The Best Aromatherapy Essential Oils for Anxiety

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Last updated October 10, 2023.
Edited and medically reviewed by Patrick Alban, DC. Written by Deane Alban.

Essential oils used in aromatherapy are an effective, side effect-free way to treat anxiety. Learn how to use them to reduce stress and depression too.

Aromatherapy is a healing technique that uses essential oils — extremely concentrated fragrances extracted from the roots, leaves, seeds, or flowers of medicinal plants.

Aromatherapy has been used for over 6,000 years in Egypt, Greece, China, India, and the Roman Empire.

While it may sound like a lightweight remedy, aromatherapy is recommended by such prestigious organizations as Mayo Clinic, Cleveland Clinic, UCLA Health, Johns Hopkins Medicine, and the National Cancer Institute

Vanderbilt University Medical Center has published an extensive list of hospitals and medical centers that use essential oils for treating stress, anxiety, insomnia, and pain in both patients and staff. 

The US National Library of Medicine, a database of scientific research, lists thousands of studies that have been done on essential oils.

Aromatherapy has become so mainstream, that its use is even extolled in business magazines as a “secret weapon” for a healthy and happy workforce. 

The first-line medical treatment for anxiety is anti-anxiety medications.

These drugs come with a long list of side effects, including a strong predilection to addiction.

If you are looking for a natural way to address anxiety, here’s why aromatherapy is worth considering.

How Aromatherapy Works

It’s not completely understood how aromatherapy works, but it seems that essential oils tap into the powerful relationship between our sense of smell and the brain.

Scent receptors in the nose send chemical messages by way of the olfactory nerve to the limbic system, a primitive area of the brain that deals with basic emotions (e.g., anger, fear) and memories. 

Olfactory signals from essential oils are thought to impact brain chemical production, thereby affecting both mental and physical health. 

The Connection Between the Brain and Our Sense of Smell

Here’s a real-life example of how the surprisingly strong connection between smell, emotion, and memory works.

You’ve probably experienced “olfactory déjà vu,” where a smell elicits a powerful memory and corresponding emotion.

The trigger can be any smell that’s associated with an emotionally charged memory — your dad’s aftershave, cookies in Grandma’s oven, or the smell of pine trees in the woods near your childhood home.

illustration of person remembering the smell of flowers
Olfactory déjà vu: Smells trigger memories and emotions. (Image courtesy of The New York Times)

For a moment, you’re transported back in time.

You may be surprised at the clarity of your memory.

You may actually experience the same emotions you felt at that time.

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This kind of déjà vu is associated more strongly with our sense of smell than with any of our other senses.

It’s this connection between smell and the brain that may be the underlying reason aromatherapy is a useful emotional healing tool.

The Best Aromatherapy Essential Oils for Anxiety

To use aromatherapy as a remedy, the first thing to do is choose an essential oil that’s been found to be effective for calming anxiety.

There are dozens of essential oils used for stress relief and anxiety.

" Bergamot essential oil has been proven as effective as Valium (diazepam) for anxiety. 

So if you are new to aromatherapy, how do you know which one to choose?

The following essential oils have been proven to be effective, very safe, and versatile. 

1. Versatile Lavender

Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) is the most studied and most widely used essential oil.

If you try only one essential oil, make it lavender.

Lavender is so versatile that I call it the “Swiss army knife” of essential oils; there are few things it can’t do!

It’s also one of the most gentle essential oils and is safe to apply to the skin directly.

Lavender is widely appreciated for its ability to calm and relax and is often included in personal care items, such as soap, lotions, shampoos, and massage oils.

A few drops of lavender oil on your wrist or on a cotton ball tucked into your pillow can help you sleep.

But lavender isn’t just about relaxing baths and massages.

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It’s a serious and effective remedy for anxiety.

Research has found that lavender has anti-anxiety, antidepressant, mood-stabilizing, sedative, and neuroprotective properties. 

It works by calming the autonomic nervous system and altering brainwave activity. 

Lavender is one of the few essential oils that can be taken internally, provided you use a food grade oil.

According to one study, oral lavender oil capsules work just as well as prescription tranquilizers to relieve generalized anxiety disorder, but without the side effects and risk of addiction. 

Lavender Essential Oil Shopping Tip

There are many species of lavender and not all promote relaxation equally.

When buying lavender essential oil, look for one that lists Lavandula angustifolia on the label.

2. Uplifting Bergamot for Anxiety and Depression

Bergamot (Citrus bergamia) is a type of orange grown mainly in Italy.

The fruit is not considered edible, but bergamot essential oil is extracted from its skin.

You may be familiar with bergamot as the unique flavoring ingredient in Earl Grey tea.

Bergamot essential oil has been proven as effective as Valium (diazepam) for anxiety. 

Most citrus-based aromatherapy oils are good for improving mood, but bergamot is a standout for depression

Bergamot and other citrus fragrances can undo the effects of stress.

They can help restore homeostatic balance and have been shown to be more effective than antidepressants. 

Unlike lavender, bergamot should not be applied to the skin in its undiluted form.

Many citrus-based essential oils, including bergamot, can increase photosensitivity, so don’t apply them topically before spending time in the sun. 

3. Calming, Gentle Chamomile

Chamomile is best known as a relaxing herbal tea for insomnia and stress relief.

But it is not as well known as an essential oil.

There are many species of chamomile.

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The two most popular types of chamomile used in aromatherapy are:

  • German or wild chamomile (Matricaria recutita)
  • Roman or English chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile)

Both offer similar health benefits, but Roman chamomile is considered somewhat more calming.

Chamomile essential oil is so gentle that when used in a very diluted concentration, it’s safe to give to irritable babies.

Besides treating anxiety and insomnia, chamomile is commonly used topically for stress-related skin conditions such as eczema.

4. Jasmine — “Nature’s Xanax”

Anti-anxiety drugs such as Xanax, Valium, and Ativan work by enhancing the activity of the brain chemical GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid). 

GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter that slows brain activity, promoting relaxation.

Researchers found that jasmine lactone, a component of jasmine (Jasminum officinale or Jasminum grandiflorum) essential oil, increases GABA.

Jasmine has also been found to reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol

Amazingly, perfumeries report that millions of flowers must be gathered to produce one pound of pure jasmine essential oil.

This makes it one of the most expensive essential oils and also one of the hardest to find.

When shopping, you’ll find 3 kinds of jasmine essential oil — synthesized, diluted, and pure. 

The cheapest are chemically synthesized.

Avoid these since there is no guarantee that they will provide any mental health benefits. 

Many jasmine essential oils are pre-diluted with carrier oils and are an acceptable substitute for pure jasmine oil. 

You’ll know pure jasmine essential oil when you see it because it is very expensive, costing much more than most other essential oils.  

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Other Aromatherapy Oils for Anxiety, Stress, and Depression

Lavender, bergamot, chamomile, and jasmine may be the only essential oils you’ll ever need for anxiety relief, but they aren’t the only essential oils used for stress, anxiety, or depression.

Here are some other essential oils used in aromatherapy for anxiety:

  • basil (Ocimum basilicum)
  • cedarwood (Cedrus atlantica)
  • clary sage (Salvia sclarea)
  • frankincense (Boswellia carterii)
  • geranium (Pelargonium graveolens)
  • grapefruit (Citrus paradisi)
  • lemon (Citrus limon)
  • lemon verbena (Aloysia citriodora)
  • lime (Citrus latifolia)
  • neroli (Citrus aurantium)
  • sweet orange (Citrus sinensis)
  • patchouli (Pogostemon cablin)
  • rose (Rosa damascena)
  • rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)
  • sandalwood (Santalum album)
  • sweet marjoram (Origanum majorana)
  • thyme (Thymus vulgaris)
  • vetiver (Vetiveria zizanioides)
  • ylang ylang (Cananga odorata)

How to Use Aromatherapy for Anxiety Relief

Once you’ve got your essential oil in hand, the next step is learning how to use it.

Unlike herbal remedies, essential oils are not generally taken internally.

Instead, they are inhaled or applied to the skin.

Aromatherapy Inhalation

There are a number of ways to breathe in the healing vapors of essential oils.

Let’s start with the most simple (and inexpensive) and work our way up to the more complex (and expensive).

Most simply, put a drop of oil on a cotton ball and breathe in.

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You can put this by your pillow to help you sleep.

Or you can add 1-2 drops to a pan of hot water and breathe in.

You can also buy inexpensive diffuser reeds or refillable aromatherapy inhalers.

There is aromatherapy jewelry with porous surfaces that absorb essential oils.

On the other end of the cost spectrum are ultrasonic, nebulizing, humidifying, and/or ionizing electronic diffusers.

The cost of these diffusers varies widely but can run into the hundreds of dollars.

Topical Aromatherapy

Essential oils are extremely concentrated.

For example, it takes a whopping 220 pounds of lavender flowers to make 1 pound of lavender essential oil.

Consequently, they usually are not applied directly to the skin.

Instead, dilute them in a carrier oil — a natural vegetable-based oil — such as almond, jojoba, or apricot kernel oil.

A few drops can be added to a carrier oil or lotion and rubbed into the skin.

You can add a few drops to a bath or into a tub to soak your feet.

There are refillable roll-on bottles that you can conveniently and discreetly use on the go whenever you need a little stress relief.

Create Your Own Anti-Anxiety Aromatherapy Blends

Unlike herbal remedies where certain ingredients should not be taken together (e.g., 5-HTP and St. John’s wort), essential oils can be safely mixed and matched.

You can buy proprietary aromatherapy blends for anxiety or stress.

They usually have soothing names like “Destress,” “Relaxation,” “Serenity,” or “Calm.”

My personal favorite is Aura Cacia’s “Chill Pill” which contains a blend of lavender, chamomile, sweet orange, basil, peppermint, and patchouli.

But you might enjoy making your own aromatherapy blends.

You can hardly go wrong.

In fact, mixing essential oils often increases their effectiveness by allowing them to work synergistically.

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To learn more about making your own aromatherapy blends, check out Blending 101: The Art of Pairing Essential Oils Drop by Drop.

You’ll find instructions on how to create the perfect essential oil blends for you.

Using Aromatherapy Safely

Essential oils are “all natural,” but you must still exercise some common-sense precautions when using them.

Essential oils should be kept away from children and pets.

There are some essential oils that should be avoided if you’re pregnant.

With a few exceptions like lavender, essential oils should not be applied to the skin directly but should be diluted with a carrier oil first.

You should never put them in your eyes (yes, some people have done that!) or consume them internally in their undiluted form.

The National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy has published a comprehensive safety sheet.

If you are new to using aromatherapy or essential oils, I urge you to check it out.

And finally, avoid the latest aromatherapy trend — vaping essential oils.

The safety and effectiveness of this delivery system have not yet been determined.

Note: While aromatherapy can be a useful adjunctive therapy, it is not intended to replace standard medical care. Talk to your doctor before changing your dosage or discontinuing any medications you currently take. 

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