14 Essential Oils for Stress Relief
Medically reviewed by Allison Truong, M.D.
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Keeping up with the fast pace of life can be a challenge in even the best of times. When you add a chronic disease to the mix, it’s very easy to become overwhelmed by stress and worry.
Fortunately, there are many steps we can take to cope with stress and uncertainly. One of the strongest tools in our anti-anxiety tool belt is self-care. The importance of self-care to our physical and emotional health cannot be overstated. Similar to using soothing bubble baths, some people use essential oils like lavender, eucalyptus, and rose as part of their daily or weekly wellness practices—but, do they really help us relax?
What Are Essential Oils?
Essential oils are the fragrant essence of plants reduced to a highly concentrated form. These oils vary widely in their makeup, aroma, and benefits. For example, the chemical compounds found in essential oils can be derived from different parts of different plants, such as the leaves, bark, flowers, or fruit peels. The oils can be made by crushing the plant or using a special steam extraction process.
There are many different types of essential oil used for therapeutic purposes, including those from chamomile, geranium, lavender, and bergamot. Each essential oil has a unique chemical makeup that determines both how it smells and how it affects the body.
“Certain essential oils have compounds that create a calming effect that can greatly improve feelings of anxiety and stress,” says Lisa Chase, a physical therapist in St. Petersburg, Florida.
How Essential Oils Work
The therapeutic use of essential oils, also known as aromatherapy, has been shown to bestow a variety of health benefits. Although scientific research into the therapeutic benefits of essential oils is limited, clinical research has demonstrated the influence of essential oils on the nervous system. Researchers have found that essential oils can impact the body both physically and psychologically, positively influencing things like blood pressure, heart rate, respiratory rate, brain waves, and cortisol levels—resulting in an overall feeling of calm.
Essential oils can be used aromatically and topically, says Chase, and aromatics tend to be one of the easiest and most accessible ways to start. You might try using an essential oil diffuser, which you can find at many major retailers. Ultrasonic diffusers use steam to slowly distribute the aromatics throughout a room. To use one, simply fill the diffuser with water and add a few drops of your preferred essential oil. There are also ceramic diffusers where a tea light candle is lit underneath the diluted oil to warm it. You can experiment with blending two or more different oils together, and you can even add different oils at different times of the day.
When essential oils are diffused into the air, the molecules of the essential oil stimulate your body’s olfactory nerves. The nervous system then sends signals to the limbic system, the area of your brain responsible for controlling emotions.
An oil with a calming effect, such as lavender, spearmint, or ylang ylang can be used to help you wind down at night; while, invigorating scents such as wild orange, eucalyptus, and peppermint may help energize you in the morning to boost the start of your day, says Chase.
Another easy way to aromatically benefit from the potent oils, if you’re not quite ready to plunk down on an infuser, is to wet a washcloth, add a few drops of your favorite essential oils, and place it in a steamy shower. Or add drops to a soothing bath for an incredibly relaxing self-case ritual. You can also just dab a few drops on a tissue, cotton ball, or handkerchief and keep it in your pocket or office drawer for whenever you need a soothing or energizing lift. Even just dabbing your pillow with a calming oil, or smelling the oils directly from the container can be effective. Just inhale the scent with a few slow, deep breaths.
Topical use is a little tricker. “If applying essential oil directly to your skin, you need to dilute the oil with a carrier oil to reduce the risk of skin irritation,” says Melissa Gentry, a therapist-educator based in Los Angeles, California. You can use almond, coconut, jojoba, or olive oil as a carrier oil. And in some cases, you may be able to dilute the essential oil with water.
The Best Essential Oils for Relaxation
Lavender, the number one anti-anxiety oil, is made from the purple-flowered aromatic herb. It’s renowned for its calming properties. It’s among the most well-researched of the essential oils. Clinical studies suggest that lavender impacts the limbic system, the emotional center of the brain. Lavender has been found to lower anxiety levels, reduce stress, and promote relaxation.
Bergamot oil, which is derived from bergamot oranges, is another popular anti-anxiety oil. Research in humans and animals has found that it may lower blood pressure, slow heart rate, and diminish the stress response. The strong citrus scent may even promote feelings of romance and love.
Chamomile oil is made from an herb that comes from daisy-like flowers. It has a variety of relaxing and sedating properties that make it a common choice for bedtime. (Many people also enjoy sipping chamomile tea.)
Clary sage oil is made from one of the many different varieties of sage. According to research, clary sage can help ease tension and reduce cortisol levels. Clary sage oil has also been used to treat menstrual cramps. It may also be an aphrodisiac.
Lemon balm may help to reduce tension, calm nerves, and induce feelings of relaxation. Research suggests that lemon balm reduces stress and improves mood in people with high levels of self-reported stress. Research suggests lemon balm may be beneficial during short periods of acute stress and for chronic, long-term stress.
This floral-scented oil is derived from the flowering ylang ylang tree. It can reduce stress and anxiety, promote feelings of relaxation, and calm the nervous system. It may lower blood pressure and heart rate while promoting a sense of well‑being.
Valerian oil is derived from an herb that has been used throughout the centuries to promote sleep and calm nerves. Valerian’s slightly sedating effects make it a common choice for the bedroom. Add a few drops of the essential oil to a diffuser at bedtime, suggests Lina Velikova, M.D., Ph.D., an immunologist, researcher, and assistant professor at Sofia University.
Native to Australia and cultivated worldwide, eucalyptus may reduce stress and anxiety. Inhaling eucalyptus oil can also help clear the airways and allow for deep, calming breaths.
Rose oil’s lovely aroma is distilled from rose petals. It may lower anxiety, reduce stress, and improve mood. Velikova tells patients, “Soak your feet in a basin filled with warm water and diluted rose essential oil. You can also add rose oil to your favorite unscented moisturizer or shea butter and massage into the skin.”
Frankincense oil, made from the resin of the Boswellia tree, may help reduce feelings of stress and depression. This musky-smelling oil is sometimes combined with lavender and bergamot for powerful relaxation effects.
Holy basil, also known as tulsi, is made from a different type of basil than the one you’ll find in your kitchen. One of the most commonly employed plants in Ayurvedic medicine, holy basil may help reduce both physical and emotional stress.
Derived from a shrub native to South Africa and cultivated throughout the world, geranium oil may help balance hormones and is said to soothe troubled minds.
Jasmine oil is one of the most popular oils used in aromatherapy in Thailand. Its beautiful floral scent can calm the nervous system without causing drowsiness. It may even stimulate feelings of romance.
Jatamansi oil is derived from a plant that is chemically similar to valerian, and it has been used in Ayurvedic medicine to promote relaxation and sleep. Because it affects neurotransmitters in the brain, it may help reduce depression. “Massage diluted Jatamansi oil into your temples or forehead,” suggests Velikova.
How Safe Are Essential Oils for Stress?
When used correctly, essential oils are generally considered safe, with a low incidence of side effects. The most important thing to remember is that essential oils are highly concentrated and must be diluted, says Gentry. The most common side effect of topically applied essential oils is skin irritation.
Before using a new oil, Velikova suggests conducting a patch test at home. “Place a few drops of diluted essential oil on your wrist or elbow, then cover the spot with a bandage,” she explains. “Check the area in 24 hours. If you see any redness, rash, or itching, the oil isn’t safe for you to use on your skin.” This may suggest that you may be allergic to either the essential oil or the carrier oil, a condition called allergic contact dermatitis. To confirm and help you identify which ingredient triggered the reaction, a dermatologist would perform a skin allergy test called comprehensive patch testing.
As a general rule, avoid ingesting essential oils, as some can be toxic. If you’re interested in oral consumption of essential oils, speak with your doctor first about dosage and potential drug interactions. If you’re pregnant or breastfeeding, consult your doctor before using essential oils at all.
Also, know that the use of essential oils in infants and children remains controversial. For example, there have been a few reported cases of pre-pubescent males developing breast tissue after using topical lavender and tea tree oil; this was reversible upon discontinuing the oil use. Talk to your child’s doctor about each specific oil you want to use on your child and why—they will be best equipped to advise you about potential problems.
How Effective Are Essential Oils?
Essential oils are not a treatment for any physical or psychological disease. They’re simply a tool to aid in relaxation and stress relief. In healthy people, essential oils can be very helpful in reducing acute instances of stress and anxiety, but they are not a substitute for professional treatment.
“There are limitations on the use of the oils,” says Benjamin Todd Thatcher, D.O., a psychiatrist in Salt Lake City, Utah. “I always tell my patients to seek further treatment if symptoms persist after the use of the oil. There might be an underlying medical condition that needs to be treated first.”
If your occasional anxiety develops into an anxiety disorder, the most effective treatment involves a combination of psychotherapy and medication.
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