They’re perfect for those moments when you’re overwhelmed.
Sometimes you need a little help to chill out when you’re on edge, overstretched, or a bundle of nerves. Enter essential oils, which have the power to soothe stress with certain scents. New to aromatherapy? Not to worry—you’ll find all the basics here.
What are essential oils?
Essential oils are highly concentrated aromatic plant extracts. They’re generally derived through steam distillation and are much stronger than the flowers, herbs, or trees they come from. Hundreds or even thousands of pounds of a plant can go into making just one pound of its essential oil.
Essential oil molecules activate the primal part of our brain that is responsible for our emotions, called the limbic system, likely by stimulating the olfactory system. What we smell affects the body, mind, and spirit: This is the premise of aromatherapy.
Essential oils have naturally occurring chemical compounds, and although they have a low toxicity profile, it’s important to exercise some caution when using these oils. Each essential oil may come with its own warnings, so it’s important to be informed and to speak with your local aromatherapist or natural health care practitioner before using essential oils, particularly where children and pregnant women are concerned.
In general, essential oils should not be ingested, and most shouldn’t be used on the skin without being diluted in a carrier oil.
How do I use essential oils?
You can inhale essential oils by using an essential oil diffuser, which causes the oils to vaporize into the air (see “Which essential oil diffuser is right for you?”). Essential oils can also be inhaled directly from the bottle, or a few drops can be placed on a tissue and wafted under your nose. Alternatively, you can add essential oils to a bowl of hot water and inhale the steam rising off the water (from a safe distance).
Massage is another effective method. Be sure to dilute the essential oils in carrier oils, such as almond, grapeseed, or jojoba, or in a lotion. The rule of thumb for mixing essential oils for massage is 3 percent dilution, or 20 drops of essential oil per 2 Tbsp of carrier oil.
Bathing in aromatic waters is an age-old ritual that is very beneficial for cleansing and relaxation. Using sea or Epsom salts, carrier oils, or even powdered milk as a base for your aromatic oils will ensure good dispersion throughout the water. Use 8 drops of essential oil per 1 cup of carrier of your choice.
Which essential oils soothe stress?
Bergamot (Citrus bergamia)
This oil, derived from the rind of the bergamot, an Italian citrus fruit, smells uplifting yet earthy. It helps balance anxiety and stress. A 2013 study of more than 100 patients awaiting same-day surgery found that those exposed to bergamot aromatherapy experienced less anxiety than the control group.
Try spritzing a room with bergamot. Add 3 drops of bergamot essential oil to 1 Tbsp of vodka. Pour the mixture into 1/4 cup of warm water in a spray bottle, shake well, and spritz.
Lemon (Citrus limonum)
Lemon essential oil smells like freshly squeezed lemon juice—clean and bright—and comes from the rind of the bright yellow fruit. It helps uplift your mood and stimulate your mind. Animal studies have shown lemon fragrance has restorative effects on stress-induced suppression of the immune system. In addition, research suggests that a key component of citrus essential oils, limonene, has sedative effects.
Inhaling citrus essential oils (such as lemon and bergamot) to brighten your day can work wonders, but it’s especially important to use a carrier when using these oils in the bath or on your skin. Undiluted citrus essential oil can burn and irritate skin. Citrus oils may also increase photosensitivity, so avoid using them before you spend time in the sun.
Neroli (Citrus aurantium)
This highly aromatic, floral-smelling essential oil comes from the spring blossoms of the bitter orange tree. Neroli essential oil helps soothe nervous tension by acting as a mild sedative. A study of postmenopausal women found inhaling neroli for five minutes twice a day for five days helped lower blood pressure and showed promise as a stress reliever. Another study found neroli oil reduced pre-procedure anxiety among colonoscopy patients.
Gardenia (Gardenia jasminoides)
Gardenia blossoms smell sweet, floral, exotic, and intoxicating—and the same can be said of the thick, luxurious essential oil that’s extracted from them. This essential oil helps reduce anxiety and promote a state of calm. German researchers found that inhalation of gardenia essential oil acted as strongly on the brain as common pharmaceutical sleeping pills and mood enhancers.
Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia)
Calling to mind fields full of purple blooms in the south of France, lavender essential oil smells clean, floral, and earthy. It helps decrease the symptoms of stress, among many other benefits. Research has shown lavender can help treat insomnia and reduce anticipatory anxiety.
Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis)
Lemon balm essential oil smells bright and lemony, but it’s actually derived from the leaves of a member of the mint family: the lemon balm herb. It helps with symptoms of stress, anxiety, and sleeplessness. Blend Melissa with other nerve-soothing and uplifting oils to help bring you into a relaxed and calm state.
Atlas cedarwood (Cedrus atlantica)
This earthy essential oil comes from the wood of the Atlas cedar tree. It helps balance nervousness, anxiety, and stress. A study of women from three different countries suggested that cedrol, a major component of cedarwood essential oil, had a sedative effect despite differences in the women’s ethnicity and living environments. An energetically grounding oil, like most tree oils, cedarwood can help to focus the mind.
Which essential oil diffuser is right for you?
These traditional diffusers use a candle or other heat source to heat a bowl containing essential oils so that the oils evaporate into the air. They can’t be left unattended, and any candles should be blown out before bed.
These small, inexpensive electric units plug into a wall for the home or into the lighter in your car and are easy to operate. They use a fan to quickly spread scents into your space.
These modern diffusers use ultrasonic vibrations, not heat, to break the essential oils into micro particles and disperse them in a cold mist.