Medically reviewed by Angela Sheddan, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 1/20/2022
Have you ever walked into a cute little boutique, where the perfume of a burning candle made you feel the cozy comfort of home? Or had a massage where the scent of the oil relaxed not only your muscles, but your mind, too?
That’s because our sense of smell plays an important role in the physiological effect of mood and stress. Studies have shown that olfactory stimulation (that’s a fancy way of saying when we smell something) can relate to those physical changes.
In other words, certain aromas may make you feel relaxed (and ease feelings of stress), or even spur memories that can make you feel happy. (So it would seem that pleasant scents might be nice when experiencing anxiety or symptoms of depression.)
Humans have actually used aromas for mental, spiritual and physical healing since the beginning of recorded history. So it’s no wonder that essential oils may be a useful tool in managing feelings of anxiety.
Read on to learn more about essential oils, and how they can potentially help alleviate anxiety.
Essential oils consist of concentrated plant extracts. These oils are created through mechanical pressing or distillation and keep the natural smell of the original source.
A lot of plants or flowers are needed to make essential oils. For example, just one pound of lavender oil takes about 220 pounds of lavender flowers!
There are also synthetic oils — which would smell like the real thing, but are made from chemicals, not plants. These are not considered true “essential oils.”
There are several different ways to use essential oils: They can be applied topically, ingested orally or inhaled via aromatherapy. However, because essential oils are so concentrated and strong, it’s best to only use a small amount. Additionally, do not use them too often.
It’s also recommended that essential oils should be diluted, and direct contact should be avoided. As with any new ingredient you might use on your skin, it’s wise to test a teeny sample somewhere like the inside of your arm to check for an allergic reaction.
Here’s more on how essential oils may be used:
This method is just as it sounds — applying essential oils to your skin either as a small drop or in the form of aromatherapy massage.
However, it’s important to remember to dilute the oils first. Mix them with a carrier oil (like a massage oil), or else skin irritation can occur. (One example of a carrier oil would be jojoba oil.)
While some essential oils can be ingested (like in a tea, for instance), it’s strongly recommended NOT to do this unless directed by a trained herbalist.
Essential oils are so strong, even just a little bit can burn the mucosal lining in your mouth.
Some essential oils may be toxic, too, and symptoms similar to poisoning (like seizures, drowsiness and/or vomiting) may appear as quickly as within 30 minutes or as far out as four hours after ingestion.
This method is probably the safest and most effective way to use essential oils for anxiety. When essential oils are inhaled, scent molecules go straight from the olfactory nerves to the emotional center of the brain.
And because of this direct response, certain smells can almost immediately reduce stress and anxiety levels.
Kind of makes us want to take a deep breath and say, “Ahhh.” One super-easy way to put aromatherapy into effect is to simply open the bottle and inhale.
But there are also other aromatherapy techniques, such as using an essential oil diffuser (a device that disperses particles around a room), dry evaporation (simply place a few drops on a cotton ball), and steam inhalation (put a few drops in a bowl of steaming hot water, and breathe it in).
Anxiety may cause the human body to react in all sorts of ways. For example, the heart may start beating quickly, palms can get sweaty, you may feel chest pain, or you may even feel like you are choking.
However, studies have shown that certain essential oils may counteract common anxiety symptoms.
These are the best essential oils when it comes to managing stress and anxiety:
For centuries, the scent from lavender flowers has been used to reduce anxiety and depression, and it is still a popular aromatherapy choice for stress management today.
In fact, there is growing evidence that lavender oil has beneficial effects. Interestingly, though, it’s still unclear how exactly lavender oil inhalation works to decrease anxiety.
If you’ve never seen or smelled bergamot, picture what a fruit would look and smell like if a sour orange and a lime had a baby. The essential oil is produced by rasping and cold pressing the citrus fruit’s peel.
While this citrusy scent is most commonly used in perfumes and cosmetics, bergamot essential oil has recently received renewed popularity in improving mood, and easing mild symptoms of stress-induced disorders, and anxiety.
Since ancient times, this native Iranian plant has been used to improve physical and mental health. It is said that aromatherapy with damask rose can help decrease anxiety and improve sleep conditions.
A recent study of 80 operating-room personnel experiencing the stress of the Covid-19 epidemic put damask rose essential oil to the test.
The study found that the OR personnel who inhaled the essential oil in the morning and then slept with a scented cloth by their pillow, had decreased anxiety and better sleep quality when compared to those who received the placebo in the study.
Chamomile is thought to be one of the most ancient medicinal herbs known to mankind. And chamomile oil, which is extracted from the flowers or leaves of the daisy-like plants, is thought to have soothing properties.
In fact, a 2019 study showed that chamomile significantly improved the symptoms of general anxiety disorder (GAD) after two to four weeks of treatment, although the sample size was low and there seemed to be some mixed results.
Essential oils have been used for medicinal purposes since ancient times, and they seem to be here to stay. Lavender, bergamot, damask rose, and chamomile scents are all thought to help relieve the symptoms of anxiety, but the methodology behind why some aromas have this effect is often unclear. However, studies do show that scents can cause some physiological changes.
Heads up: As noted above, when working with essential oils, always use caution, as they are super concentrated and can be toxic. The best way to enjoy them is to simply take a whiff — and relax.
While keeping some essential oils for anxiety on hand to help you feel calm can be useful, it is important to get professional help if your feelings of anxiety continue or worsen.