Taking Breaths to Beat Stress: Can Aromatherapy Relieve Tension?

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Stressors can crop up anywhere and anytime — in the morning or at night, at work or at home — disrupting your mood and your mindset in the process. But being stressed out does more than dampen your disposition for a day or two. Stress can create a wide variety of health consequences that last much longer than your tension ever did (and cause more unhealthy distress in the process).

While you can’t always remove the sources of your stress entirely, there are plenty of healthy techniques you can use to cope with and even reduce the intensity of it. Aromatherapy is one such intervention that you may find is an effective method for managing your stress levels and promoting deeper relaxation. Learn more about this potential tension-tamer, including what it is and how it works, to see how it could potentially help you lead a more tranquil (and healthier) life.

What Is Aromatherapy?

Aromatherapy is a therapeutic technique that aims to improve mental and physical well-being through the use of essential oils. These oils are compounds that are extracted from plants and other natural materials via methods like cold pressing and steam distillation. They’re called “essential” because they capture the material’s essence, which is a concentrated version of the compounds that give the material its characteristic fragrance. Each oil has different qualities, and inhaling the scents from these oils in different ways purportedly results in different health effects (and potential improvements).

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Various cultures have used aromatherapy for centuries to treat different conditions, but unlike medications and other treatments, essential oils aren’t meant to be ingested. Instead, the practice of aromatherapy focuses on inhaling the fragrances that come from the oils to take advantage of their supposed healing properties. There are several ways to do this, including massaging the diluted oils into your skin or using a diffuser, which is a device that spreads essential oils through the air around your home. The presence of the fragrance itself on your body and your inhalation of that fragrance are what reportedly make aromatherapy effective.

Although there’s ample anecdotal evidence that aromatherapy can help relieve stress and the symptoms of other conditions, scientific studies demonstrating the efficacy of this practice (and of essential oils) are limited. There isn’t currently any evidence that aromatherapy can cure illnesses. Researchers believe that aromatherapy may work by “stimulating smell receptors in the nose, which then send messages through the nervous system to the limbic system — the part of the brain that controls emotions,” according to the Mayo Clinic. Additionally, Johns Hopkins Medicine notes that, while lab studies have produced some promising results, more research is necessary to fully determine how effective aromatherapy is for human health.

Does Aromatherapy Relieve Stress?

Unlike some of the better-researched and proven modalities for reducing stress and improving mental and physical health, such as meditation, aromatherapy doesn’t have a large body of research behind it to validate many of the claims made about its healing abilities. As a result, scientists aren’t completely sure how aromatherapy may work or what its mechanisms are for affecting people’s bodies. They can’t yet know whether aromatherapy definitively works for stress reduction.

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However, scientists do know that odors and fragrances can produce different effects in people’s brains, so the potential may exist for aromatherapy to spur results — such as mood improvements — for people. The University of Wisconsin-Madison’s School of Medicine and Public Health explains that several studies have investigated the ways odors and essential oils have affected mood, and those “studies have consistently shown that odors can produce specific effects on human neuropsychological and autonomic function and that odors can influence mood, perceived health, and arousal.” 

The university further explains that “these studies suggest that odors may have therapeutic applications in the context of stressful and adverse psychological conditions.” So, scientists know that odors can impact people’s emotions, specifically their moods and the way they interpret their personal levels of health. Thus, aromatherapy may have beneficial effects for stress management and could possibly play a role in combating tension if it can change the way people interpret and process their moods. The technique’s full impact will remain to be seen until more research is done to explore it.

Is Aromatherapy Safe?

In general, the practice of aromatherapy appears to be safe — with some caveats related to the ways you use essential oils. There’s no governing body that regulates the production or distribution of essential oils, so their quality can vary greatly and it’s impossible to know exactly what’s in them. That’s one reason why you should never ingest them. If you opt to use essential oils, purchase them from brands that are known for making high-quality products.

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Essential oils are volatile, which means they evaporate quickly and their vapors can be highly flammable. You should never store or use them near open flames. Because they’re so concentrated, the compounds in the oils can also irritate mucous membranes, eyes and skin. That’s why it’s necessary to dilute them before trying aromatherapy, particularly if you want to use them in massage oils or another topical application. It’s worth noting that there are few side effects associated with careful use of essential oils, so unless you have an allergy to one of the ingredients, they may be safe for you to use.

Aromatherapy Applications: Techniques and Tips

Because aromatherapy generally isn’t a high-risk treatment modality when you take some basic precautions and follow some simple guidelines, you might decide to try it for yourself and see what it can do for your stress levels. Anecdotally, there are several essential oils that you may find effective for tension relief, including lavender, bergamot, sandalwood, mandarin, rose, ylang ylang, clary sage and neroli. If you’ve experienced atopic dermatitis or another skin-sensitivity issue, Johns Hopkins Medicine notes that you may want to avoid ylang ylang and bergamot oils, which are more likely to cause reactions when applied topically.

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If you want to apply essential oils topically for inhalation, you’ll need to dilute them in a carrier oil or another type of moisturizer, such as a lotion, to lessen the chances of a reaction. Use a neutral, unscented vegetable or plant oil such as jojoba, coconut or sweet almond oil, adding about 12 drops of the essential oil per every fluid ounce of the carrier oil. You can also mix these blends with sea salt to create a therapeutic bath soak.

One common way of enjoying aromatherapy fragrances involves using a diffuser. This device is effective at spreading an aroma throughout your space, but you may want to opt for a different method if you live in a household with several people. Essential oils can affect people differently, and even if the oils aren’t irritating you, they might negatively affect others. Additionally, diffuser vapors can be toxic to pets, as can the accidental ingestion of oils, which may lead to organ toxicity in dogs and cats. It’s best not to take chances around young children, housemates with sensitivities and animals.

Instead of diffusing oils, look into other options like aromatherapy accessories. These are necklaces, bracelets and other types of jewelry with porous or absorbent materials to which you can directly apply a few drops of an essential oil. This way, you can smell the oil without affecting people outside your personal space.

Lastly, it’s wise to consult with your physician if you’re planning to start using essential oils for aromatherapy. They may be able to recommend other effective stress interventions you’ll find helpful, and they’ll advise you on any safety aspects you should be aware of that are unique to your specific health situation.

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