Exposure to other people’s sweat could help reduce social anxiety, study finds

Posted: 13th April 2023

People with social anxiety may benefit from mindfulness therapy combined with exposure to odours from others’ sweat, according to a study.

The approach could be used in treatment for the mental health condition, where people worry excessively about participating in social situations, it was suggested.

Lead researcher Elisa Vigna, of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, explained that an individual’s state of mind caused the production of molecules (or chemo-signals) in sweat that communicated an emotional state and produced corresponding responses in other people.

“The results of our preliminary study show that combining these chemo-signals with mindfulness therapy seem to produce better results in treating social anxiety than can be achieved by mindfulness therapy alone,” she said.

The study – which is being presented this week at the European congress of psychiatry in Paris – involved collecting sweat from volunteers, and then exposing patients being treated for social anxiety to chemo-signals extracted from those samples.

The samples were collected from people who were watching clips from films chosen to elicit particular emotional states, such as fear or happiness. They included Mr Bean’s Holiday and Sister Act, as well as horror films such as The Grudge.

Once the sweat had been collected, researchers recruited 48 women, all of whom suffered from social anxiety, and divided them into three groups each of 16 people. Over two days, they all underwent mindfulness therapy for social anxiety. At the same time, each group was exposed to the odour samples or to clean air.

The study found that the women who had been exposed to the odour samples responded better to the therapy.

Patients who undertook one treatment session of mindfulness therapy together with being exposed to human body odours showed about 39% reduction in anxiety scores. There was a 17% reduction in anxiety scores after one treatment session in the group receiving only the therapy.

Vigna said: “We were a little surprised to find that the emotional state of the person producing the sweat didn’t differ in treatment outcomes: sweat produced while someone was happy had the same effect as someone who had been scared by a movie clip.

“So there may be something about human chemo-signals in sweat generally which affects the response to treatment. It may be that simply being exposed to the presence of someone else has this effect, but we need to confirm this.”

The NHS describes social anxiety as a long-term and overwhelming fear of social situations. Treatments at present include cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) with a therapist and antidepressant medicines.

Previous research has suggested that an estimated 12.1% of adults in the US experience social anxiety disorder at some point.

Source:Exposure to other people’s sweat could help reduce social anxiety, study finds | Anxiety | The Guardian

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