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 relaxed1 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 anxiety3 symptoms in rats.
8. Lemon balm
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 anxiousness8.
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
13. Ylang Ylang
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 relaxation12, 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.
Sarah Regan is a Spirituality & Relationships Editor, a registered yoga instructor, and an avid astrologer and tarot reader. She received her bachelor's in broadcasting and mass communication from State University of New York at Oswego, and lives in Buffalo, New York.