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Calming the Mind: Aromatherapy to Relieve Stress

While conventional approaches to relaxation and stress management are widely available, many individuals are turning to complementary therapies to find relief. One such method gaining popularity is the use of essential oils, which have long been celebrated for their therapeutic properties. By harnessing the power of nature, essential oils can be valuable allies in calming the mind, reducing stress, and alleviating anxiety.

I am supportive and palliative care provider, and I deal with the very sickest of sick patients every day. Almost all my patients are lovely, kind and very thankful for the care that they receive. Managing a serious illness is a team effort, and I put my whole self into it as I can only imagine how hard it is to walk that road and no one should have to do that alone. But today I had an unusual but upsetting experience which added considerable stress to my day. I will share with a snippet from the beginning of my day, and then how it ended.

A woman in front of a laptop with her eyes closed taking a minute to destress

Today I had a patient shout at me. For about 40 minutes I heard why his recreational drug problem should not interfere with me prescribing opioids for the control of his Stage IV cancer pain. This is a complex ethical problem as he has very real pain which deserves to be treated, but at what risk? And whose responsibility bears out? I have sworn to “First Do No Harm.” A much, much longer discussion unfolded with my team, both to elucidate the best path ahead for this gentleman’s treatment and for my own mental health, because who likes to be shouted at for 40 minutes?

Let me say that things like this do not happen often, but sometimes very uncomfortable things happen and they leave a mark on the day that colors everything that follows and enshrouds one. So tonight, my self-care involved a home cooked meal with family, a walk and some vetiver, lavender and Fragonia aromatherapy.

Understanding Stress and Anxiety

To fully comprehend the benefits of aromatherapy to relieve stress and anxiety, it is essential to first understand the nature of these conditions. Stress, defined as the body's response to external pressures, can manifest in physical and emotional symptoms that disrupt our overall well-being. Anxiety, on the other hand, goes beyond the normal experience of stress and becomes a chronic and excessive worry that interferes with daily life. Stress and anxiety often intertwine, feeding off each other and exacerbating the negative effects on our mental health.

An unlabeled bottle of essential oil resting on a shell

The Science Behind Aromatherapy to Relieve Stress

Essential oils used in aromatherapy have a rich history of use in various cultures for their therapeutic properties. These oils are extracted from plants through a meticulous process, capturing the aromatic and beneficial compounds within them. Each essential oil contains a unique composition of volatile molecules that contribute to its distinct aroma and therapeutic effects. These molecules interact with our olfactory system and can have profound impacts on our emotions, cognition, and physiological responses.

The connection between scent and emotions is a powerful one, and certain fragrances can evoke specific feelings and moods. Aromatherapy utilizes the aromatic properties of essential oils to create a therapeutic environment and promote emotional balance.

When we inhale the aroma of essential oils, it stimulates our olfactory system, which is closely linked to the limbic system in our brain. This limbic system plays a vital role in our emotions, memories, and behaviors. As a result, the inhalation of essential oils can have a profound impact on our mood and relaxation levels.

Smell, the Limbic System and Emotions

Our sense of smell, or olfaction, is an extraordinary and often underappreciated sense. It is closely tied to our memories, emotions, and overall perception of the world, a phenomenon known as the "Proustian effect."

Unlike our other senses that rely on specific organs (such as sight with the eyes or hearing with the ears), olfaction occurs through the olfactory epithelium, a specialized tissue located in the upper part of the nasal cavity. When we encounter an odor, receptors send signals to the olfactory bulb, a structure located in the brain responsible for initial processing of olfactory information. From there, the signals travel to the limbic system, a complex network of brain structures closely associated with emotions, memory, and behavior.

The amygdala, a small almond-shaped structure within the limbic system, serves as the emotional gatekeeper. It processes incoming sensory information, including olfactory signals, and plays a pivotal role in emotional responses and the formation of emotional memories. It is the amygdala that helps us associate specific smells with past experiences and emotional states.

Emotions and Olfactory Memories

The close relationship between our olfactory senses and emotions is evident in the formation of olfactory memories. Olfactory memories have a unique ability to evoke strong emotional responses and bring back vivid recollections of past experiences. This phenomenon is often referred to as the "Proustian effect," named after the French writer Marcel Proust, who famously described the rush of memories triggered by the aroma of a madeleine cake.

Aromatherapy to Relieve Stress

Understanding the relationship between olfactory senses, emotions, and the limbic system has practical implications. Aromatherapy utilizes the therapeutic properties of essential oils to promote relaxation, reduce stress, and uplift mood by harnessing the emotional power of scent. Essential oils have been found to possess various properties that can aid in stress relief and anxiety reduction. In therapeutic settings, olfactory stimulation has been explored as a complementary approach to address emotional disorders such as anxiety and depression. Studies have shown that certain aromas can have a positive impact on mood regulation and emotional well-being.

Selecting the Right Essential Oils

Essential oils dropping from a glass dropper into a  bottle

Choosing the appropriate essential oils for stress relief requires consideration of individual preferences and sensitivities. Some oils are renowned for their calming properties, like vetiver, while others possess uplifting qualities that can help combat stress-induced fatigue, like peppermint. It is crucial to opt for high-quality, pure essential oils to ensure maximum efficacy and safety.

In addition to the insights shared in this article, I'm excited to offer a clinical resource for those seeking complementary therapies through my Etsy store. Here, you can find a selection of customizable, therapeutic grade essential oil blends, each meticulously curated not just for their delightful aromas but for their real-world therapeutic benefits. These blends are more than just pleasing scents; they are crafted with the intent to provide tangible relief and support in managing stress and anxiety. Drawing from my extensive experience in supportive and palliative care, each blend is designed to address specific needs, ensuring that you can find a personalized solution that resonates with your unique journey towards relaxation and mental well-being. Visit my Etsy store [click here to visit the store] to explore these carefully crafted essential oil blends and embrace the power of aromatherapy as a complementary tool in your wellness arsenal. Remember, I am always happy to create a custom blend for your specific needs.

6 Essential Oils for Stress Relief

When it comes to choosing the best essential oils for stress relief, there are several options available, each with its unique properties and benefits. Here are six highly regarded essential oils known for their calming and stress-relieving effects:

  1. Lavender: Lavender essential oil is a popular choice for relaxation and stress reduction. Its soothing aroma promotes a sense of calmness and helps ease anxiety and tension.

  2. Bergamot: Derived from the peel of the bergamot fruit, this citrusy essential oil is known for its uplifting properties. It can help alleviate stress, improve mood, and promote relaxation.

  3. Vetiver: Vetiver oil has a rich, earthy, and woody aroma. Its grounding and calming properties make it a popular choice for promoting a sense of tranquility and easing stress and anxiety.

  4. Ylang Ylang: With its sweet and exotic fragrance, ylang ylang essential oil is renowned for its ability to reduce stress and promote relaxation. It can also help balance emotions and uplift the mood.

  5. Frankincense: This resinous essential oil has been used for centuries for its grounding and calming effects. Frankincense can help soothe the mind, deepen breathing, and promote a sense of tranquility.

  6. Clary Sage: Clary sage essential oil has a warm, herbal aroma and is known for its stress-relieving properties. It can help reduce anxiety, promote relaxation, and improve mood.

Harnessing the Power of Essential Oils

There are various ways to incorporate essential oils into our daily routines and leverage their calming potential. Inhalation, through the use of diffusers or personal inhalation blends, allows us to create a serene and aromatic atmosphere that soothes the senses. Topical application, when properly diluted, enables us to enjoy the benefits of essential oils through massage or targeted application on specific areas. I particularly like to add 10-20 drops of a good quality essential oil to 2 oz of unscented lotion for an easy application of essential oils with therapeutic benefit. I use this lotion on my hands and feet, which is especially powerful after a nice warm shower. Incorporating essential oils into bath and self-care rituals can elevate relaxation and offer a moment of tranquility in our hectic lives. Another good way to use aromatherapy to relieve stress is with a room diffuser.

Stress relieving diffuser recipe

My recipe this evening for stress relief after I sat down from my small walk was simple. I have a fan diffuser with a pad to hold essential oils. To the diffuser pad I added:

4 drops Fragonia

4 drops vertiver

2 drops lavender

I wanted the clinical benefits of all three essential oils. I took into account the fact that lavender is not my favorite scent, as I find it can be quite powerful, so I used less of it. Fragonia, with its more complex spicy fragrance is more pleasing to me from a pure aroma perspective. Of course, you could lean more heavily towards lavender if you favor it.

Complementary Practices for Mindful Living

To enhance the calming effects of aromatherapy to relieve stress, it is beneficial to combine their usage with mindful practices. Meditation, when coupled with the aroma of essential oils, can deepen relaxation and promote mental clarity. Visit our Guides page for some guided meditations with audio files for your use. Breathing exercises, designed to regulate the body and mind, such a Square Breathing can be amplified by the incorporation of essential oils, providing an olfactory anchor for stress relief. Yoga and its emphasis on mind-body connection can be complemented by essential oils, fostering a holistic approach to overall well-being. Or maybe just take a simple walk in nature, there is an emerging body of evidence showing how nature, in and of itself, is therapeutic in chronic illness and revolutionary recovery (link to a medical article here if you want to geek out! and the reference is below.)

Since writing this blog article earlier this year I have written on complementary practices for managing anxiety in a blog article called "Navigating Anxiety with Grace: A Holistic Roadmap" where I go into 9 actionable steps to help control anxiety. Check it out!


In a world filled with stress and anxiety, aromatherapy to relieve stress can be powerful. Essential oils serve as natural allies in the pursuit of a calm and balanced mind. Our olfactory senses, emotions, and the limbic system are intricately intertwined, shaping our experiences and influencing our well-being. The power of scent to evoke memories, trigger emotions, and modulate our perception of the world is a testament to the remarkable complexity of our brain. By harnessing the power of aromatic molecules, we can tap into the soothing properties of nature and find solace amidst the chaos. Incorporating essential oils into our daily routines, along with complementary practices like meditation and yoga, empowers us to take control of our well-being and create a sanctuary of serenity in our lives. Let the fragrant embrace of essential oils guide you on a journey toward relaxation and tranquility.

An interesting medical article to read on Nature and Health:

Jimenez, M. P., DeVille, N. V., Elliott, E. G., Schiff, J. E., Wilt, G. E., Hart, J. E., & James, P. (2021). Associations between nature exposure and health: A review of the evidence. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, 18(9), 4790.


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