Depression affects about 1 in 10 Americans, and 80% of those affected aren’t getting proper treatment (1).
On the other hand, anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., reaching almost 20% of the population (2).
One of the most effective ways to help these patients manage their symptoms is aromatherapy.
Some criticize it as being “pseudoscience” but it’s actually a well established medicine. Aromatherapy uses essential oils to relieve anxiety.
In fact, the U.S. National Library of Medicine, a database of scientific research, lists over 6,000 studies that have been done on the health benefits of essential oils and that number is only growing (3).
What Is Aromatherapy?
How does aromatherapy use essential oils to relieve anxiety? Essential oils used in aromatherapy are typically extracted from various parts of plants and then distilled. The highly concentrated oils may be inhaled directly or indirectly or applied to the skin through massage, lotions or bath salts. via MayoClinic
According to Psychology Today, aromatherapy is thought to work by stimulating smell receptors in the nose, which then send messages through the nervous system more specifically the limbic system — the part of the brain that controls basic emotions (like anger and fear) and memories.
Certain smells can remind you of positive memories and trigger emotional responses. In fact, nosmia—complete loss of the sense of smell—often leads to depression (4). Also, people with severe depression often show a diminished sensitivity to odors (5).
3 Calming Essential Oils
Most anti-anxiety and antidepressant medication can cause dependence, aggravation of symptoms as well as other negative side effects. On the other hand, essential oils don’t have any side effects in most individuals (other then allergy symptoms).
Lavender is one if the most popular scent in aromatherapy. It’s also widely used in personal care items like soaps, lotions, bath products and massage oils because of its calming abilities.
Lavender has been proven to have anti-anxiety, antidepressant, mood stabilizing, sedative, and neuroprotective properties. It’s also used in the treatment of pain and tremors (6).
In fact, a 2007 study showed that lavender aromatherapy reduced serum cortisol—which plays a central role in the body’s response to stress—in healthy men (7).
It’s important to know what kind of lavender essential oil you have purchased: Lavender L. angustifolia is the relaxing breed of lavender, while lavandin Lavandula intermedia is a stimulant.
Bergamot is a variety of orange that grows primarily in Italy. The fruit is said to be too bitter to eat, but the peel is used to create bergamot oil, which is the key ingredient that gives Earl Grey Tea it’s distinct flavour.
The authors of a 2011 Taiwanese study selected elementary school teachers, who are known to constantly work under significant stress, and used an inhalation of bergamot C. aurantium var. bergamia essential oil as the method of administration.
Results showed that there were significant decreases in blood pressure, heart rate and activation of the parasympathetic nervous system also known as the rest and digest system (8).
Sage is one of the basic herbs in European cooking. Not only does it have a wonderful, woody taste and smell, it also has antidepressant effects.
A controlled trial in 2013 suggested that clary sage S. sclarea essential oil may be useful—more so than lavender Lavandula angustifolia [Mill.]—in reducing stress for female patients undergoing urodynamic assessments (10).
Sage oil can be difficult to find in natural health food stores, but you can easily order it online or grow your own plant and rub the leaves between your fingers to release their oil.
How To Enjoy Aromatherapy
Essential Oils are highly concentrated and should not be used directly near the eyes. Some oils may also cause irritation if applied directly on the skin.
You can dilute essential oil with coconut oil to use for massage, or inhale by using a diffuser.
Here are a few quick & easy ways to use essential oils:
1. Relaxing Bath Salts
The perfect way to calm down after an emotional day.
- 1 cup Epsom salt
- 1 cup kosher salt
- ½ cup baking soda
- 10 drops Clary sage (Salvia sclarea) essential oil
- 10 drops Ylang ylang (Cananga odorata var. genuina) essential oil
- Combine salts and soda in a jar with a lid.
- Stir in essential oils & shake to promote even coating.
- Store in cool, dark place.
- Use about ¼ to ½ cup per bath.
2. Anti-Stress Mist
The on-the-go solution to staying grounded.
- 5 drops of Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) oil
- 3 drops of Ylang ylang (Cananga odorata var. genuina) oil
- 2 drops of Bergamot (Citrus aurantium var. bergamia) oil
- 4 oz of purified water
- In a 4 ounces spray bottle, carefully add all of the essential oils.
- Top off the bottle with purified water and tighten the cap.
- Mix well and store in a cool, dark, place.
- To use, shake and spray away from your face. Flick your wrist in a forward motion to brig the mist closer to your nose.
Here are more calming oils to try (don’t be afraid to combine!):
- Basil Ocimum basilicum (L.)
- Geranium Pelargonium graveolens (L’Her.)
- Grapefruit Citrus paradisi (Macfad.)
- Lime Citrus aurantifolia (Christm.)
- Neroli Citrus aurantium (L.) var. amara
- Roman Chamomile Chamaemelum nobile (L.) All.
- Rose Rosa damascena (Mill.)
- Sandalwood Santalum album (L.)
- Sweet orange Citrus sinensis (Osbeck)
If you’re struggling with anxiety or depression and feel overwhelmed, talk to your doctor, naturopath or mental health provider to find a strategy to help you get back to your regular self. Aromatherapy is just one of the many tools that can help you recover.