For the past half a year or so I’ve smelled cigarette smoke. Not because I’ve taken up the habit, but because of an undiagnosed neurological or psychological disorder. The smell isn’t really there, you see, so when I can smell it, nobody else can. It comes and goes with varying degrees of strength, but it’s always unpleasant when it’s happening, often sticks around for days at a time, and when I can’t smell it I worry about smelling it again.

Phantosmia has a number of causes. My neurologist and I worked through the physical ones, via MRI and a range of visual stimulus and physiological tests. We came to no conclusion, although it was a real relief to rule out physical brain trauma of any kind. My dad survived one of the biggest brain tumours ever, then another much smaller one about a decade later, so I’ve always been worried about them to some degree. When I started smelling smells that aren’t there, you can guess what I thought the cause was.

In the couple of months that have passed since then, I’ve discovered a key factor: stress. It’s not a perfect correlation, but there’s definitely something tying how stressed I am to the length and strength of the smell. If I have a period of time where I’m able to relax more than normal, it backs off a bit.

So now I turn the phantosmia into a positive. If I can smell smoke strongly for longer than a few minutes, it’s a warning that I’m stressed somehow, even if I don’t feel it, and I need to stop and think about what’s causing it and try and do something about it. It’s working so far, and I can smell it less often and less strongly as a result.

And that’s really the underlying message of why I’ve written this: stress doesn’t always manifest in something you can feel or be aware of. Often it’s there under the surface, causing problems, waiting to manifest in a more serious way somewhere down the line, after you let it build up.

I’m lucky I have the phantosmia to help me detect stress better, I guess. I just wish the phantom sense wasn’t the smell of cigarettes.