The Small Joys Series - Aromatherapy

Here we are with the third post in our ‘Small Joys’ series!

In this series, we explore the mental health benefits of the little things- which are actually the big things.

Small joys can help us cope with overwhelming circumstances. They give us a break and a safe place to retreat when life is just too much. Looking back, it’s often the small joys of life that we remember the most fondly.

Previously we looked at connecting with nature and music and mental health.

Today, we are doing a deep dive into one of my favourite discoveries: aromatherapy.

Essential Oils And Aromatherapy

Essential oils are aromatic organic compounds. They are extracted from different parts of a plant, such as the stems, roots, flowers, leaves, bark, and resin.

These concentrated oils are usually mixed with another substance, such as a carrier oil, and applied to the skin and/or inhaled through diffusion in the air.

Aromatherapy has been around for centuries.

It involves the inhalation or topical use of plant-derived essential oils to support mental and physical wellbeing.

You may have encountered aromatherapy while getting a massage or a facial. Or maybe your hairdresser uses products with essential oils while massaging your scalp. Essential oils really do make every relaxation experience better!

Just like your massage therapist, I also am a firm believer in plant based products and incorporate this into my psychotherapy work on a daily basis.

Every single workshop and/or treatment plan includes incorporation of plant based products to help manage moods.

Aromatherapy And Your Mental Wellness

So, what is the connection between essential oils and our emotional state? 

The key to this lies in the way that essential oil molecules interact with our brain when inhaled or applied to the skin. 

To understand this, let’s take a closer look at our sense of smell, or the olfactory system.

Mmm, What's That Smell?

Have you ever smelled something that immediately transported you through time and space? 

Maybe it was the sauce simmering on the stove that reminded you of a dish no one could make quite like Mom. Or the scent of a perfume you used as a teenager bringing on waves of nostalgia for those days.

It’s truly remarkable how smell enables us to transcend time and access old memories and feelings. It follows then, that different smells can shift our moods. 

This shows us the direct link between our olfactory system (sensory system used for smelling) and the brain’s centre for emotion (the amygdala) and memory (hippocampus). 

Here is a brief summary of how it goes down:

1. Odour molecules are inhaled through our nose, where they encounter millions of smell receptors called the olfactory epithelium.

2. When these receptors are activated, they create a series of reactions in the brain to signal that sensory information is on its way

3. The nerve in our brain that controls our sense of smell is the olfactory nerve. This nerve is the highway that chemical compounds must take when they are inhaled. Where does this highway lead?

4. The olfactory nerve connects directly to the limbic system of the brain, which contains the amygdala and hippocampus (the main centres of emotion and memory)

The limbic system of our brain is activated by all our senses.

However, the olfactory system has a more direct line, meaning that smells have the power of instantaneously influencing our brains by affecting emotions and retrieving memories attached to those emotions.

More Than Skin Deep

Essential oils also penetrate the skin. They are fat-soluble and very light, resulting in fast absorption. 

This process can be helped along by adding heat (i.e. through a massage) and using a carrier oil that can penetrate the skin more easily (i.e. sweet almond oil).

Once essential oils break through the skin barrier, they enter the bloodstream and travel through the rest of our body. 

Essential Oils And The Brain

Essential oils are highly concentrated and pack a healing punch of organic compounds.  .

When inhaled, these compounds ride the highway directly to the emotional part of our brain.

This process can exert a pharmacological effect in our brains. In other words, the compounds can alter moods and promote relaxation through similar mechanisms as some medications.

Not convinced? 

Don't Take It From Us...

Researchers have dedicated some curiosity towards the effect of essential oils on mental health and wellness. Read on to see what they have found.

A team of researchers reviewed how aromatherapy has been used to manage various psychiatric disorders. 

They found several studies that confirmed essential oils reduced anxiety and improved mood outcomes. One study found that essential oils sourced from bergamot, jasmine, lavender, rose, and geranium had antidepressant effects on participants.

Another study reported that cancer patients in a hospice setting who were exposed to 60 minutes of vaporized lavender essential oils reported less anxiety and depression compared to patients who received a humidified water intervention or no intervention at all. 

Finally, for anyone who hates going to the dentist: a study found that women who were exposed to vaporized orange oil prior to dental procedures had less anxiety, more positive moods, and a higher sense of overall calmness compared to patients who received no intervention. 

Anecdotally, we tend to feel more relaxed and calmer after using essential oils. This information is valuable in and of itself. 

However, it’s certainly nice to know that the research can confirm the potential of essential oils to enhance our wellness. 

A Miniature Guide To Using Essential Oils For Relaxation

If this post has sparked your curiosity about managing your mood with essential oils, we’ve created a short guide to get you started! 

Certain oils are known to be sedating and relaxing

  • Lavender
  • Sandalwood
  • Clary sage
  • Roman chamomile 
  • Marjoram 

Other essential oils stimulate, or re-energize

  • Bergamot
  • Ylang Ylang
  • Rosemary 
  • Sage
  • Jasmine 
  • Lemon 

Many of these oils work double duty, containing both relaxing and rejuvenating properties.

In many ways, this means there are few right or wrong choices here. We suggest having fun with it!

If you are experiencing low moods, may we suggest trying:

Bergamot     or    Rosemary

  • Both these oils have uplifting, invigorating and also calming effects

If you are feeling anxious or stressed out, may we suggest trying:

Roman Chamomile   or  Lavender 

  • These oils have calming, sedative properties that can help soothe your nervous system and promote better sleep

How To Use Essential Oils

It is important to mention that essential oils can be irritating for some people when used directly on the skin in their pure form.

When essential oils are safely diluted and used as directed, they can be highly beneficial. Please take care to follow all the guidelines and directions indicated on the packaging of your oils and diffuser products.

We recommend that you consult your healthcare provider before dabbling in essential oils if you are:

  • Pregnant or breastfeeding
  • An older adult
  • Under the age of 12

Now, here are some of my favourite ways to use essential oils! 

Use Them In The Bath

Whether it’s an all-out soaking session with candles and soothing music, or a foot soak after a long day, a few drops of essential oil in the water with a carrier oil is the perfect way to treat yourself. Water and heat will increase the absorption of the oil into your skin, so don’t forget that carrier oil!

Simply Inhale

Get yourself a bottle of your favourite essential oil and breathe in the scent. Make sure the undiluted oil does not touch your skin!

Diffuse Throughout The Room

This one might be a personal favourite.

Use a diffuser, aroma lamp, room spray or add a few drops to your potpourri mix. You can also add a few drops to the water tank of your humidifier. Be sure to check the manufacturer’s instructions before doing this!

A Relaxing Massage

You don’t have to book a massage for this one (although I would highly recommend it!).

A simple foot massage or shoulder rub with your favourite essential oil diluted in a carrier oil can do wonders at the end of the day. The heat from the massage will allow for maximum absorption into the skin. 

Before You Go

I hope this post inspired you to incorporate nature and its many gifts into your mental health journey. 

Whether it’s going for a nature walk or exploring the exciting world of essential oils, you have the choice to be creative and diversify your mental health toolkit. 

I highly encourage you to let your senses be a bridge between you and the natural world. Your mind and body will thank you for it.

What are some of your favourite ways to use essential oils? Leave me a comment, I would love to know!

As always, if you have any questions about this topic or need some additional support, flip me an email, or book an appointment with anyone from my awesome team!

Until next time!

Sarah Ahmed electronic signature

Sarah Ahmed
Co-founder
WellNest Psychotherapy Services