*Please see important notice at the end of this post.
So far in my experience as an aromatherapist, the overwhelming majority of people approaching essential oils for wellbeing stand, dazed, in front of various brands of essential oils eager to find the right potion to help them sleep, help them find joy, help them find ease in their thoughts, and to help them find a boost of energy in their day unsure of what to choose and which brand to choose. It’s confusing and can be an intimidating process, to be sure. Certain essential oil manufacturers have instilled fear about quality and various misinformation in the minds of consumers rather than education so one can be mindful and discerning about what oil might best do the job for their concerns.
There are many roads to emotional wellness through aromatherapy. The wonderful thing about essential oils is that so many of them share the same chemical constituents that act upon our systems and areas of the brain (deep limbic system, for example) in similar ways, that it’s hard to make the wrong decision for yourself if you are following your nose (along with some research) while deciding what might be the right oil for you. While each botanical has their “wheelhouse” function – for example, lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) is famous for supporting a sense of calm (cerebral sedative, mild hypnotic) (Holmes, 2016), it also supports a wide swath of therapeutic action in the body beyond quieting the mental chatter that keeps us up at night. Lavender is classified as a respiratory relaxant and bronchodilator making it a potential ally in addressing clear breathing and calming coughs (Holmes, 2016). It also supports the digestive system (spasmodic digestive concerns) and can help support healthy levels of inflammation. Did you know lavender is not just for relaxation? It’s an herb known as an apoptogenic, which means it helps regulate our body’s reaction to stress. That means lavender can also help provide restorative action to various systems, especially the nervous system, when called upon. (Holmes, 2016)
Lavender, in most cases, is a safe, non-toxic, crowd favorite choice for addressing emotional equilibrium. If money is tight and you can only choose one oil to cover a lot of ground, lavender is an excellent choice. But there is a world of aromatherapy beyond lavender, which I’ll shed some light on here.
But first, let’s be clear. Aromatherapy is a holistic practice that takes into consideration our whole-body/mind/soul picture and seeks to address the roots of our dis-ease rather than addressing specific symptoms only. Aromatherapy for the release of stress, anger, anxious or depressive thought forms, traumatic memories and grief is not about bypassing these feelings but creating, instead, an experience, and maybe in time, a ritual by which we can help regulate our nervous (and other) system(s), allowing ourselves a safe space to feel at ease in the body enough to encourage a curiosity and care for the ways our bodies talk to us and request our attention. When the body wants change, it will let us know. The more we ignore the messages, the louder the body and mind will shout to get us to listen to it. Aromatherapy is not a band-aide but a practice that encourages a careful attention and dialogue.
Likewise, aromatherapy for resilience is about honoring the body and all the ways we access strength and stamina. Unlike our traditional Western, “get-it-done!” mentality, the focus here is less on efforting and more on restoration. So many of us have “held on” for far too long, to the point of white-knuckling through life. We work. We parent. We give to others – our time, attention, advocacy, love, energy, resources, talents. Giving is good. But when our tank is empty, giving leads to depletion. When we’re in a state of trauma during major life events (divorce, grief, recovering from emotional/physical trauma), giving becomes even more challenging, and in the end, non-sustainable. There is a difference between perseverance and resilience. Perseverance is persistence to keep going despite the challenge – we can keep going just by focusing on the breath; resilience is the capacity to recover quickly. Building resilience is like building a muscle – you can work to strengthen it, but it needs rest to recover in order to realize its strength.
Aromatherapy for release and resilience encourages us to recognize our edges, listen to what our body is trying to tell us, and honoring ourselves by making health-supportive choices for our overall well-being.
Before going into the oils, I should preface that my aromatherapy practice is creating custom blends for those seeking emotional/spiritual support. Though my training is based on the solid materia medica foundation of aromatherapy, I’m not a clinical aromatherapist and my approach is a trained intuitive one. To that end, when I write about these oils, I often write in a story-driven way, not as though I’m a chemist or clinician (because I’m not).
Essential Oils for Release
Neroli (Citrus aurantium var. amara) – The historical language of flowers is filled with celebration, embodiment, euphoria, support, acceptance, purification, and passage. Unless one is floral-averse, you can never go wrong in choosing a floral for emotional support, however each floral has their own unique gift to bestow. Neroli’s gift is one of both release and gentle embodiment.
When painful and/or traumatic memories and experiences build up in the emotional body, Neroli gently creates space for those feelings to be explored and maybe dismantled in order to put them away. We can never un-remember something painful, and indeed, we may feel its subtle reminders somatized in the body, but we can find the courage to look at it, perhaps understand it, and release it.
Peter Holmes writes of Neroli in Aromatica vol. 2, “The oil’s physiological action on the heart as the supreme regulating organ – restoring, regulating and calming, as needed – is a physical expression of this harmonizing effect.” (2019). Think about that metaphorically…the heart as a regulating organ. Regulating as in to bring back to stasis, equilibrium, harmony. Neroli reminds that release comes when we’re ready for it, and not a moment sooner, and that all will be well again. She’ll just hold our hand through the process.
Sweet Orange (Citrus sinensis) – Citrus oils are famous cheerleaders. Often associated with the archetype of the curious and joyful child, they never fail to shine their carefree light in blends aimed to support an uplifted mood. Just like our floral friends, though, each citrus offers something uniquely special on its own and within a blend. If I’m blending for someone who tends to be a driven, A-type personality, hyper-focused on their work and regime in general, where small infractions and inconveniences are met with inflexibility, I may choose sweet orange, which brings not only a sense of light-hearted cheer, but gentle ease and euphoria encouraging one to go with the flow. Sweet orange is often included in sleep blends along with Roman Chamomile and lavender, maybe because it’s the “anger management” oil. That is not to say that sweet orange waves their magic wand and *poof* the anger dissipates, but rather, it encourages a certain dissolve to the root of our frustrations.
Sweet orange is known to encourage digestion and the breakdown of fats. I can’t help but think of a dirty lasagna pan that needs a good, soapy soak in order to soften the baked on cheese and meat crust grease from its time in a hot oven. Sometimes, we’re not unlike that stubborn, crusty lasagna pan. Could I have chosen a more poetic metaphor? Yeah…but the next time you’re soaking your dishes with orange-scented dishsoap, I bet you’ll remember what sweet orange essential oil does.
Rose (Rosa damascena) – Beauty. Majesty. Divinity. When rose speaks, we listen. The flower most associated with love, beauty, and perfect grace across a wide swath of cultures. Beloved by goddesses, the ancients, and royalty, her fragrance is also bestowed upon the humble when they are visited by the Blessed Virgin, Queen of Heaven. Her assistance is nearly immediate, important, vital, but always gentle. She addresses matters of the heart.
Rose is for both release and resilience. She creates a sacred, soft, protected experience from which we might shed our tears of sorrow or bitterness in order to try at life again. My partner distinguished a common thread running through my blends that I make for retail sale. I said, “It’s probably rose.” Gabriel Mojay writes poetically of rose in Aromatherapy for Healing the Spirit (2000), “When rejection or loss has injured our capacity for self-love and nurturing, rose oil brings a sweet, gentle comfort, binding the heart-strings of the Mind. Bringing warmth to a soul grown cold through abuse or hurt, rose oil can touch the deepest despair, restoring the trust that makes it possible to love again.” When we truly follow our nose, we are most often lead to the botanical whose medicine is our greatest counselor and, sometimes, angel.
Essential Oils for Resilience
Pine (Pinus sylvestris) – Like the citrus and floral families, oils from the conifer family share many of the same therapeutic actions in the physical and emotional body. They benefit respiratory health, invigorate the mind while also fortifying a healthy sense of self. A walk through a pine grove might instill one with a sense of personal and/or spiritual renewal. The pine tree we know today comes from a very long lineage of conifer that survived the Ice Age. Let that sink in. Pine, the elder, bears witness to life and humanity on Earth and thus knows every lesson biology and behavior have to teach. It knows what destroys and what restores. It’s content to be what it is and to have taken the time to earn the wisdom of its predecessors.
Pine teaches resilience not by powering through with constant effort, but with wisdom and reverence earned only through patience and experience.
Thyme (Thymus vulgaris) – When one requires the spirit and courage of a warrior to carry on, call on thyme. Long associated with bucking up low morale and drive, thyme infuses the senses with its sweet, green, and pungent scent bringing a sense of heat to one who may feel “left out in the cold”, or waterlogged with anxious/depressive thoughts and/or grief. During the onset and height of the Pandemic, thyme was heavily relied upon for its disinfectant properties as well as for its respiratory and immune supportive properties. Thyme also supports digestion by igniting our appetite and easing discomfort due to gas, as well as circulation of the blood. (Mojay, 2000)
Recently in a workshop, a participant noted after engaging in some meditative work with the thyme, that it reminded them of one who is able to help you sort through what’s on the mind and help lay out all the options to help you discern the right choices for yourself, which I feel underscores what Peter Holmes writes about thyme, “By helping the transformation of chronic stuck emotions, this aromatic can play the role of a sweet, gentle, and compassionate ally in liberating the psyche from the harshness of self-imposed demands and limitations. It can help us understand, at the visceral level, that it is possible to achieve our goals and ideas in a gentle, balanced and integrated way.”
While thyme’s energy is activating and warm, supporting qualities associated with yang energy in Traditional Chinese Medicine, it’s important to note that while oils such as thyme may grab our attention in more direct ways than maybe a softer-smelling oil might, there is always encouragement to approach ourselves and our challenges with a gentle hand and heart. The common thread running through our plant world is Compassion, which often, is our greatest guide when approaching what we might finally let go of in order to thrive.
*This blog post is for educational/inspirational purposes only and is not intended to diagnose, treat, or mitigate disease, substitute mental healthcare, or serve as life advice. Please see your physician, qualified clinical herbalist and/or mental healthcare practitioner for chronic health concerns. Statements made here are not approved by the FDA. Please always follow essential oil safety best practices when working with essential oils and refer to a reputable aromatherapy guidebook to learn more about important safety and contraindication information.
Holmes, P., Camp, M., Mojay, G., Pollard, T. C., & Lev, C. (2016). Aromatica Volume 1: A Clinical Guide to Essential Oil Therapeutics. Principles and Profiles (1st ed.). Singing Dragon.
Holmes, P. (2019). Aromatica Volume 2: A Clinical Guide to Essential Oil Therapeutics. Applications and Profiles. Singing Dragon.
Mojay, G. (2000). Aromatherapy for Healing the Spirit. Inner Traditions/Bear.