Depression affects about 1 in 10 Americans, and 80% of those affected aren’t getting proper treatment (1).
On the other hand, anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., reaching almost 20% of the population (2).
One of the most effective ways to help these patients manage their symptoms is aromatherapy.
Some criticize it as being “pseudoscience” but it’s actually a well-established medicine. Aromatherapy uses essential oils for anxiety as the foundation of its treatment.
In fact, the U.S. National Library of Medicine, a database of scientific research, lists over 6,000 studies that have been done on the health benefits of essential oils and that number is only growing (3).
What Is Aromatherapy?
How does aromatherapy use essential oils to relieve anxiety? Essential oils used in aromatherapy are typically extracted from various parts of plants and then distilled. The highly concentrated oils may be inhaled directly or indirectly or applied to the skin through massage, lotions, or bath salts (4).
According to Psychology Today, aromatherapy is thought to work by stimulating smell receptors in the nose, which then send messages through the nervous system, more specifically the limbic system — the part of the brain that controls basic emotions (like anger and fear) and memories (5).
Certain smells can remind you of positive memories and trigger emotional responses. In fact, nosmia—complete loss of the sense of smell—often leads to depression (6). Also, people with severe depression often show a diminished sensitivity to odors (7).
3 Calming Essential Oils for Anxiety
Most anti-anxiety and antidepressant medication can cause dependence, aggravation of symptoms as well as other negative side effects. On the other hand, essential oils for anxiety don’t have any side effects in most individuals (other than allergy symptoms). If you don’t have a diffuser, simply drink herbal teas made of the plants below for similar benefits!
Lavender is one of the most popular essential oils for anxiety. It’s also widely used in personal care items like soaps, lotions, bath products and massage oils because of its calming abilities.
Lavender has been proven to have anti-anxiety, antidepressant, mood stabilizing, sedative, and neuroprotective properties. It’s also used in the treatment of pain and tremors (8).
In fact, a 2007 study showed that lavender aromatherapy reduced serum cortisol—which plays a central role in the body’s response to stress—in healthy men (9).
It’s important to know what kind of lavender essential oil you have purchased: Lavender L.Angustifoliaa is the relaxing breed of lavender, while Lavandula X intermedia is a stimulant.
Bergamot is a variety of orange that grows primarily in Italy. The fruit is said to be too bitter to eat, but the peel is used to create bergamot oil, which is the key ingredient that gives Earl Grey tea its distinct flavor.
The authors of a 2011 Taiwanese study selected elementary school teachers, who are known to constantly work under significant stress, and used an inhalation of bergamot C. Aurantium var. Bergamia essential oil as the method of administration.
Results showed that there were significant decreases in blood pressure and heart rate as well as the activation of the parasympathetic nervous system, also known as the rest and digest system (10).
Sage is one of the basic herbs in European cooking. Not only does it have a wonderful, woody taste and smell, it also has antidepressant effects.
A controlled trial in 2013 suggested that clary sage S. Sclarea essential oil may be useful—more so than lavender Lavandula angustifolia [Mill.]—in reducing stress for female patients undergoing urodynamic assessments (12).
Sage oil can be difficult to find in natural health food stores, but you can easily order it online or grow your own plant and rub the leaves between your fingers to release their oil.
4. Valerian Root for Anxiety
Valerian is a pink-flowered plant once used in ancient Greece and Rome to cure insomnia, nervousness, trembling, and headache. It’s also one of the best essential oils for stress (13). Best of all, it’s incredibly accessible: the plant grows wild in North America, Asia, and Europe.
The medical community believes that the plant’s benefits come from its ability to boost the production of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). The chemical has a calming effect on patients suffering from anxiety. In fact, anti-anxiety medications like alprazolam (Xanax) and diazepam (Valium) work by increasing your GABA levels.
A study on 36 patients suffering from generalized anxiety disorder proved that taking 50 mg of valerian root extract 3 times a day for as little as four weeks improved anxiety. And it’s far from the only study on the herb, although others have studied slightly higher doses.
A few precautions: inhaling or ingesting large quantities of valerian can cause headaches, dizziness, drowsiness, upset stomach, and restlessness. You should also avoid using the herb in combination with alcohol, antidepressants, sleep aids, or sedatives. Pregnant and breastfeeding mothers, children under the age of 3, or anyone about to have surgery should also avoid the plant.