Stress has been linked to a myriad of diseases and conditions (see Why Stress is So Damaging and What You Can Do About It). Stress is caused by disease, injuries, work, and any life situation, and the response varies greatly from individual to individual. Similarly, stress management approaches vary from person to person, but aromatherapy, or “the therapeutic use of plant-derived, aromatic essential oils to promote physical and psychological well-being” (Gale, 2014, p. 154), can be a great choice to get the body into stress-relieving mode. Here’s why:
1. Aromatherapy Improves Mood & Emotions
Inhalation of essential oils through the nasal passages stimulates the olfactory bulb and neurons, which in turn triggers the limbic system in the brain (Gale, 2014). The limbic system controls our “memory, sexuality, emotional reactions and creativity” and the body reacts after the different areas of the brain are activated (Hawkins, 2014, p. 39). When the limbic system is activated through smell, it may trigger happy memories and thus establish a general feeling of happiness (Freeman, 2009). Fragrances in general have been found to affect moods by causing positive and negative mood states such as happy, relaxed, sensuous, stimulated, irritated, stressed, depressed, and apathetic (Warrenburg, 2005).
A 25-year-old female nursing student who was suffering from anxiety, agitation, and felt overwhelmed from the pressures of school was given aromatherapy to treat her symptoms (La Torre, 2003). Lavender and rose were used to help her feel calm, and these were chosen from positive memories and associations from her childhood. The scents were used during treatment sessions, and the student also carried the same scents of lavender and rose with her throughout the day. She had them on her particularly during her study times and exams, and saw successfully that she was able to reduce her feelings of anxiety (La Torre, 2003).
A study on 36 female high school students showed that aromatherapy reduced stress levels, and another study indicated that bergamot (Citrus bergamia) essential oil reduced anxiety, depression, and pain (Chang & Shen, 2011).
2. Aromatherapy Supports Psychological Health
In 1998 a study was conducted on 58 cancer patients who were suffering from psychological stress in the form of tension, stress, anxiety, and fear (Kite et al.). The patients were referred to an aromatherapist who used essential oils to treat them, including lavender, chamomile, geranium, juniper, bergamot, jasmine, and rose. The patients felt an improvement in their psychological stress symptoms, and felt that their quality of life improved by 55% (Kite et al., 1998).
A study was conducted on 25 Korean women between the ages of 34 and 48 whose children had been diagnosed with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (Wu et al., 2014). Half of the women received a 40-minute massage twice a week for four weeks, for a total of eight massages, and the other half received the same massages with the addition of a mixture of 2% lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) and a 2% geranium (Pelargonium graveolens) diluted in jojoba oil. Psychological assessments showed that the women who received a massage with aromatherapy had higher and more positive psychological scores (Wu et al., 2014)
3. Aromatherapy Increases Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) Activity
Increase in PNS activity is effective in stress management since it has the opposite action in the body than Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS). The SNS is primarily responsible for driving the stress response in the body. But, as stress and anxiety reduce, SNS activity decreases and PNS activity increases. A study conducted by Komarova and Avilov indicated that candles scented with essential oils increased the parasympathetic rhythm of students (Chang & Shen, 2011). Another study indicated that lavender essential oil increased PNS activity (Chang & Shen, 2011). In 1992, 100% of patients who received a foot massage with neroli (Citrus aurantium) experienced “decrease in respiration, suggesting an increased parasympathetic response” (Buckle, 2003, p. 242).
54 elementary school teachers in Taiwan received an aromatherapy treatment once a week for two weeks. A 2% dilution of 100% bergamot essential oil in water was used in a diffuser, and the diffuser was used for ten minutes. The study results showed that bergamot essential oil reduced blood pressure, decreased heart rate, and increased PNS activity (Chang & Shen, 2011).
Liu, Lin, and Chang (2013) conducted a follow up study on a group of 29 elementary school teachers in Taiwan. All participants received two aromatherapy treatments. One was with bergamot essential oil diluted to 2%, and the other was with a synthetic essential oil with a scent similar to that of bergamot. When the teachers received treatment with pure bergamot essential oil they had a significant improvement in blood pressure and PNS activity, but when the teachers received treatment with synthetic essential oil they did not (Liu et al., 2013).
Another study on 41 Japanese female graduate and undergraduate university students aged 20 to 23 years tested bergamot (Citrus bergamia) for its ability to reduce stress and anxiety by measuring salivary cortisol levels, heart rate, and mood (Watanabe et al., 2015). When receiving rest, water vapor, and bergamot essential oil, the women experienced the greatest reduction in salivary cortisol and heart rate, indicating an increase in PNS activity (Watanabe et al., 2015, p. 46).
Studies indicated that essential oils were effective in stress management by increasing PNS activity, decreasing heart rate, reducing cortisol levels, reducing anxiety, supportive psychological health, and improving mood. Essential oils have varied effects on the body and these can aid in stress management. Essential oils could be an integral part of any stress management program through encouraged use on a regular basis (daily or weekly), or though use during moments of high stress in order to help calm the body down and prevent stress from becoming chronic. Essential oils can help reduce stress in as little as 5 to 15 minutes, but they also have beneficial effects when used on a longer-term basis. Application of essential oils can also be done through inhalation of oils from a cotton pad, inhalation of oils by placing them in a diffuser, inhalation of oils after spraying the air, or diluting the essential oils in carrier oil and applying on the body.
Buckle, J. (2003). Clinical Aromatherapy: Essential Oils In Practice (2nd ed.). London, United Kingdom: Churchill Livingstone.
Chang, K. & Shen, C. (2011). Aromatherapy benefits autonomic nervous system regulation for elementary school faculty in Taiwan. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 2011(946537), 1-7. doi:10.1155/2011/946537
Freeman, L. (2009). Mosby’s Complementary & Alternative Medicine, A Research-Based Approach (3rd ed.). St. Louis, MO: Mosby Elsevier.
Gale (2014). The Gale Encyclopedia of Alternative Medicine, (4th Ed). Farmington Hilla, MI: Gale Cengage Learning.
Hawkins, B. (2014). Aromatherapy 101- Aromatology. West Coast Institute of Aromatherapy.
Kite, S., Maher, E., Anderson, K., Young, T., Young, J., Wood, J., Howells, N., Bradburn, J., & Jackson, L. (1998). Development of an aromatherapy service at a cancer centre. Palliative Medicine, 12(3), 171-180. Retrieved from http://dx.doi.org/10.1191/026921698671135743
La Torre, M. A. (2003). Aromatherapy and the use of scents in psychotherapy. Perspectives in Psychiatric Care, 39(1), 35-37. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/200708769?accountid=158302
Liu, S. H., Lin, T. H., & Chang, K. M. (2013). The physical effects of aromatherapy in alleviating work-related stress on elementary school teachers in Taiwan. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine, 2013(853809), 1-7. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1155/2013/853809
Warrenburg, S. (2005). Effects of fragrance on emotions: moods and physiology. Chemical Senses, 30(suppl 1), i248-i249. doi:10.1093/chemse/bjh208
Watanabe, E., Kuchta, K., Kimura, M., Rauwald, H. W., Kamei, T., & Imanishi, J. (2015). Effects of bergamot (Citrus bergamia (Risso) Wright & Arn.) essential oil aromatherapy on mood states, parasympathetic nervous system activity, and salivary cortisol levels in 41 healthy females. Forschende Komplementärmedizin, 22(1), 43-49. doi:10.1159/000380989
Wu, J., Cui, Y., Yang, Y., Kang, M., Jung, S., Park, H. K., Yeun, H., Jang, W. J., Lee, S., Kwak, Y. S., & Eun, S. (2014). Modulatory effects of aromatherapy massage intervention on electroencephalogram, psychological assessments, salivary cortisol and plasma brain-derived neurotrophic factor. Complementary Therapies in Medicine, 22(3), 456-462. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.ctim.2014.04.001