For many with chronic or extreme anxiety, professional medical help and support will be vital, but for those of us with milder or irregular periods of anxiety, there are many things that we can do to help, essential oils being one.
Essential oils are scented liquids derived from plants, flowers, and fruits. Research suggests that aromatherapy with some essential oils may help promote relaxation and relieve anxiety.
Popular essential oils
Bergamot orange essential oil comes from the Citrus bergamia tree. Producers extract the oil by cold-pressing the rind of the oranges. Bergamot orange is a popular aromatherapy oil for relieving anxiety.
According to a 2015 systematic review, inhaling bergamot orange essential oil has an anxiety-reducing effect in rats. Also, a 2013 study Trusted Source found that compared with inhaling water vapour, aromatherapy with bergamot orange essential oil reduced anxiety in people awaiting minor surgery.
Chamomile is a daisy-like herb. Manufacturers use steam distillation to extract a fruity, sweet-smelling essential oil from the flowers of this plant.
According to the National Cancer Institute Trusted Source, a two-week clinical trial investigated the effects of massage with Roman chamomile oil in people with cancer. The study found that massage with this diluted oil helped decrease anxiety and other symptoms, more than massage alone.
Clary sage is a medicinal herb that many people believe to have anxiety-relieving properties.
A small study from 2013 Trusted Source explored the effects of essential oil in 34 females with urinary incontinence. The participants inhaled either clary sage, lavender, or almond essential oils while having a bladder examination.
The study found that compared with those who inhaled lavender and almond essential oils, participants who inhaled clary sage oil experienced significant decreases in blood pressure and respiratory rate. The researchers concluded that inhaling clary sage oil may help a person relax during a bladder examination.
Lavandula angustifolia is a purple flowering plant with a fragrant scent. Aromatherapists commonly use essential oils from lavender, claiming that they have anti-inflammatory, muscle-relaxing, and anxiety-relieving properties.
According to a 2017 review Trusted Source, several clinical trials suggest that aromatherapy with lavender oil can help reduce anxiety before surgery and cosmetic procedures as well as during a stay in an intensive care unit. However, the authors also emphasized the limitations of the current evidence base.
Essential oil from lemon rind or leaves has a rich citrus scent. A 2015 systematic review found that studies of rats and mice suggest that exposure to lemon oil may have an anxiety-relieving effect in these animals.
However, the review’s authors also say that another study found that continuous exposure to lemon oil had the opposite effect in animals and may cause a stressful response. So it may be best for people to use lemon oil in lower doses or for shorter periods of time.
It is also worth noting that citrus essential oils increase sensitivity to sunlight. A person should protect their skin from all sun exposure when using lemon essential oil.
Neroli essential oil, or orange blossom essential oil, comes from the bitter orange tree, or Citrus aurantium. Manufacturers typically extract the oil from the blossoms of this tree.
The scent of the oil is sweet and citrusy, and it may have anxiety-relieving properties. A 2015 systematic review notes that research suggests that aromatherapy with neroli oil has a calming effect and can help treat insomnia.
Some animal studies suggest that essential oils from rose may be beneficial for anxiety. According to a 2015 systematic review, studies of mice suggest that essential oil from Rose centifolia and Rose damascene may have an anxiety-relieving or relaxation effect in these animals.
However, the review notes that results from a different mice study contradict these findings.
Ylang-ylang essential oil comes from the flowers of the Cananga odorata tree. Many aromatherapists believe that ylang-ylang oil can help reduce stress and anxiety.
In a small 2015 study involving 34 nurses, researchers found that aromatherapy with ylang-ylang did not have a significant effect on anxiety but did improve the participants’ self-esteem.
Other essential oils
The American College of Healthcare Sciences recommend some other essential oils for providing anxiety relief and lifting mood. Although there is little scientific evidence to support these claims, some people may find aromatherapy with these oils beneficial.
These oils include:
- sweet orange
How to use essential oils
Essential oils are very pure, concentrated oils. Most manufacturers will recommend diluting essential oils with a carrier oil, such as olive oil or sweet almond oil. Always read the label before using and carefully follow the directions for diluting the oil.
A person may also wish to consider doing a patch test before applying essential oils to their skin or fabrics. Some may stain or cause skin irritation or an allergic reaction. There are several different ways that diluted essential oils can be used, such as:
- using the oils in special diffusers
- applying the oils to fabrics and soft furnishings, such as bedding, pillows, or cushions
- massaging the oils into the skin
- mixing oils in with bath salts or lotions
You may wish to experiment with blending essential oils to create different fragrances and effects.
For example, try blending bergamot, frankincense, and lavender essential oils with a carrier oil. Another blend option is mixing bergamot, lavender, and ylang-ylang oils with a carrier oil. According to one 2015 review, inhalation aromatherapy with a blend of rose and lavender essences helped reduce anxiety in a group of female college students.
Risks and considerations
Pure essential oils are highly concentrated, and many are potentially toxic and should not be ingested. For this reason, it is vital to dilute them in carrier oil before use. Manufacturers usually provide advice on how best to dilute the essential oil. This reduces the likelihood that it will irritate a person’s skin, eyes, or lungs. Never apply undiluted essential oils to skin or eyes.
Signs of skin irritation or an allergic reaction to an essential oil can include:
- blotchy skin
Before applying the diluted essential oil to the skin, it is generally best to test it on a small patch of skin. If a reaction occurs, clean the skin with soap and warm water and stop using the oil.
When to see a doctor
Some people may find that essential oils can help promote relaxation and relieve stress. However, chronic anxiety can have a detrimental effect to both a person’s mental and physical health. If anxiety is causing significant distress or disruption to a person’s daily routine, they may wish to consider seeing a doctor.
Symptoms of anxiety can include:
- difficulty sleeping
- muscle tension
- avoiding public places
- wanting to stay at home
- difficulty with concentrating
There are many interventions that can help a person manage anxiety, including:
- psychotherapy, such as counselling and cognitive behavioural therapy
- relaxation techniques, such as meditation, mindfulness, and yoga
- support groups
- lifestyle changes, such as stress avoidance and regular exercise
Finding ways to minimise stress and anxiety through simple interventions like essential oils can be an effective way to look after your wellbeing. As with all things, it is worth experimenting with different oils to work out what works best for you.
Alternatively, you can visit an aromatherapist and get their expert opinion on what could help you best. Either way, taking time to look after yourself and looking for ways to manage those day-to-day sensations that can disturb your wellbeing can also support our sense of control and self-worth.
Written by Emma Browning, our Pastoral and Wellbeing Lead at Livability Millie College. Emma has supported people to improve their wellbeing for over 20 years.
Emma says: ‘Wellbeing is something woven through Livability’s work and I’ll be sharing some wellbeing themes and approaches in these blogs. My hope is that you enjoy reading them and they build a strong foundation for your wellbeing.’