If you’ve ever felt your stress and anxiety wash away as soon as the aroma of ocean waves crashing on warm, sugar-soft beach sand hits your nose, you understand the very real power of scent’s impact on mood.
Imagine a hike into the forest on a cool autumn day and crunching leaves beneath your feet releasing another distinct aroma. The intoxicating smells are transformative, revealing something everyone who has ever dabbled in aromatherapy will tell you. Scents are powerful, which is why aromatherapy is such an ancient and respected practice, one that has been used for centuries as a way to ease stress, relieve anxiety, and boost levels of happiness.
According to Rachel S. Herz, Assistant Psychology Professor at Brown University and author of the book, The Scent of Desire, scents are powerful because the olfactory nerves that process aromas are connected to the parts of the brain that control emotion.
That’s why aromas that are connected to joyful memories will elicit feelings of happiness, while other less pleasant aromas can trigger flashbacks to bad experiences.1 But the relationship between scent and mood goes much deeper than that.
Essential Oils and Mood
Essential oil scents release molecules that are easily inhaled by using a room diffuser or personal diffuser, which allow the molecules to connect with the olfactory nerves and interact with the brain.
The volatile compounds in many essential oils work in synergy with one another, easing symptoms of anxiety by changing the way the regions of the brain that control mood function. The sense of smell is the only sense that is so intimately connected to the brain that simply breathing in certain aromas triggers an emotional response.
The Science and Art of Scent
Aromatherapy has been described as both an art and a science. The holistic treatment option for stress, anxiety, pain, and improved clarity and focus, among other things, is rooted in scientific principles, but creating effective blends is a bit of art and science. It involves part perfumery, part lab-researched levels of oils that contain different but complementary compounds that work together to create a powerful product.
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When inhaled, the fine particles of volatile essential oils interact with the olfactory system, which includes olfactory nerves in the nose that connect to the limbic system, the oldest part of the brain that controls emotions and memory.
Because smell and memory are so closely connected, the brain often processes a memory before you even realize that you are smelling an aroma connected to that memory, which showcases the power scents have on how you feel.
Aromatherapy takes advantage of the power of scents and the role they play in your emotional state of mind. Theresa Molnar, executive director of the Sense of Smell Institute, says that aromas can have positive effects on mood and can also alleviate stress, improve sleep quality, and boost cognitive performance.
Powerful Mood-Changing Scents
There’s a reason why Pillsbury recently tried a marketing stunt that involved filling several movie theaters in with the aroma of cinnamon buns during a pre-film commercial for the product. Pillsbury’s marketing team understands the way scent works and took advantage of a favorite scent to stimulate appetites and trigger holiday memories, along with cravings for the sweet treat. 2
Cinnamon is not the only scent that has the power to trigger an emotional response. While Herz has said that odors only trigger an emotional response if there are memories associated with those scents, many essential oils contain compounds that influence mood by manipulating the release of certain hormones, especially those associated with mood.
The Citrus Story
Some aromas such as essentials from citrus boost the production of serotonin, a happiness hormone, and reduce levels of norepinephrine, a stress hormone that triggers symptoms of anxiety, including an elevated heart rate.
The sweet aroma of citrus is a powerhouse, interacting with the brain’s receptors to pain, sparking a sense of alertness, and suppressing symptoms of anxiety by reacting with hormones that trigger symptoms of stress, including cortisol, which is linked to a wide range of health problems when levels are high in the long-term. Cortisol causes the release of blood glucose needed to flee stressors, a leftover from the caveman era that isn’t applicable during a traffic jam or stressful day at the office.
In addition to upping the risk factors for diseases including obesity, heart disease, and diabetes, anxiety is the most common gateway to other mood issues, especially when feelings of anxiousness linger long-term, leading to sleeplessness, irritability, and the inability to concentrate or focus.
Grapefruit and tangerine are two especially effective oils to reduce cortisol levels, immediately bringing a feeling of calm that absolutely beats the racing heart and panic associated with anxiety. But they are not the only members of the citrus family known to alleviate stress and accentuate feelings of happiness.
Other citrus essential oils that have been used to relieve symptoms of anxiety and boost feelings of happiness. These include neroli (bitter orange), bergamot (a lime-like citrus fruit), mandarin, sweet orange, grapefruit, verbena, and lime.
According to a 2006 study from Japanese researchers that appeared in the journal Behavioural Brain Research, lemon oil helped reduce visible signs of stress in mice, offering a degree of evidence that the sweet, bracing scent of citrus may also play a role in easing human stress. 3
Because of the way essential oil scents activate certain areas of the brain, there has been extensive research on essential oils that boost mood. Floral scents also interact with the brain’s neurotransmitters in a way that has the potential to lift a blue mood.
Lavender is the queen in this aromatherapy category. It contains compounds that slow heart rate and calm the nervous system, bringing about feelings of relaxation.
Depression is considered the top health issue—and the top mood-related health issue—in the United States, but aromatherapy has the power to keep it under control.
With chronic stress as a precursor, calming exotic essentials from resins, grass, and wood can help stave off onset of depression and bring a sense of calm. Because of the effectiveness, frankincense, sandalwood, patchouli, palo santo, and others in this family have been used for meditative purposes for centuries.
Meditation on its own brings calm, but adding the aromatherapy benefits of incense or essential oils magnifies the feeling of relaxation that meditation practices can bring.
And according to Pamela Dalton, a sensory psychologist at Philadelphia’s Monell Chemical Senses Center, mixing meditation and aromatherapy will eventually create a Pavlovian response, so that when the time is tight but stress is keeping you from focusing, the aroma will bring a sense of peace and relaxation, even without the mediation session. 4
Interestingly, women are more likely to accept aromatherapy as a holistic health option, but according to a 2008 study appearing in the Journal of Men’s Health, aromatherapy was especially effective at reducing anxiety in men. 5
Most essential oils contain compounds that interact with the same areas of the brain as prescription drugs in the benzodiazepine class, elevating levels of key neurotransmitters associated with mood, without the grogginess or other side effects that often accompany such medications.
Because of this, essential oils might be well worth trying for regulating mood, especially to prevent excess stress and anxiety from culminating into more serious mood disorders. Try using some of the essential oils outlined above topically after dilution with a carrier oil or aromatically in a room diffuser or personal diffusers like Zen or Happy MONQ.
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