Essential oils as used in aromatherapy are an effective, side effect-free way to treat anxiety. Learn how to use them to reduce stress and depression too.
Essential oils may bring to mind scented candles and spa massages.
They may sound “new age” but, in fact, they are ancient.
They’ve been used for over 6,000 years in Egypt, Greece, China, India and the Roman Empire and are frequently mentioned in the Bible.
The US National Library of Medicine, a database of scientific research, lists thousands of studies that have been done on essential oils. (3)
If you are looking for a natural, side effect-free way to address anxiety, here’s why essentials oils are definitely worth considering.
How Essential Oils Affect the Brain
Aromatherapy is a healing technique that uses essential oils — concentrated fragrant extracts taken from the roots, leaves, seeds, or flowers of medicinal plants. (6)
Essential oils are extremely concentrated.
It takes a whopping 250 pounds of lavender flowers to make 1 pound of lavender essential oil. (7)
It’s not completely understood how essential oils work, but they seem to work by tapping 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. (8)
Olfactory signals from essential oils are thought to impact brain chemical production, thereby affecting both mental and physical health. (9)
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.
And 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 Essential Oils for Anxiety
Now that you have an idea of how they work, let’s take a look at which essential oils are the most effective for calming the anxious mind.
There are dozens of essential oils that are used for stress relief and anxiety.
If you are new to aromatherapy, I don’t want to overwhelm you!
So I’ve narrowed the list down to my three personal favorites for their proven effectiveness, safety, and versatility.
Versatile Lavender, the Most Popular Essential Oil
Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) is the most studied and the most widely used essential oil. (10)
Lavender is so versatile I like to call it the “Swiss army knife” of essential oils — there are few things it isn’t good for!
It’s also one of the most gentle essential oils and is safe to apply to the skin directly. (11)
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.
It’s a serious and effective remedy for anxiety.
Related on Be Brain Fit —
The Best, Evidence-Based Essential Oils for Depression
Research has found lavender to have anti-anxiety, antidepressant, mood stabilizing, sedative, and neuroprotective properties. (12)
Unlike most essential oils, lavender can be taken internally, provided you are using “food grade” oil.
One study found that when compared to prescription tranquilizers, oral lavender oil capsules worked just as well to relieve generalized anxiety disorder, but without the side effects and risk of addiction. (13)
If you try only one essential oil, make it lavender.
Lavender Shopping Tip
There are many species of lavender and not all promote relaxation.
When buying lavender essential oil, look for one that lists Lavandula angustifolia on the label. (14)
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 ingredient in Earl Grey tea.
Bergamot essential oil has been proven as effective as Valium for anxiety. (15)
Related on Be Brain Fit —
Meditation for Anxiety: Proven Way to Calm Your Mind
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Most citrus-based essential oils are good for improving mood, but bergamot is a standout for depression. (16)
Unlike lavender, bergamot should not be applied to the skin in its undiluted form.
So don’t apply topically before spending time in the sun.
Calming Gentle Chamomile
You probably are familiar with chamomile as a relaxing herbal tea for insomnia and stress relief. (18)
But you may not be as familiar with chamomile as a relaxing essential oil.
There are many species of chamomile. (19)
The two most popular types of chamomile used as essential oils are:
- German or wild chamomile (Matricaria recutita)
- Roman or English chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile)
Chamomile essential oil is so gentle 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.
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Other Essential Oils for Anxiety, Stress, and Depression
Lavender, bergamot, and chamomile aren’t the only essential oils to consider for stress, anxiety, or depression.
- angelica (Angelica archangelica)
- basil (Ocimum basilicum)
- cedarwood (Cedrus atlantica)
- clary sage (Salvia sclarea)
- frankincense (Boswellia carterii)
- geranium (Pelargonium graveolens)
- grapefruit (Citrus paradisi)
- jasmine (Jasminum officinale)
- 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 Essential Oils for Anxiety Relief
Essential oils are usually sold in colored glass bottles in 1/2 ounce or 10 ml sizes.
Unlike herbal remedies for anxiety, essential oils are not generally taken internally.
Instead they are inhaled or applied to the skin.
And since only a few drops are needed those tiny bottles go a l-o-n-g way!
If you’ve got a bottle of essential oil, but aren’t sure what to do with it, here are some time-honored ways to get the most out of it.
How to Apply Essential Oils Topically
Since essential oils are extremely concentrated, they usually are not applied directly to the skin.
Instead they are diluted into what is known as a carrier oil.
Carrier oils are natural vegetable-based oils — definitely not mineral-based baby oil.
My favorites are almond oil, jojoba oil, and apricot kernel oil.
A few drops can be added to the 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 aromatherapy balms, mists, and roll-ons that contain anti-anxiety ingredients that you can conveniently use on the go.
You can rub on your temples or wrist, or dab under your nose whenever you need a little extra stress relief.
How to Inhale Essential Oils
Another way to get the benefits of essential oils is to disperse them into the air.
You can add 1-2 drops into a pan of hot water and breathe in.
You can put a few drops in a spray bottle with water and spray into the air.
There’s a wide range of essential oil diffuser styles you can try.
A diffuser can be as simple as putting a drop of oil on a cotton ball or using diffuser reeds.
On the other end of the spectrum there are ultrasonic humidifying and ionizing electronic diffusers.
Cooking with Essential Oils
While you should never take essential oils internally in their undiluted form, if you buy “food grade” essential oils you can actually incorporate them into your recipes.
If this idea intrigues you, check out these tips for cooking with essential oils.
Be sure to try the healthy honey-lavender lemonade recipe for a delicious way to stay cool and calm.
Note that not all essential oils are safe to ingest.
You’ll find a list of essential oils FDA-approved for internal use here.
How to Create Your Own Essential Oil Blends
Lastly, when using essential oils, feel free to mix and match.
Unlike herbal remedies where certain ingredients should not be taken together (e.g., 5-HTP and St. John’s wort), with essential oils you can mix and match to your heart’s content.
You can buy essential oil proprietary blends for anxiety or stress.
They usually have soothing names like “Destress,” “Relaxation,” “Serenity” or “Calm.”
(I use a pre-blended mix of lavender and chamomile by Aura Cacia called “Chill Pill.”)
When mixing your own essential oil 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 blending essential oils, I recommend reading Blending 101: The Art of Pairing Essential Oils Drop by Drop.
There you’ll find instructions on how to create perfect essential oil blends including instructions for your own lavender-chamomile anti-anxiety blend.
Using Essential Oils Safely
Essential oils are “all natural” but you still have to take some common sense precautions while using them.
Not all essential oils are completely safe all of the time.
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, they should not be applied to the skin directly.
You should never put them in your eyes (yes, some people do that!) or consume them internally in their undiluted form.
The Natural Association of Holistic Aromatherapy has put together a comprehensive safety sheet.
If you are new to essential oils, I urge you to check it out.
Essential Oils for Anxiety: Take the Next Step
Essential oils have been used for their relaxing properties for thousands of years.
It is only now that science is beginning to understand how they work.
When compared to other anti-anxiety therapies, essential oils stand out as safe, pleasant, and economical remedies for natural anxiety relief.