for an hour or take a hot yoga class and now you’re sweaty. Most people write that off: You smelled, so you showered after, and how you’re all clean. No big deal. OCD tells you an entirely different story, says Kilduff. Your OCD would tell you that yes, you smell and “now you have to do all the things I tell you to do to not be smelly,” they explain.
The thing about OCD in this context is that you will never get hygiene perfect. You won’t have “perfect” breath all the time because you may eat a garlic-heavy pasta and will absolutely wake up with morning breath. OCD shines in these “what if” scenarios. What if you do have stinky breath—will everyone be so turned off that they decide to avoid you, and now you’re left all alone because you’re this hideous, smelly creature? You’ll never be able to get it right or perfect because life happens—and OCD thrives in this uncertainty, drawing your attention towards the worst-case scenario of any random doubt that pops into your head.
Amid all of this, however, know that there is help—you can break free from your worry and constant sniffing.
How can you get help for always sniffing yourself?
If you have OCD, a type of behavioral therapy called exposure and response prevention, or ERP, is going to be your go-to form of treatment. It’s the gold standard for treating all types of OCD.
Here’s what ERP might be like, particularly when it comes to treating an OCD centered on sniffing yourself. You’ll meet with a therapist and you’ll talk about your fears and what happens to trigger an obsession. Then, in the safety and comfort of a therapy session, you’ll practice being exposed to an obsession. You will be uncomfortable, anxious, and above all you’ll want to perform one of your rituals in order just to check if you smell. But you will make a conscious decision not to sniff yourself. In time, your brain will learn that it can handle the feeling of not knowing for certain if you’re smelly or contaminated, and the urge to sniff yourself will eventually become less frequent.
What this looks like in therapy depends on your individual fears, compulsions, and rituals. According to Kilduff a few of the exposures your therapist may try include:
- Imagining the worst-case scenario. If you picture in your head walking in a grocery store where fellow people picking out apples are making the “something stinks” face and hurriedly pushing their carts away from you, you might feel your heart race and stomach get tight in response. In this scenario, you wouldn’t imagine sniffing yourself—and you wouldn’t do it in real life, either.
- Practicing real-life response prevention. You might work with your therapist to develop a plan on cutting back on the number of times a day you do a particular hygiene practice or how long you do it. So, if you’re accustomed to taking three showers a day, you might devise a plan where you don’t go home on your lunch break to take a quick shower.
- Dealing with uncertainty. You may be challenged to run an errand without first putting on deodorant. It’s possible that you will smell, but you’re not going to do a sniff test to check—you’ll just live without knowing for sure.
Where to go for answers about your behavior
NOCD offers ERP treatment with licensed, trained therapists who can help you overcome the compulsion of sniffing yourself. ERP is the treatment for any subtype of OCD, and is highly effective in treating anxiety disorders, as well.
If you think your habits may be a sign of OCD or anxiety, I encourage you to learn more about NOCD’s evidence-based approach to treatment. You’re not the only one experiencing persistent, compulsive sniffing, and you don’t have to live with frustrating, disruptive behaviors forever.