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Managing Stress With Aromatherapy

© 1999, by Anne Ramstetter Wenzel and Jeralynn Burke

Aromatherapy -- using scents of essential oils to improve our health and well-being -- can be a simple, effective way to manage stress. Essential oils are concentrated extracts from the flowers, leaves, bark and roots of plants -- such as lavender, orange, rosemary, and sandalwood. Using plants and their extracts for our well-being dates back to ancient times. In the Old Testament, the prophet Isaiah proclaims the Spirit of the Lord has sent him to give "the oil of joy for mourning" (Isaiah 61:3). And today, the National Institutes for Health estimates that about one-quarter of the drugs prescribed in the United States contains an active ingredient derived from plant material.


The scents of essential oils help us relax by producing chemical responses within our brain. Olfactory cells -- at the top of each nostril -- send impulses directly to the brains' limbic system. The limbic system:

1) processes emotions and gut reactions.
2) stores and recall memories.
3) controls our response to stress.

Our response to stress originates within the limbic system, the part of our brain linked directly to our sense of smell.


When we feel threatened or stressed, a chemical response is triggered by the hypothalamus in the limbic system. Adrenaline and cortisol are released, increasing our blood pressure, heart rate, and anxiety levels. Blood vessels in our skin constrict; blood is diverted away from the skin and stomach into the active muscle groups. Our breathing accelerates, providing additional oxygen and sugar to the muscles and brain. This physical reaction to stress is a natural and important part of our lives that can:

1) put our bodies and minds into "high gear" so we can protect ourselves in dangerous situations.
2) enhance our performance under pressure.
3) fuel creativity and provide us with energy and enthusiasm.

But if we face stressful situations constantly, stress becomes harmful. Imagine the strain on your body when you're always experiencing high rates of blood pulse, blood pressure and breathing. If we remain in the "fight or flight" mode over long periods, we may lose the ability to "calm down" physiologically. Constant stress weakens the immune system and has been linked to insulin resistance (a risk factor in adult onset diabetes), high blood pressure, heart disease and osteoporosis.


Aromatherapy is a quick, effective way to combat the negative effects of stress. The scents of essential oils cause involuntary emotional and physical responses within us. Certain scents calm us and help focus our energy. We can use the oils listed below for:

1) Relaxation: chamomile, cedarwood, clary sage, frankincense, geranium, jasmine, lavender, neroli, orange, patchouli, rose, sandalwood and ylang ylang.
2) Focus: basil, frankincense, juniper, peppermint and rosemary.
3) Spritual awareness: Cedarwood, frankincense, myrrh, neroli and sandalwood.
4) Energy: basil, bergamot, grapefruit, eucalyptus, juniper, lemon, lemongrass, orange, peppermint, rosemary, and thyme.

A home or office can be scented using the oils in:

1) A dish of warm water or a simmering pot on the stove (not boiling water).
2) Diffusers (pots warmed by tea candles or nebulizers fueled by electricity).
3) Spritzers (oils mixed with water, sprayed into the air).
4) Potpourri.

Use six to ten drops of essential oil for two tablespoons of water. All essential oils, except tea tree and lavender, should be diluted before using on the skin.

More personal ways to experience essential oil scents include 6 to 10 drops in:

1) the bath or on the tiles as you shower (test on a shower tile first - some oils are corrosive).
2) 1 ounce (one tablespoon) unscented lotion or oil for skin care.
3) 1 ounce jojoba oil for use in a massage.
4) on a sachet to carry or keep near your pillow.


The Journal of Advanced Nursing reports that in an intensive care unit, patients receiving aromatherapy experienced significant mood improvement and were less anxious. Nurses at Tullamore General Hospital (Ireland) report that aromatherapy improves patients' sleep significantly. In the Coronary Care Unit, they have found aromatherapy very effective for stress management.

For more information on aromatherapy, you can visit on the web, or contact Jeralynn Burke of E-Scent-ials directly: [email protected].


Anne Ramstetter Wenzel is owner of Econosystems, a research, writing and publication services firm in Menlo Park, CA. Jeralynn Burke is co-owner of E-Scent-ials. Fine, quality natural aromatherapy products designed to indulge the senses.

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