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How about an easy, cheap and drug-free way to reduce your anxiety right now? The answer could be as close as the tip of your nose!

Scents trigger memories and emotional reactions:

  • Freshly cut grass on a hot day – the joy and freedom of childhood play
  • The smell of roasting turkey – warmth and comfort and family

Our ancient olfactory systems – much older than our thinking cerebral cortex – intertwine with systems of emotion and stress; the olfactory cortex is actually located within the limbic system and amygdala of the brain, areas that handle emotions and emotional memories.1

Smells have a direct pathway to the emotion centers of the brain and they can provoke strong emotional responses.

Given this, it’s no stretch to wonder if you could use the application of certain aromas as a way to manipulate your emotional reactions.

Read on to learn more about:

  • Research which supports the idea of using aromatherapy as a means of reducing stress, anxiety or agitation
  • Why states of anxiety increase our smelling power and how this can magnify smell’s emotional influence
  • Which smells reduce stress, anxiety and agitation
  • How to incorporate the calming power of aroma into your daily routine

Research on Aromatherapy for Anxiety Reduction

Lemon Balm Reduces Agitation

Researchers at Newcastle General Hospital in the UK compared aromatherapy with lemon balm vs. a placebo as a treatment for agitation among a group of study subjects with severe dementia.

They found that subjects receiving the lemon balm (applied to the face and arms twice a day) achieved a 35% reduction in agitation, compared to an 11% reduction seen in the placebo group, which received a twice daily application of neutral smelling oil.2

Lavender Reduces Dental Anxiety

Many people experience anxiety while sitting in a waiting room for a scheduled dental appointment. Could aromatherapy alleviate some of this anxiety?

To find out, researchers interviewed 340 subjects over a period of days who were waiting for dental procedures. Half were interviewed while experiencing lavender aromatherapy in the waiting room and half were interviewed under an odor-free control condition.

Those who got the lavender aromatherapy reported significantly less current stress than those in the control group.3

Neroli Reduces Anxiety and Blood Pressure During Colonoscopies

Patients in Taiwan scheduled to receive a colonoscopy were divided into 2 groups: one group underwent the procedure with neroli aromatherapy and the other group underwent the procedure with placebo aromatherapy.

Those who received neroli aromatherapy had lower systolic blood pressure before and after the procedure.

Based on the efficacy, lack of side effects and the ease/affordability of use, the study authors recommended aromatherapy as a useful intervention.4

Smells Influence How Much We Like Other People

Knee-jerk dislike and distrust of new people works against recovery from anxiety disorders and against achieving general happiness in life.

Interestingly and surprisingly, smells seem to influence our perceptions of the likeability of new people that we meet.

Researchers at Northwestern University gave study subjects pictures of neutral faces to rate for likeability. Prior to showing each picture, experimenters released a positive, neutral or negative odor, which was delivered at a lower than detectable threshold.

Subjects rated faces as less likable after smelling a negative odor and more likeable after smelling a positive odor.

Interestingly, this effect only occurred with smells at a subliminal level. When subjects were consciously aware of negative odors, these smells no longer influenced likability ratings.5

Anxiety Heightens Sense of Smell

Maybe it shouldn’t surprise us that aromas have such a profound influence on mood and stress, especially when you consider that the physiological state of anxiety actually heightens our smelling powers.

To find out how much anxiety influences sensory abilities researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison popped study subjects into an MRI machine and then exposed them serially to minute levels of positive, neutral and negative aromas.

  1. Researchers then asked periodically if subjects could detect any aroma.
  2. As they performed these smell tests, they also evaluated subject anxiety levels (after all, spending time in an MRI machine can be quite stressful).

They found that as stress levels rose a person’s ability to detect very faint negative aromas also increased - and that as anxiety spiked, negative smells caused greater emotional arousal.

So heightened stress and anxiety increases smelling power and also our emotional reaction to smells. This likely occurs as a part of a defense mechanism associated with the fight or flight response.6

Side or Adverse Effects and Risks

Studies on aroma therapy report few adverse results. This is a low-risk intervention to try out.7

People who may need to use essential oils with caution include:

  • Pregnant women
  • People with strong allergies
  • People with severe asthma


  • People with estrogen-linked cancers may need to avoid estrogen-like compounds, like sage, fennel or aniseed.
  • People with high blood pressure may want to avoid rosemary or spike lavender.
  • Pregnant women and those with a history of seizures should avoid hyssop oil.8

You should avoid getting essential oils in your eyes or mouth and you should never ingest these oils, in any form.

Anxiolytic Scents

Essential oils commonly used to reduce anxiety, stress or depression include:

  • Lavender
  • Orange
  • Rose
  • Bergamot
  • Lemon
  • Sandalwood
  • Clary sage
  • Roman Chamomile
  • Geranium9
  • And others   

How to Do Aromatherapy at Home

You can incorporate the power of scents into your daily routine by using one or more of the following:

  • In the bath - Add 4 to 6 drops of an essential oil into a spoonful of honey or vegetable oil, and then add this into a full tub.
  • Through massage – Add 4 to 6 drops of an essential oil into a Tbls of vegetable oil, and then use this as massage oil.
  • By inhaling – Add 2 drops into a large bowl of hot water, and then inhale the humid air.
  • With an oil burner – add 6 drops in water to an oil burner or electric vaporizer.10

Buying Essential Oils

You can buy essential oils for aromatherapy at health food stores and stores which sell vitamins and dietary supplements.

Make sure you buy plant-derived essential oils, not chemical reproductions.

Aromatherapy Won’t Cure You – But It May Help

Certain smells clearly reduce stress and anxiety. However, aromatherapy provides only modest benefits and no one suggests that it be used as a stand-alone treatment for any type of clinical anxiety condition.

That being said, aromatherapy doesn’t cause side effects, it costs very little to try and it may well provide you with positive results. For these reasons, if you struggle with stress or anxiety, you should consider experimenting with aromas as one way to manage these negative states.

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Page last updated Aug 02, 2013

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