Cultures around the world have used essential oils for generations. And now, modern research continues to reinforce the fact that these age-old tools can help elevate mood and manage the symptoms of stress. Here's the lowdown on 13 oils that have been studied for their stress-relieving benefits and how to work them into your routine.
Who doesn't love the soft and subtle scent of a rose? In one study, participants who smelled rose essential oil had a significant decrease in breathing rate and blood pressure compared to the placebo group. And not only were the effects physical, but the participants also rated themselves as calmer and more relaxed afterwards.
Bergamot is functional wellness practitioner Mariza Snyder D.P.'s personal favorite essential oil, and she'll often blend it with lavender and frankincense to up the calming benefits: "It's got this beautiful rich scent," she says, "and is often used to lower blood pressure and cortisol levels." One study back in 2011 found bergamot to have significant positive effects on anxiety symptoms in rats.
If you're into strong, earthy scents, consider adding patchouli to your routine. One study found it can decrease sympathetic nervous system activity (which is responsible for the body's fight-or-flight response) by up to 40%.
It's relatively common to sip chamomile tea before bed to help unwind, but did you know you can get chamomile essential oil too? A 2010 study found chamomile oil can help reduce the production of stress hormones, making it another great one to reach of when you're trying to calm down.
8. Lemon balm
Touting a scent that's similar to lemon with a touch of mint, lemon balm was found it to reduce agitation among dementia patients in one 2002 double-blind trial.
The sweet but bold scent of geranium is another good one for elevating mood. One particular study on people giving birth—undoubtedly, a stressful a time—found that geranium could help reduce labor-relatied anxiousness.
10. Clary sage
Clary sage offers a floral but mildly earth scent, and in one study on stressed-out college students, it was found to not only reduce stress, but also increase levels of sleep quality and energy.
11. Virginia cedarwood
If you're a fan of citrusy scents, yuzu falls somewhere between a grapefruit and an orange, and it was found to help relieve tension, anger, and anxiousness in one 2014 study on 20 healthy women.
13. Ylang Ylang
And lastly, ylang ylang is another floral scent that may help reduce blood pressure and heart rate.
How can essential oils help relieve stress?
It all comes down to the evolution of our olfactory system—our primordial sense of smell—which, in part, indicates whether our environment is safe or not. Snyder explains that "certain essential oils contain chemical constituents that elicit relaxation, particularly the ester groups (lavender, bergamot, clary sage, etc). When you breathe those chemical constituents in, they go straight to the limbic system, signaling cellular mechanisms inside the amygdala and hippocampus which activate the parasympathetic nervous system."
As you might recall from high school health class, the parasympathetic nervous system is responsible for our body's rest-and-digest response. It balances out the fight-or-fligth response—which is often elicited by stress—and causes our heart rate and blood pressure to slow down and normalize.
Essential oils can be used for in-the-moment stress relief when you feel yourself getting worked up, or you can use them more preventatively to stay calm and collected throughout the day. Here are a few strategies for working them into your routine:
1. Apply a few drops to your pulse points during tense times.
One of the easiest ways to use essential oils to apply them to pulse points behind the ears, on your wrists or ankles, or over the heart. Just make sure that the oil you're using is suitable for contact with the skin. You might need to dilute it in a carrier oil first!
2. Take a whiff before your calming meditation.
Villafranco says that she'll often "take a drop or two in my hands, rub them together briskly to warm the oil, and inhale deeply for a few breaths to set the tone before meditating."
3. Put them in your home or office diffuser.
You can use an essential oil diffuser to fill the air in your home or workspace with calming scents throughout the day.
4. Add a few drops to your shower.
For a luxe and soothing bathing experience, Villafranco recommends dropping the oils onto your shower floor—away from the stream of water so they can vaporize slowly instead of getting washed down the drain right away.
The more you use a certain oil, the more your brain will start to associate it with releasing stress, so go ahead and smell your way to calm.
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Sarah Regan is a Spirituality & Relationships Writer, as well as a registered yoga instructor. She received her bachelor's in broadcasting and mass communication from SUNY Oswego, and lives in Buffalo, New York.