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Essential Oils for Anxiety

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In a few days, the holiday season will begin with all the associated frenetic activity.  It is almost a new year as well.  It’s the time of year that gives us the opportunity to review where we’ve been, what’s happened to us, and where we would like to go from here. With the changing nature of our daily lives and lifestyle habits, feelings of anxiety are commonplace.  However, it is possible that using essential oils for anxiety could find a place in alleviating or lessening the effects of that anxiety.

Why Do People Use Essential Oils?

Many people are describing themselves as feeling like they are on the brink of either mental or physical collapse due to lifestyle choices and stressors.  Unprecedented amounts of uncontrollable irritability, explosive anger, depression, anxiety, chronic fatigue, insomnia, and unexplained brain fog are being described by people in the very prime of life. 

As nightfall is no longer synonymous with the end of a day of work. Sleep and rest cycles protected by nightfall were now altered. Melatonin, a hormone that is responsible for signaling a natural sleep period, is disrupted by artificial light because the body interprets the lighting we use as sunlight. According to Dr. Christopher Gillin, a psychiatrist and professor at the University of San Diego, two generations ago people were sleeping 90 minutes more than a person today, resulting in excessive daytime sleepiness that interferes with day to day activities.

The impact of the use of television, cell phones, computers and computer gaming replacing normal socialization now accounts for social isolation impacting health and behavior into adulthood. Social isolation tends to persist throughout life with the longer an individual is isolated, the less healthy and more anxious they become.  Social isolation and increased work hours are causing difficulty with managing home life, relationships with significant others, strained family relationships and weariness.  The balance between work and leisure is resulting in individuals having to exert more personal discipline to preserve a sane lifestyle.

The difference in brain activity is shown for a subject that is calm (left) and a subject that is stressed (right). 

Chronic stress affects the brain, immune regulation, memory and ability to think. It’s been clinically proven that chronic stress causes brain atrophy (due to maladaptive responses of chronically elevated levels of adrenal steroids) and individuals are beginning to reach a tipping point in which the resiliency of the body is overcome and degradation of certain functions begins to occur…especially in the areas of posttraumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and depression.  Some individuals may need to find ways to address even “normal” and healthy levels of stress hormones to function due to individual abilities to cope and their life experiences.

Since virtually every organ is affected by abnormal levels of stress, the coping behavior of those affected should at a minimum include proper sleep, daily relaxation, socialization, and a healthy diet.  Ronald Hoffman, MD, practicing for over 30 years in New York City and an internationally recognized expert in integrative medicine decided to investigate the clinical efficacy research on the effectiveness of antidepressants and drugs for anxiety published by major pharmaceutical companies.  He found only 44% of patients reported any improvement!

Even more disturbing, a 2008 study published by the American Medical Association, concluded that anxiety left untreated can impair key areas of the brain and cause the very symptoms patients are trying to avoid. Essential oils can provide a valuable adjunct in enabling an individual to relax and obtain a more restful sleep.

How to Use Essential Oils for Anxiety

Essential oils, composed of a large array of chemical components found in plants, are volatile liquid substances extracted from aromatic plant material by steam distillation or mechanical expression. (Essential oils produced with the aid of chemical solvents are not considered true essential oils).

Essential oils include monoterpenes, esters, aldehydes, ketones, alcohols, phenols, and oxides, which produce characteristic odors. Each essential oil contains varying amounts of each of these compounds which give an essential oil its particular fragrance and therapeutic characteristics. Plant species may have different chemical compositions because of variations of subspecies, genetic variation or growth conditions which produce different chemical compositions.

In the medical community, the mechanism by which essential oils work is still debated; however, their effectiveness may be due to a relationship between smell and emotional pathways in the brain. Scent receptors in the nose send chemical messages via the olfactory nerve to the limbic system which deals with basic emotions, including anger and fear, and memories. Researchers have shown olfactory signals from essential oils are thought to impact brain chemical production, thereby affecting both mental and physical health.

Aromatherapy (the therapeutic use of essential oils) might have health benefits, including: 

  • Relief from anxiety and depression
  • Improved quality of life, particularly for people with chronic health conditions
  • Improved sleep
  • Improve quality of life for people with dementia

Essential oils used in aromatherapy are typically extracted from the leaves, flowers, bark, stems, and roots 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. Aromatherapy has a low toxicity profile (meaning it is generally very safe) when administered by inhalation or diluted application to the skin.

Research shows sedative and stimulant effects of specific essential oils as well as positive effects on behavior and the immune system. Most clinical trials have investigated aromatherapy primarily in the treatment of stress and anxiety in patients with critical illnesses or in other hospitalized patients with positive improvement in anxiety and depression documented. As a result, there is sufficient medical proof that essential oils may be helpful in the treatment of anxiety and depression when used with other complementary treatments such as massage, acupuncture and standard treatments for symptom management.

It is important to note that essential oils are not subject to approval or regulation by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration unless there is a claim for the treatment of specific diseases.

To use essential oils for anxiety, the oils may be diffused into the air and inhaled or absorbed into the blood stream through the skin. There are many diffusers on the market for purchase or you can add oils to a bowl of hot water and inhale the steam.  Roller ball bottles allow an individual to roll the oil onto the skin or inhale the aroma directly from the bottle. Warm baths, with or without the addition of Epsom or sea salts, with several drops of essential oil added, are also beneficial.   The latest research is showing that aromatherapy massage seems to be more efficacious than inhalation aromatherapy to alleviate depressive symptoms. However, inhalation aromatherapy also showed to be effective, but further studies will be needed to have more conclusive evidence.

As an adjunct to essential oils, a new technology has emerged called the Dodow.  It is a metronome with a light system that can teach you how to fall asleep naturally!  When assisted with calming essential oils, sleep can occur within minutes despite troubled thoughts, stress, chronic insomnia, and restlessness.

Below are some examples of aromatherapy and essential oil uses.


Lavender is clinically proven to be effective for its calming, anti-anxiety, relaxing effect. It helps with restlessness, panic attacks, and general nervous tension.  When used with tea tree oil it enhances restful sleep and when combined with rose oil reduces menstrual pain.

  • How to use: Create a lavender bath by combining several drops of lavender oil with a teaspoon of carrier oil or an unscented bath gel. Stir the mixture into warm bathwater just before entering.

Rose Oil

Damask rose is a native Iranian plant whose water has been used to improve physical and mental health since ancient times. Studies have shown it can relieve thirst, stop bladder bleeding, and enhance digestion. It also has antispasmodic and hematopoietic effects. The damask rose can also be used to treat anxiety and depression.  Rose oil is the second most popular essential oil after lavender for alleviating these symptoms as well as reducing panic attacks.

  • How to use: Soak feet in a tub filled with warm water and diluted rose essential oil. You can also add rose oil to your favorite non-scented moisturizer and massage into skin.


Chamomile tea is one of the world’s most popular herbal teas with almost a million cups are consumed every day. Chamomile whole plant is used for making herb beers and used as a bath additive, recommended for soothing ano-genital inflammation. Inhalation of the vaporized essential oils derived from chamomile flowers is recommended to relieve anxiety, general depression. The peaceful, calming scent provides a range of benefits from inner harmony to decreasing irritability, overthinking, anxiety, and worry. People sensitive to ragweed and chrysanthemums are more prone to develop contact allergies to chamomile.

  • How to use: Massage diluted chamomile oil into your skin or add it to a warm bath.


Bergamot is a hybrid of bitter orange and lemon and the oil is extracted from the rind or peel of the fruit. Bergamot essential oil has a sweet citrusy scent and is widely employed in aromatherapy and found new popularity in improving mood and mild symptoms of stress-induced disorders and allowing for rapid sleep start. Aromatherapy massage has also been shown to relieve symptoms of anxiety in patients with cancer. In combination with other essential oils, bergamot has shown promising results in treating anxiety and stress, depression, pain relief, and blood pressure/heart rate reduction. 

  • How to use: Place a few drops of bergamot oil onto a cotton ball or handkerchief. Inhale the aroma two to three times to help relieve anxiety.  Note:  Bergamot can cause sun sensitivity if applied before going into the sun.

Sweet Basil

Sweet basil essential oil is thought to help calm the mind and relieve stress. The phenolic compounds in sweet basil oil helped relieve anxiety and were found to be less sedating than the anxiety medication diazepam.

  • How to use: Add several drops of sweet basil oil to a room diffuser.

Ylang Ylang

Ylang Ylang has a romantic, flora aroma that consists of several components and can be used to treat anxiety and depression because it has an uplifting effect. Ylang ylang oil (Cananga odorata) caused research subjects to be more and more relaxed than subjects in the control group. These findings are likely to represent a relaxing effect of the ylang ylang oil and provide some evidence for the use of ylang ylang oil in aromatherapy causing relief of depression and stress. According to a 2006 study on nurses, inhaling a blend of ylang ylang, lavender, and bergamot lowered stress and anxiety levels, blood pressure, heart rate, and serum cortisol.

  • How to Use: Because of its intense scent, ylang ylang can be added to a moisturizing cream or a few drops placed in a warm bath.

Clary Sage

Clary sage is a woody, herbal odor. Due to its calming abilities, it’s often used as an aphrodisiac. According to research, clary sage can ease tension and help control cortisol (stress hormone) levels in women known to increase the risk of anxiety and depression.

  • How to use: Inhale clary sage oil directly when you feel anxious, or massage the diluted oil into the skin.


An aromatic resin, Frankincense, also known as “olibanum”, can be used to treat depression and anxiety due to its calming effect. An aromatherapy hand massage using a blend of frankincense, lavender, and bergamot improved anxiety, depression, and pain in people with terminal cancer.

  • How to use: Massage diluted frankincense oil onto your hands or feet. You can also add frankincense to a diffuser.


Jasmine oil has a beautifully relaxing floral scent. Inhaling jasmine oil can promote a sense of well-being and romance. Unlike some other essential oils used for anxiety, jasmine oil is thought to calm the nervous system without causing sleepiness.

  • How to use: Inhale jasmine oil directly from the bottle or allow the scent to fill the room through a diffuser.

Other Aromatherapy and Essential Oil Uses

Other essential oils you may wish to investigate include:

  • Geranium, with an uplifting scent, can help aid and release negative tension, emotion, and memories.
  • Marjoram has a scent that is uplifting to the mind.
  • Orange is elevating and brings the mind joy and peace. Citrus essential oils boost immunity, and relaxation, and reduce depression.
  • Valerian is grounding, balances emotions, and helps with relaxation.
  • Sandalwood is a calming, balancing essential oil, good for chronic anxiety and stress.
  • Neroli relieves anxiety, especially in cases of shock and severe stress.
  • Patchouli balances emotions and encourages positive feelings.

*These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA and are not intended to diagnose, treat, or prevent any disease.

Using Essential Oils Safely

The very first step that you must take before using an essential oil topically is to conduct a patch test. To do this, apply a diluted version of the essential oil on the inner part of your elbow; cover it for twenty-four hours to see if any allergic reactions form. Signs of allergic reactions may include rashes, swelling, or itching. Only use the oil if you do not develop an adverse effect. Avoid use if pregnant or breastfeeding.  Check the specific essential oil’s safety profile.

  • Avoid use on hypersensitive, diseased or damaged skin, children under 2 years of age.
  • Do not use if you have epilepsy unless you have consulted with an aromatherapist.

Many essential oils have been shown to be safe when used as directed. However, essential oils used in aromatherapy aren’t regulated by the Food and Drug Administration.

If you’re considering aromatherapy, consult your doctor and a trained aromatherapist about the possible risks and benefits.

*These statements have not been evaluated by the FDA and are not intended to diagnose, treat, or prevent any disease.

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