The ordinary stresses of everyday life wear you down and can even be a drag on your overall health. Relaxation is key, but at times it’s hard to let go and lighten up. You’re probably familiar with breathing techniques and meditating to calm yourself, but what about aromatherapy?
Scientific proof is fairly limited, but current research indicates that certain essential oils may be useful for stress relief. Below is our big list of 26 oils that may prove helpful for you, plus some need-to-know information and even a personal story from a total skeptic.
What Are Essential Oils?
An essential oil is a concentrated plant extract. Natural compounds that are found in the flowers, stems, bark, roots, nuts, or other plant parts are obtained via distillation or cold pressing. The resulting product is the “essence” of the original plant with all its natural aromas and flavors.
These pure, concentrated extracts are then diluted with carrier oils to make them suitable for use. One of the most common carrier oils is coconut oil, but others include argan, avocado, caster, flaxseed, grapeseed, jojoba, and olive oil. (This is by no means a complete list – there are lots more.)
One other method of extraction is to dissolve the plant in a solvent such hexane or benzene, and then remove the solvent by evaporation. The resulting essential oils are called “absolutes”. This process is used only on plants that can’t be distilled, such as jasmine. Otherwise this is not a preferred method, partly because it’s expensive, but also because there is concern that the end product may contain trace amounts of the solvent.
Benefits of Essential Oils
Claims about the benefits of essential oils run the gamut from mildly effective to miraculous. Anecdotal evidence abounds, including my own experience detailed below, but scientific proof is harder to come by.
One thing to keep in mind is that essential oils are unregulated, so they are not required to meet any standards for safety or effectiveness. Beware of any oil advertised as a cure for any medical condition. Such marketing classifies the oil as an “unproven drug”, which is illegal. The Young Living Essential Oils company did exactly that until the FDA stepped in and put a stop to it.
It’s unfortunate that greedy marketers have given the whole industry a bad name because the science is not all negative. For example:
- Mayo Clinic
The article What are the benefits of aromatherapy? states that while research is limited, some studies indicate that some health benefits of aromatherapy include relief from anxiety and depression; improved quality of life for those with chronic health conditions; and improved sleep.
- National Center for Biotechnology Information
The article “A systematic review of the effect of inhaled essential oils on sleep” reports that the findings of controlled trials suggest that inhaling essential oils has a positive effect on sleep in humans (with Lavender being the most frequently studied oil).
- PubMed.gov Articles
“A systematic review on…” concludes that most of the studies reviewed indicated positive effects for people who used aromatherapy for anxiety symptoms.
“Effect of sweet orange…” suggests that more studies are needed but concludes that there is some scientific support to the use of sweet orange aroma as a tranquilizer.
While our focus here is on stress relief, the full list of essential oil benefits is quite long. Many of the most popular uses center around relaxation, which includes everything from calming the nerves to improving your mood to boosting energy levels.
Ways to Use Essential Oils
Essential oils can be added to lotions, creams, massage oils, or bath gels. You can sprinkle a few drops directly into your bath water, or place a dot of oil on your skin to rub in.
One of the most common ways to use essential oils is to simply breathe in the aroma, and sniffing can often work quickly and be most effective. An electric diffuser works very well for this purpose, or you can simply take a whiff directly from the bottle. When you’re on the go, essential oil jewelry is another great option because the essence stays with you much longer than if applied directly to your skin.
The most important thing to know is that there’s a big difference between how you can use essential oils and how you should use them. That’s covered below, so be sure to read more under “Are Essential Oils Safe?”
The Big List of Essential Oils
Most essential oils can be used for more than one purpose. All of the 26 listed below may be useful for stress relief, and each oil includes notes for some of its other possible uses. (They are listed in no particular order.)
- Lavender – one of the most popular and most versatile essential oils, suggested for a wide range of uses including anxiety, insomnia, and restlessness
- Bergamot (derived from bitter orange) – known for its soothing properties, may be helpful for nervous tension, anxiety, and as a digestion aid
- Lemongrass – a nice air freshener, a natural insect repellent, and may also be useful for anxiety and indigestion
- Neroli – said to enhance mood and may be helpful for insomnia and indigestion
- Lemon – useful as an air freshener, spot cleaner, and disinfectant for kitchen countertops
- Yuzu – known for being calming to the mind and uplifting to the body, may be useful for soothing nervous tension
- Orange (sweet orange) – may provide relief from physical or mental fatigue, suggested for feeling relaxed yet alert
- Ylang Ylang – relatively new on the scene, suggested for use as a sedative, antiseptic, and even an aphrodisiac
- Frankincense – may help promote restful sleep
- Chamomile – known for its calming, soothing effect on both mind and body
- Vetiver – may provide relief for insomnia, also suggested to enhance libido
- Rose – known as the aroma that creates feelings of happiness and, of course, the classic aphrodisiac
- Sandalwood – may help with focus and concentration, suggested for reducing fear and anxiety, as well as for promoting relaxation and positive thinking
- Cinnamon Leaf – a delightful scent for your home, suggested for promoting alertness and providing an energy boost when mentally or physically exhausted
- Cedarwood – a natural deoderizer and may be helpful as an insect repellent, as well as a natural sedative for insomnia
- Lime – a refreshing and stimulating scent that may be helpful as a natural disinfectant, and for increasing appetite and aiding digestion
- Grapefruit – a pleasant, tangy scent that may be helpful in relieving fatigue and easing anxiety
- Eucalyptus – useful for cleaning and deodorizing, a natural stain remover and mold killer
- Clary Sage – shown by at least one study to produce an antidepressant-like effect when used by menopausal women
- Jasmine (editor’s pick, read why below) – suggested for nerve and muscle relaxation, mood improvement, easing emotional stress and anxiety, relief for insomnia, and help with low libido
- Peppermint – suggested for increasing energy with a natural energy boost, improving focus, and may help curb cravings for sweets after meals
- Copaiba from the Amazon rain forest, suggested for its abilities to help calm and soothe the nervous system
- Tea Tree a natural hand sanitizer, insect repellent, and all purpose cleaner; may also be helpful in treating ringworm and athlete’s foot
- Marjoram – suggested for general emotional support and for relief from anxiety
- Geranium – a rosy sweet scent that may be helpful as a mood lifter and to ease anxiety, provide relief from fatigue, and promote general emotional wellness
- Fennel – sometimes called the comforting scent, suggested for alleviating anxiety, improving mental clarity, and promoting an overall sense of well-being
Do Essential Oils Really Work?
The first time I ever heard of aromatherapy I thought it was hogwash. To me it sounded like another new age gimmick that was really all about using smart marketing to make lots of money.
Ah, but there’s nothing like personal experience to turn a harsh skeptic into a true believer!
I’ll spare you the drama, but suffice it to say that I was going through the worst experience of my life. Blindsided by a tragic event, I was emotionally devastated, physically exhausted, and hanging on by a thread. Anxiety was a way of life, to put it mildly.
That’s when a dear friend dropped by and gave me a teeny little bottle of Jasmine essential oil. I thanked her politely, but after she left you can bet I was rolling my eyes. I knew she meant well, and I truly appreciated her kindness, but I wasn’t dumb enough to think some aroma – any aroma – could possibly be helpful in any way.
The only reason I even bothered opening the bottle is that I was curious to know what Jasmine smells like. I held that teensy bottle up to my nose and took a little sniff. The smell was pleasant, so I drew a deep breath, fully taking in the nice aroma. What happened then was, to me, no less than amazing.
The relaxing effect was almost instant. I felt a gentle easing of tension throughout my entire body. In one sense it felt physical, but much more powerful was the emotional impact. In that one deep breath I experienced significant relief from my anxiety. The effect was very strong at first, eased off a bit, and then lingered for quite some time.
As it turned out, Jasmine ended up playing an important role in helping me deal with anxiety during that awful time. If I hadn’t experienced it myself, I wouldn’t have believed it works at all, and certainly not so well.
Do All Essential Oils Always Work For Everyone?
The experts might disagree, by my personal experience tells me that the answer is no. For example, the brand of Jasmine I love is Nature’s Sunshine. Yes, that’s an MLM company, but I’m not a dealer and don’t know anyone who is. You can find it online. For me this particular oil is awesome, while lots of other brands of Jasmine simply don’t do anything.
In fact, Jasmine is not at the top of everyone’s list of essential oils for stress relief. You may have to experiment a little to find out which oil works best for you.
Are Essential Oils Safe?
The answer is, it depends. Different oils are intended for use in different ways. Always read labels, use common sense, and if you aren’t sure whether an oil is okay for you to use, consult your doctor first. This is especially true if you’re pregnant or have any special health issues.
Remember that just because something is “all natural”, that doesn’t mean it’s harmless. Poison ivy is certainly all natural, but would you cook up a pot of poison ivy greens for dinner? Some people aren’t at all allergic to the plant. Others react to a simple touch, and breathing air around a bonfire that contains burning poison ivy leaves can be deadly.
Another example is that some essential oils are photosensitive, meaning that after using them you must avoid sunlight and UV rays.
Point is, essential oils can affect each individual very differently. The wisest approach is to proceed with caution, and never assume anything.
For more information on the safe use of essential oils see these articles:
- American College of Healthcare Sciences “3 Common and Dangerous Essential Oil Mistakes” (This site includes lots of information plus a great infographic on safety guidelines.)
- “How To Use Essential Oils: 16 Tips for Essential Oil Safety”, WebMD
- “Are Essential Oils Safe? 28 Things to Know Before Use”, Healthline
- “Essential Oils: Natural Doesn’t Mean Risk-Free”, WebMD
- “Are Essential Oils Safe?”, University of Minnesota
- “Essential oils – Health warning”, Government of Western Australia Department of Health
To learn more just go to your favorite search engine and type in a phrase such as “essential oil safety” or “are essential oils safe” (without the quotation marks.)
U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, National Institutes of Health
U.S. Food & Drug Administration
American College of Healthcare Sciences
University of Minnesota/Taking Charge of Your Health & Wellbeing