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Aromatherapy for Depression: A Holistic Approach

Posted by Kris Washington-Carroll on May 12th 2023

Aromatherapy for Depression: A Holistic Approach

Aromatherapy is the use of organic compounds derived from plants to improve your health or mental or emotional state.

These healing aromas are sometimes taken in with incense, but aromatherapy is most commonly practiced with essential oils, which can be made from a variety of plant parts including roots, seeds, leaves and flower blossoms. Essential oils can be massaged into the skin or inhaled through a variety of methods such as being diffused into the air, dissolved into a bath, or simply held under the nose.

With May being Mental Health Awareness month, this article will discuss how aromatherapy works and how it might be an effective complementary therapy for depression—part of a holistic approach that supports a person’s natural capacity to regain balance and find emotional equilibrium.

How Does Aromatherapy Work?

There are two major theories about how aromatherapy works. The first says that many essential oils are antibacterial, antifungal, and antiviral, able to destroy unwanted microorganisms when absorbed into the skin and body tissues. It’s also believed that some essential oils have anti-inflammatory effects and therefore provide relief for conditions like muscular pain, burns and arthritis.

The second theory speaks more to the function of aroma. It says that essential oils stimulate the olfactory nerve (in the nose), which then sends signals to the brain's limbic system. The limbic system is the part of the brain that’s closely associated with emotion, memories and instincts. The stimulation to this part of the brain is believed to trigger the release of certain chemicals to create either feelings of activation and stimulation or feelings of deactivation, calm and relaxation.

Can Essential Oils Treat Depression?

Various studies have looked at the use of essential oils for depression, but they’ve often been considered scientifically inconclusive. This is in part because participants and researchers can often recognize the scent, and this removes the random element of an experiment that makes it dependable.

There are also a wide range of variables such as the strength, composition and purity of the oils, and the ways of administering oils also vary, so it's pretty hard to compare studies and come up with definitive results.

While science cannot conclude at this point that essential oils will directly treat depression, there is a growing body of verifiable research suggesting that they can help symptoms of depression in certain cases.

Let's look at some of the evidence that essential oils can ease depression-related symptoms.

Research on Essential Oils and Depression-related Symptoms

  • In 2015, a study showed that wild ginger (Asarum heterotropoides) essential oil reduced behaviors in mice that were similar to the behaviors of people experiencing depression.

  • A study on 79 college students with sleep issues (a symptom of depression) showed that inhaling lavender oil from a patch overnight improved the quality of the participants’ sleep.

  • Another study done in 2021 showed that lavender inhaled during sleep can improve both people's subjective experience of better sleep and scientifically-measurable improvement in sleep brain wave patterns; alpha waves during wake time were reduced, while delta waves during slow-wave sleep were increased.

  • As anxiety and other stress-related symptoms often accompany depression, a 2021 review of research found that the following essential oils may have a therapeutic effect on depression-related symptoms:
    ImageEssential OilPossible Therapeutic Effects
    Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia)reduces stress, reduces anxiety, relaxes breathing, increases calm, regulates blood pressure, boosts mood
    Chamomile (Matricaria chamomilla)reduces stress, reduces anxiety, antidepressant effect
    Bergamot (Citrus bergamia)lowers cortisol in saliva, suggesting stress reduction
    Yuzu (Citrus junos)reduces anxiety, antidepressant effect
    Sweet Orange (Citrus sinensis)reduces anxiety, boosts mood
    Rosemary (Salvia rosmarinus)reduces anxiety
    Sage (Salvia officinalis)boosts mood
    Spanish sage (Salvia lavandulifolia)boosts mood
    Combined lavender and Damascus Rose (Rosa damascene)reduces anxiety, antidepressant effect
    Combined lavender, ylang-ylang (Cananga odorata), and neroli (Citrus aurantium)reduces anxiety

    Aromatherapy Can Change Your Energy

    “Aromatherapy really can help bring a person into the present moment.”
    – Dr. Mason Turner, Chief of Psychiatry at Kaiser Permanente San Francisco

    Depression can often be an experience of ruminating on negative thoughts. Bringing the mind out of those thoughts and back to the present moment through the body can be a powerful way to create healing. Bringing your attention to a sensory experience can slow down the mind and create a moment of peace and a space of possibility in the silence where deeper wisdom can enter.

    Depression is energetically heavy. Ironically, this heaviness often comes not from experiencing too much painful emotion, but from not fully experiencing our emotions somatically. Tuning in to the body sensations of the raw emotions and witnessing them with non-judgment and compassion is what allows the heavy energy to move and transform. When this is hard to do on one’s own, healing essential oils can help hold the space.

    A Healing Meditation with Aromatherapy for Depression

    1. Sit or lie down in any comfortable position. Take your essential oil of choice and bring its aroma into your space. You can use a diffuser, sit in a bath, dab the oil on pulse points such as the inner wrists or behind the ears, or just hold the open bottle close to your nose.

    2. Close your eyes, and breathe in slowly for five seconds, inhaling the aroma. Focus on your breath and imagine the aroma reaching deep into your brain. Exhale slowly, imagining your breath gently releasing any stressful thoughts or emotions.

    3. Continue to repeat the breathing process. If your mind naturally becomes quiet and peaceful, enjoy the feeling. There’s nothing else you need to do.

    4. If emotions are coming up, remember that emotions are energetic vibrations in the body. See if you can find where in your body you feel the emotion. Hold your attention on that place and try to sense as much as you can about it, without trying to label it with words. Is it tight? Burning? Tingling? Achy? Hot? Cold? Just notice whatever you notice.

    5. If you find you are judging yourself or resisting the feeling, try saying words of acceptance in your mind. For example: “I see you, sadness. You are welcome here.”

    6. Finally, as you continue to breathe, you can imagine the aroma entering your body and moving to the place of your emotion, as if the scent were giving it a soothing hug.

    Remember that it is ok if the emotions change, and it is also ok if they don’t. Trust that either way, you have done something loving for yourself, and it will make a difference.

    When selecting an essential oil to use in your healing meditation, choose one that gives you a sense of peace and happiness. We all have different reactions to scents, so choose what works for you. If you start using the scent regularly, you’ll establish a relationship with it. After a while, you’ll find that just getting a whiff of it will instantly put you in a better state of mind.

    (Note: As with any complementary modality, you should always check with your healthcare provider to make sure aromatherapy is appropriate for you.)

    To experience these benefits (and more) for yourself, check out our collection of essential oils and incense to balance your energy, shift your mood and connect to your higher self.