Aromatherapy is the practice of using essential oils for therapeutic benefit. But what exactly are essential oils and how does one use them therapeutically? First, essential oils are the highly volatile oils from a single fragrant plant that have been isolated by a physical process – usually through hydro-distillation, maceration, mechanical pressing or less commonly, solvent extraction. Like fixed oils such as olive or coconut oil, they don’t mix well with water, but unlike fixed oils they evaporate quickly at room temperature.
Depending on the oil, different parts of the plant are used. For example, jasmine essential oil comes from the flower, myrrh comes from the resin or sap of the tree, peppermint comes from the leaves, and sandalwood from the bark or wood.
Essential oils for anxiety
To best understand why aromatherapy is considered such a healing therapy, it’s important to understand how scents interact with the brain. When an odor crosses your path, it stimulates your olfactory bulb – a stamp sized area of nerves in the roof of your nasal cavity – and nerve impulses are immediately transmitted to the limbic system, a complex group of organs in the brain that beside processing aromas, also govern everything from heart rate, blood pressure, and circadian rhythms to sensations of thirst, hunger, aggression, fear, sexual arousal and also memory.
That’s why you rarely react to odors neutrally – one person’s favorite cologne can make another person’s eyes water or provoke a gag response. Odors are also strongly linked to memories. The tangy smell of BBQ may make you remember your last 4th of July just as the spicy aroma of pumpkin pie may connect you with memories of Thanksgiving.
Besides processing odors and storing memories, the limbic system plays a crucial role in the stimulation of emotions and subsequent reactions or behaviors, so inhaling essential oils can create changes in both body and mind. Such as the following relaxing or rejuvenating scents:
Just the thought of an open lavender field seems relaxing, doesn’t it? Multiple studies confirm lavender’s relaxing reputation, including a clinical trial in 2017, in which open heart surgery patients saw significant decreases in their blood pressure and heart rate when just two drops of lavender essential oil were added to their oxygen masks and they breathed in the aroma for 10 minutes.† Explore lavender’s classic, spicy and yet calming scent with Aura Cacia’s 100% Pure Essential Oil Lavender.
Long considered an aphrodisiac, research completed at the Srinakharinwirot University in Thailand verifies the stimulating and mood lifting effects of jasmine essential oil, including significant increases in blood oxygen saturation, breathing rate and blood pressure by participants, who also reported feeling more alert.† This lovely flower has a heady, floral aroma and must be harvested by hand during the night shortly after it blooms to capture its scent. Check it out in Aura Cacia’s 100% Pure Essential Oil Jasmine Absolute.
An experiment in 2014 found that inhaling clary sage oil significantly decreased the stress hormone cortisol in a group of menopausal women while increasing levels of the feel-good neurotransmitter serotonin.† What a nice natural lift! Aromatically, clary sage mixes light floral notes with musky undertones, such as Aura Cacia’s 100% Pure Essential Oil Clary Sage.
One hundred pregnant women at the Bent al-Hoda Hospital in Iran had their anxiety levels measured when they went into labor. After inhaling the aroma of geranium essential oil, participants measured significantly less anxiety scores than those who did not inhale the oil, and there was also a considerable decrease in their diastolic blood pressure.† The oil of this unassuming flower emits a very light, floral scent, which you can find in Now’s Geranium Essential Oil.
Patchouli essential oil, famous for its strong, unmistakably musky scent, has long been regarded for promoting relaxation and calmness anecdotally, but as recently as 2022, research has discovered that it increases levels of the motivating and pleasure centered neurotransmitter, dopamine, as well as decreasing compassion fatigue and cortisol levels amongst emergency room nurses.† Discover it in Now’s Patchouli Essential Oil, but you may want to avoid it if you use blood thinners as it can inhibit blood clotting.
3 ways to use essential oils for anxiety
1. Diffuse them
A diffuser is a practical way to enjoy essential oils for hours at a time in your home or office. This can give you continued, calm support throughout a hurried day. When investing in a decent model, consider these important points:
- Operation time. A good diffuser will have interval settings to help you save on how much essential oils are used. Basic diffusers come with a fixed operation time of up to five hours, while deluxe models can run intermittently for up to 14 hours, such as the NOW Solutions Real Bamboo Ultrasonic Oil Diffuser.
- The reservoir size. Do you want to diffuse your entire living room or a smaller office? A bulkier reservoir will allow your diffuser to operate for longer hours whereas a sleeker, smaller model like Nature’s Truth Mini Diffuser may be easier to blend into your current, décor. The right sized diffuser is key.
- Noise. A key factor, especially if you want to run your diffuser when you’re doing calm activities like meditating, yoga, reading, listening to music or sleeping. For a quieter model, choose one with a noise output that is less 23 decibels such as NOW Solutions Ultrasonic Metal Touch Oil Diffuser.
2. Apply them topically
Topical application through gentle massage or even just pulse point application, such as at the temples, wrists or behind the ears, is another way to reinforce the relaxing, calming and therapeutic effects of essential oils, thus allowing them to be absorbed through skin pores as well as through inhalation during the process of applying them.
Pulse point application is especially helpful for anxiety as the oils can be applied during an acutely stressful situation, to help you stay in a more serene state of mind. Oils with a small rolling applicator, like Badger Aromatherapy Stress Soother are portable, preblended with a carrier oil, and easy to use.
It is important to note that essential oils should never be applied directly to the skin. As discussed earlier, these plant oils have been distilled into very high concentrations. So, they must always be diluted with a carrier oil such as sweet almond, jojoba, or olive oil. Start with just a few drops and see if that’s enough. No more than 15 drops of essential oil to an ounce of carrier oil are necessary.
And before applying this mix to your skin, always do an allergy test first by rubbing the mixture on a small patch of skin inside the forearm. Wait at least 24 to 48 hours before proceeding further.
3. Try a steam bath
A steam bath can be yet one more relaxing method to enjoying essential oils. Only use oils that you have already had prior skin exposure to through carrier oils, to make sure you are not sensitive to them. Draw a bath, light a few candles if you so desire, add 1 ½ to 2 cups of Epsom salts, like Soothing Touch’s Unscented Bath Salts, to your hot water, and finally a few drops of your favorite essential oil.
The warm water is soothing, the magnesium rich salts are nourishing to your nervous system, as well as your muscles, joints and pores, and the steam releases the essential oils into the air so you can relax into the scent.
What to look for in high-quality essential oils
Not all essential oils are created equal. Look for the following when investing in your oils:
- Read labels. Pure oils will list the plant’s botanical name (such as Citrus lemon) rather than phrases like “essential oil of lemon” or “lemon fragrance.” The ingredient list should be simple, without any additives or synthetic oils.
- Know the company. Some essential oil companies purport that their oils are safe to take internally. While this is strongly discouraged, it just shows how important it is to know what you are getting. Choose a company with a good reputation that uses a chemical-free extraction process such as steam or hydro-distillation or mechanical cold pressing.
- Dark glass only. Aromatic oils can dissolve plastic bottles over time, and light will hasten the degradation of the volatile compounds that make them so effective. Most companies package their oils in amber brown or blue glass bottles – don’t get anything else.
Find the right scent for you
While aromatherapy is a powerful healing practice that has been around for centuries, the most successful approach to managing anxiety is one that is multifaceted, so it is best to consider this as one of many methods to a more centered, well-balanced life. Aromatherapy blends well with healthier eating habits, good sleep hygiene, meditation, yoga, exercise and counseling. Be sure to consult with your primary healthcare practitioner if anxious thoughts or feelings begin to impact your sleep or your ability to handle daily responsibilities.
Everyone reacts to scents differently, so enjoy the journey that is finding the right relaxing scent for you. Just research your essential oils ahead of time as some of them may create complications with specific medications, health issues or pregnancy. Once you’ve found a few you like, try blending them together, grounding floral notes or softening earthy ones while still enjoying their therapeutic benefits. Now time to draw a warm bath and begin!
†These statements have not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent disease.