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 for anxiety as the foundation of its treatment.
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 (4).
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 (5).
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 (6). Also, people with severe depression often show a diminished sensitivity to odors (7).
3 Calming Essential Oils for Anxiety
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 for anxiety don’t have any side effects in most individuals (other than allergy symptoms). If you don’t have a diffuser, simply drink herbal teas made of the plants below for similar benefits!
Lavender is one of the most popular essential oils for anxiety. 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 (8).
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 (9).
It’s important to know what kind of lavender essential oil you have purchased: Lavender L.Angustifoliaa is the relaxing breed of lavender, while Lavandula X 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 its distinct flavor.
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 and heart rate as well as the activation of the parasympathetic nervous system, also known as the rest and digest system (10).
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 (12).
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.
4. Valerian Root for Anxiety
Valerian is a pink-flowered plant once used in ancient Greece and Rome to cure insomnia, nervousness, trembling, and headache. It’s also one of the best essential oils for stress (13). Best of all, it’s incredibly accessible: the plant grows wild in North America, Asia, and Europe.
The medical community believes that the plant’s benefits come from its ability to boost the production of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). The chemical has a calming effect on patients suffering from anxiety. In fact, anti-anxiety medications like alprazolam (Xanax) and diazepam (Valium) work by increasing your GABA levels.
A study on 36 patients suffering from generalized anxiety disorder proved that taking 50 mg of valerian root extract 3 times a day for as little as four weeks improved anxiety. And it’s far from the only study on the herb, although others have studied slightly higher doses.
A few precautions: inhaling or ingesting large quantities of valerian can cause headaches, dizziness, drowsiness, upset stomach, and restlessness. You should also avoid using the herb in combination with alcohol, antidepressants, sleep aids, or sedatives. Pregnant and breastfeeding mothers, children under the age of 3, or anyone about to have surgery should also avoid the plant.
5. St John’s Wort Anxiety Relief
Surprisingly, St. John’s wort is actually used as a herbal treatment for depression in Germany. In fact, one study found that the herb was equally effective to tricyclic antidepressant drugs in the short-term (1 to 3 months) treatment of mild-to-moderate major depression (14).
The Cochrane Review reviewed trials and found that not only did the herb work as effective as standard anxiety medication, it also had fewer side effects than standard antidepressants.
Additionally, St. John’s wort has been studied in the treatment of other mood disorders, such as severe depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), and seasonal affective disorder (SAD) (15).
However, the herb can interact antidepressants, birth control pills, blood thinners, medicines for HIV, cancer drugs, cyclosporine, or digoxin.
Basil isn’t just an Italian staple, it has true medical benefits and is a key member of the best essential oils for anxiety. In fact, one study found that 500mg of holy basil taken two times a day after meals reduced anxiety, stress, and depression in one 60-day study. Basil can also improve headaches and upset stomach (16).
Another 3-month study proved that a basil solution improved anxiety-related symptoms such as forgetfulness, sexual problems, exhaustion, and sleep problems (17).
It’s true: this common outdoor plant can combat high blood pressure by smell alone. Inhaling the essential oil of geranium is actually an effective and non-invasive tool mothers can use to ease anxiety during childbirth. In fact, a study on 100 Iranian women found that geranium essential oil was particularly potent during the first stage of labor (18).
Vetiver is a tall grass native to India that is closely related to Sorghum. It’s also very similar to lemongrass, palmarosa, and citronella. According to aromatherapy, vetiver essential oil benefits emotional stress, panic attacks, trauma, anxiety, insomnia, hysteria and depression (19).
It’s proven too: vetiver influences neurological actions in the central amygdaloid nucleus. This structure connects to brainstem areas that control perception and physical impacts of your emotions. As such, it can affect in heart rate, blood pressure, and your breathing rate. Its impact is similar to Diazepam, a heavily prescribed anti-anxiety medication (20).
9. Sweet Orange
Sweet orange, also known as Citrus Sinensis has a lovely fragrance. But that’s not all it does. In fact, the Mie University School of Medicine in Japan found that patients with depression needed smaller doses of antidepressant medications after citrus fragrance treatment. Another study conducted in Vienna tested the oil in dental clinics. The result was a decrease in anxiety and a mood boost for all the patients involved (21).
Neroli, made from steam-distilling bitter orange blossoms, is a well-known tranquilizer. It alleviates anxiety and heart palpitations, relieves insomnia, and even prevents stress-related depression. Inhaling the oil also works against digestive issues, such as intestinal spasms, colitis, dyspepsia, and diarrhea (22).
Combined with lavender and chamomile, neroli effectively treated insomnia in percutaneous coronary intervention (PCI) patients in as little as 10 deep inhalations (23).
11. Ylang Ylang
Cananga odorata is potent against high blood pressure, heart palpitations, rapid heartbeat, insomnia, depression, stress, and anxiety. It can even fight fear-related impotence (24).
12. Roman Chamomile
Chamomile really is the king of calm. Hailing from northwestern Europe and Northern Ireland, chamomile works against nausea, vomiting, heartburn, anxiety, and gas. Chamomile is safe to inhale and consume as a tea, but it can have a negative effect for people who suffer from asthma and allergies as well as pregnant women (25).
A study published in the journal Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice examined 28 postpartum women suffering from postnatal depression or general anxiety disorder. Just 15 minutes of inhaling a 2.5 percent solution of rose/lavender oil, repeated twice a week for 4 weeks, yielded remarkably positive results. Best of all, the treatment had no adverse effects (26).
Angelica, also known as wild celery, grows just about everywhere in the Northern Hemisphere, even in Iceland and Lapland and Greenland.
A study involving three separate mouse tests found that angelica essential oil works with comparable effectiveness to the anti-anxiety drug diazepam. However, angelica took the cake when it came to safety since it does not have the grocery list of side effects of its pharmaceutical counterpart.
“Thus, these findings indicate that angelica essential oil, as does diazepam, exhibits an anxiolytic-like effect. Further studies will be required to assess the generality of the present findings to other species and behavioural paradigms,” concluded the researchers (27).
According to Healthline, “…research suggests that sandalwood may help: increase alertness, manage anxiety, support wound healing, guard against skin cancer, and fight bacteria.”(28)
Randomized controlled trials from four countries found that both the topical application of sandalwood essential oil diluted in sweet almond oil and the inhalation of the oil reduced anxiety in patients receiving palliative care (29).
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 to the skin.
You can dilute a few drops of essential oil with a spoonful of coconut oil to use them topically, or inhale them by using a diffuser.
If you still want more, other useful essential oils for anxiety include:
Feel free to combine them with the oils mentioned above for an extra-soothing mix.
For other ways to use essential oils for anxiety, look no further.
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 bring the mist closer to your nose.
If you’re struggling with anxiety or depression and feel overwhelmed, talk to your doctor, naturopath or mental health provider to find the best strategy and anxiety remedies to help you get back to your regular self. Aromatherapy and essential oils for anxiety are among the many tools that can help you recover.