Have you ever caught a waft of a particular scent that has immediately triggered a memory of a super-vivid moment from your past – complete with the very emotions you experienced at the time? It could be the smell of a particular food that takes you straight back to a happy (or sad!) childhood family holiday, the fragrance of a certain talcum powder or perfume that evokes the warm memory of your grandmother and feelings of love and protection or even the scent of fresh pencil shavings that may remind you of your first anxiety-ridden day of school.
Our sense of smell is kinda special in that it is linked directly to the limbic system of our brains – that’s nerd-speak for the brain-region in which we both store memories and process emotions. Aromas can therefore very profoundly affect our moods and feelings and bring long-buried memories to the surface of our awareness.
For this reason, aromatherapy is particularly useful for issues associated with stress and mental health. As well as this direct affect on the limbic system of the brain, therapeutic-grade essential oils also contain a huge array of natural compounds that are able to enter the blood stream through the skin or through inhalation via the lungs – making them potent medicinal agents.
With stress, anxiety and depression reaching epidemic proportions and the dependence on addictive and side-effect ridden pharmaceutical drugs on the rise, it’s important to seek out scientifically-proven natural alternatives – and while aromatherapy may not be a one-stop panacea, it certainly has been proven to significantly reduce these symptoms.
As a naturopath, I studied aromatherapy in my first year of college and had lots of fun experimenting with different essential oils, below are 5 of my favourites for soothing the nervous system and elevating mood:
Latin name: Citrus aurantium (L.) var. bergamia
All of the citrus family are known to be mood-boosters with light, crisp and refreshing scents, but bergamot – a hybrid between a sour orange and lemon – is particularly good for depression, fatigue and poor concentration. In a blend, it helps to harmonise other fragrances and lift some of the heavier-smelling oils such as frankincense and ylang ylang.
Bergamot has also been clinically trialled on rats and was found to significantly reduce anxiety.
Latin name: Lavandula angustifolia
A very popular oil and for good reason – it has a wide range of benefits, is backed by lots of scientific data and has a very sweet but balanced smell that does not overpower.
3. Clary Sage
Latin name: Salvia sclarea
While not as well-known as lavender, clary sage is a favourite among professional aromatherapists for its actions as a hormonal balancer and nerve tonic. A 2010 study showed clary sage may be even more effective at reducing anxiety in women than lavender.
It’s ability to balance women’s hormones makes it especially useful for any hormone-related stress, anxiety or depression such as PMS, menopause and post-natal depression.
Latin name: Jasminum officinale
Not being a coffee drinker, I discovered the mood-boosting effects of jasmine by accident when I would drink copious amounts of jasmine tea in cafes with friends during college and would often feel unexplainably buoyant and extra chatty! After studying the properties of this plant, I learned that it does indeed have strong anti-depressant effects, being able to stimulate the release of serotonin in the brain.
Known as the “queen of the night” to Middle Eastern poets, this beautiful flower has a strong, sweet, sensual and heady fragrance and needs to be balanced carefully in blends.
Latin name: Boswellia carteri or Boswellia sacra
Steeped in history, frankincense is a resin that was one of the gifts presented to baby Jesus by the 3 wise men in the bible, and is used extensively in the Middle East and North Africa. I’ve always loved the fragrance and remember buying some as a gift for a Kashmiri friend some years ago and making a terrible faux pas – in his culture they only used it at funerals when someone dies!
The aroma of frankincense is sweet, warm and earthy and is particularly good for grounding, calming and focusing when feeling scattered, anxious or nervous.
How to Use Essential Oils
When purchasing essential oils, be sure to source pure, therapeutic-grade, 100% essential oils from a reputable company and steer clear from “perfume” or “fragrant” oils.
You may want to just use one or two oils from the list above, or make a blend from several or all of them. Some ways to use the oils are:
- Get a diffuser (as opposed to an oil burner which can overheat and damage the compounds in the oils) and diffuse them into the air of your home or workplace. Diffusing in your room at night is particularly good for sleep problems.
- Sprinkle a few drops into the palms of your hands and rub them together and then inhale slowly for several minutes.
- Put a few drops in a bowl of hot (not boiling) water and cover your head with a towel and inhale the vapour.
- Rub a few drops onto your stomach, the soles of your feet or behind your ears (always do a patch test first and consult with a GP if you are pregnant or breastfeeding).
- Sprinkle a few drops in a warm bath for an aromatherapy bath. Adding epsom salts as well is very good for stress and anxiety.
- Add a few drops to your favourite moisturising lotion or base oil for an aromatherapy body lotion.
- Add a couple of drops to a tissue or cotton wool ball and place it in your car.
So there you have it – 5 essential oils to help with stress, anxiety and depression and several easy ways to use them. Now, I would love to hear from you…in the comments section below, tell me: have you used essential oils before? Do you have a favourite oil? If you are new to aromatherapy, do you plan on giving it a go?
And, if you know just one person who may be suffering from stress, anxiety or depression then please share this article with them too – you never know how much it could help!