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 fragrant extracts taken from the roots, leaves, seeds, or flowers of medicinal plants. (1)
Aromatherapy has been used for over 6,000 years in Egypt, Greece, China, India, and the Roman Empire.
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. (4)
The US National Library of Medicine, a database of scientific research, lists thousands of studies that have been done on essential oils.
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.
As 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 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 (like anger and fear) and memories. (7)
Olfactory signals from essential oils are thought to impact brain chemical production, thereby affecting both mental and physical health. (8)
The Connection Between the Brain and the 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 deja 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 the oven, or the smell of pine trees.
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.
This kind of deja vu is associated more strongly with your sense of smell than any of your other senses.
It’s this connection between smell and your brain that may be the underlying reason aromatherapy works as a useful emotional healing tool.
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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 effective for calming your anxious mind.
There are dozens of essential oils used for stress relief and 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 the most widely used essential oil.
If you try only one essential oil, make it lavender.
Lavender is so versatile that I like to 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.
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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.
It’s a serious and effective remedy for anxiety.
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Research has found lavender to have anti-anxiety, antidepressant, mood stabilizing, sedative, and neuroprotective properties. (9)
It works by calming your autonomic nervous system and altering brainwave activity. (10)
Lavender is one of the few essential oils that can be taken internally, provided you’re using a “food grade” oil.
One study found that oral lavender oil capsules worked just as well as prescription tranquilizers to relieve generalized anxiety disorder, but without the side effects and risk of addiction. (11)
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 for anxiety. (12)
Most citrus-based aromatherapy oils are good for improving mood, but bergamot is a standout for depression. (13)
Related on Be Brain Fit —
The Best, Evidence-Based Essential Oils for Depression
Citrus fragrances can restore homeostatic balance subsequent to stress and has been shown to be more effective than antidepressants. (14)
Unlike lavender, bergamot should not be applied to the skin in its undiluted form.
Many citrus-based essential oils, including bergamot, can increase photosensitivity. (15)
So don’t apply it topically before spending time in the sun.
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3. Calming, Gentle Chamomile
You are probably familiar with chamomile as a relaxing herbal tea for insomnia and stress relief. (16)
But you may not be as familiar with it as an essential oil.
There are many species of chamomile.
The two most popular types of chamomile used in aromatherapy are:
- German or wild chamomile (Matricaria recutita)
- Roman or English chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile)
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Both offer similar health benefits, but Roman chamomile is considered somewhat more calming.
Chamomile essential oil is so gentle that it’s even safe to use with irritable babies (in a very diluted concentration).
Besides treating anxiety and insomnia, it’s commonly used for stress-related skin conditions like eczema.
4. Jasmine — “Nature’s Xanax”
Anti-anxiety drugs such as Xanax, Valium, and Ativan work by enhancing activity of the brain chemical GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid). (17)
GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter that slows brain activity, enabling you to relax.
Researchers found that jasmine essential oil increased GABA and worked better at reducing anxiety than prescription anti-anxiety drugs, with none of the side effects. (18)
Amazingly, over 2 million 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.
If you try jasmine, be forewarned that many jasmine essential oils are pre-diluted with carrier oils or are chemically synthesized.
Make sure that the label states “jasmine absolute” and is of the species Jasminum officinale or Jasminum grandiflorum.
If it doesn’t, you won’t be getting genuine, pure jasmine essential oil.
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:
- angelica (Angelica archangelica)
- basil (Ocimum basilicum)
- cedarwood (Cedrus atlantica)
- clary sage (Salvia sclarea)
- frankincense (Boswellia carterii)
- geranium (Pelargonium graveolens)
- grapefruit (Citrus paradisi)
- lemon (Citrus limon)
- lime (Citrus latifolia)
- neroli (Citrus aurantium)
- orange (Citrus sinensis)
- peppermint (Mentha piperita)
- rose (Rosa damascena)
- rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)
- sandalwood (Santalum album)
- 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.
There are a surprising 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.
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, you can buy ultrasonic, nebulizing, humidifying, and/or ionizing electronic diffusers.
The cost of these diffusers varies widely but can run into the hundreds of dollars.
Essential oils are extremely concentrated.
It takes a whopping 220 pounds of lavender flowers to make 1 pound of lavender essential oil! (19)
Consequently, they usually are not applied directly to the skin.
Instead, they are diluted in a carrier oil — a natural vegetable-based oil such as almond, jojoba, or apricot kernel.
A few drops can be added to a carrier oil or lotion and rubbed into your 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 stand-by is a mix of lavender and chamomile by Aura Cacia called “Chill Pill.”)
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.
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, including instructions for your own lavender-chamomile anti-anxiety blend.
Using Aromatherapy Safely
Essential oils are “all natural” but you still have to take 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 in 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 has 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.
Aromatherapy for Anxiety: Take the Next Step
Aromatherapy has been used as a healing technique for thousands of years and is especially good for reducing stress and anxiety.
When compared to other anti-anxiety therapies, aromatherapy stands out as a safe, pleasant, and economical remedy for natural anxiety relief.