Feeling stressed lately? You're in good company. According to statistics procured by the American Psychological Association, stress levels have skyrocketed over the past few years, with 84% of adults across the nation dealing with feelings of anxiousness amid the ongoing pandemic.
It's not surprising; trying times challenge your ability to stay collected. The key is to find quick remedies for stress that are easily accessible to you, like squeezing a stress ball, taking a supplement, or treating yourself to some aromatherapy to help ease your mind and calm your senses.*
How aromatherapy works.
The term aromatherapy is derived from the Latin aroma, meaning "pleasant scent," and therapy, meaning "treatment." "It's essentially a practice of using scents to heal the mind, body, and soul," says physician Tina Gupta, M.D., and it's been around for centuries.
The ancient Egyptians and Greeks used essential oils to for a variety of ailments, and according to the history documented by the International Federation of Aromatherapists, early civilizations even used aromatherapy to ward off evil spirits.
However, the practice wasn't given its name until 1937, when French perfumer and chemist René -Maurice Gattefossé published the first-ever book on the topic, titled Aromatherapy, Essential Oils.
The scents commonly used in aromatherapies are sourced from aromatic plants (think flowers, herbs, citrus fruits, etc.) and are used to promote mental and physical health through inhalation alone or topical application on the skin. "During inhalation, the molecules that carry the scent in essential oils travel from your nose to the emotional center in your brain," Gupta tells mbg.
As far as scientific research on the subject, author and alchemist Adora Winquist tells mbg it wasn't until the 1930s that chemical compounds and their corresponding psychological effects were first researched.
Studies surrounding aromatherapy have revved up in recent years, but there is not currently enough evidence to conclusively say, one way or another, just how effective aromatherapy is overall for stress relief (although lavender, citrus, and rose oil aromatherapies specifically1 have an good amount of science backing that is emerging). In other words: You'll just have to try it and see if it works for you.
Aromatherapy benefits for stress.
Stress can send your body and mind into a spiral, complete with feelings of worry and panic. For some, aromatherapy can help soothe these effects, quieting the mind and, as a result, calming the body. This is a great example of the mind-body connection, as scents have a very real effect on our chemical and neurological systems and, in turn, might affect our physical state.
"Based on their chemical composition, [scents, specifically those of essential oils] can trigger the release of different hormones2 and also affect both our central nervous system (CNS) and our autonomic nervous system (ANS)," aromatherapist and founder/CEO of Nomad Botanicals Carole Addison-Goyne, tells mbg.
For example, in a randomized controlled trial3 published in 2018, researchers found that people with sleep issues experienced higher sleep quality when they inhaled lavender essential oil 30 minutes before going to bed, than those who did not. In another study4, the inhalation of lavender and orange was found to ease worry and improve mood in folks waiting for dental work.
Again, more research needs to be done on the topic of aromatherapy to identify the full range of benefits it can offer humans (much of the information we do have was uncovered via animal studies). However, according to a paper written by Lorena R. Lizarraga-Valderrama, Ph.D. from the University of Plymouth, Plymouth, U.K., research continues to explore how a range of essential oils, in particular, including (but not limited to) ylang-ylang, lemongrass, patchouli, and more, affect the central nervous system, as well as how they can properly be used for health benefits.
Essential oils for stress relief.
When people hear "aromatherapy," essential oils are typically the first thing to come to mind. Essential oils are plant extracts sourced from steaming or pressing the plant. The most aromatic compounds derived from these processes are collected and used for a variety of purposes, namely aromatherapy.
According to Addison-Goyne, diffusing or topical applications are the best ways to use essential oils for stress relief. Diffusing oils stimulates the human olfactory system, aka the sensory system dedicated to your sense of smell, directly linked to your brain. You can smell these oils via an essential oil diffuser fountain, stick, or jewelry, or try applying diluted essential oils or blends to your skin (topically) to enjoy their smell. Always dilute essential oils in a neutral carrier oil before applying to the skin, and try a small test patch first to make sure the oil doesn't cause irritation.
Either option will allow you to "focus on certain memories and emotions," Addison-Goyne says.
Oils to try:
Scented candles for stress relief.
They say lighting candles sets the mood when you want to feel intimate. Well, it turns out, lighting candles can also uplift your mood when you're feeling stressed. This is partially due to their scent and partially because sitting in the hazy glow of a candle can be quite calming, "especially when compared to the harsh light we experience regularly from light bulbs," certified aromatherapist and founder of Airmid Holistics, LLC, Melissa Murray tells mbg.
When choosing a candle for your aromatherapy practice, Addison-Goyne suggests going with one that has a wide opening, as this ensures the scent will dissipate widely, too. "Candles allow aromas to travel through the air in a slow manner so the therapeutic benefit builds gradually."
Scents to try:
Scented lotions for stress relief.
When your aromatherapy practice involves a topical application, rather than firing up the diffuser fountain or wearing a diffusing accessory, Addison-Goyne says you become a "human diffuser," in a very literal sense. "When we apply essential oils to our skin topically, our bodies act like diffusers, allowing us to smell them," she tells mbg.
However, whenever you're using a scented product, Murray tells mbg that reviewing its ingredients list is imperative. "Make sure you are using lotions scented with only essential oils and not fragrance oils or a combination of essential and fragrance oils," she says.
This is because fragrance oils, which are often labeled as "perfumes" don't necessarily offer the same benefits as essential oils. To avoid them, you can whip up your own lotion at home and scent it with the essential oil(s) of your choice.
Scents to try:
The bottom line.
Stress management is so important for your health and, luckily, there is no shortage of stress-relief products on the market. But aromatherapy isn't just another item to fit on your desk; it's a holistic practice entirely dedicated to calming the mind and body through delicious, soothing scents.
And while more research needs to be done on the subject, there's no denying that, at the very least, things like oil diffusers and candles can make your space smell amazing. So if you're feeling overwhelmed by life right now, find a fragrance you love and notice how you feel when it enters your space. In the best-case scenario, you have another stress-reducing tool in your arsenal the next time you're looking for relief.
Julia Guerra is a health and wellness writer reporting for mindbodygreen, Elite Daily, and INSIDER. Formerly the beauty editor for BestProducts.com, she's contributed to Women's Health, Cosmopolitan, PopSugar, and more. A book worm and fitness enthusiast, her happiest moments are spent with her husband, family, sipping tea, and cuddling with her Tabby cat, Aria.