Anxiety is everywhere and if it’s not affecting you, there’s a good chance it’s affecting someone you know. According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, anxiety disorders affect 40 million adults in the United States every year (1). That accounts for 18.1 percent of the population.
Those numbers in and of themselves are enough to cause you even more anxiety. Whether it’s work, relationships, the news or our genetics (or, for some folks, all of the above), no one is truly immune to anxiety.
Thankfully, natural remedies like essential oils can be used to help ease stress and anxiety. Let’s take a closer look at how chronic stress affects our health and some of the best essential oils for anxiety.
How Chronic Stress Affects Your Health
Clinical aromatherapist Amy Kreydin explains that human beings have two main processes when it comes to stressors: “We can be in an active state or a state of rest.” Or, in other words, “fight-or-flight and rest-or-digest.”
When we’re under chronic stress, Kreydin says, “We can’t tell the difference between big stressors or little stressors.” When those wires get crossed, you might start to react the same way to wildly different issues. (For instance, someone cutting in front of you in line at the grocery store could produce the same reaction as, say, getting into a car accident.)
“Internally, you may chemically produce the same volume of stress,” Kreydin says. This not only has a major impact on your mental health but also your physical health. “If you can’t get into the rest-and-digest mode, you’re getting bad sleep and a bad intake of your nutrition.” Since sleep and diet are an essential part of your health, being in constant fight-or-flight mode “has a snowball effect on the rest of your system,” Kreydin says.
Using Essential Oils for Anxiety
In order to combat anxiety and the many ways it can impact our overall well-being, essential oils for stress are proving to be a source of hope and major help.
“The ability of some essential oils to shift us out of that fight-or-flight and into rest-or-digest influences the chemical shift of the nervous system,” Kreydin says. The direct inhalation of certain essential oils draws them into the limbic part of the brain, where memory is stored and where actions (such as anxiety) are controlled.
By inhaling essential oils that best fit your profile (more on that in a bit), you can start to anchor a certain scent to a certain feeling. And, because these scents are going to the part of your brain where memory resides, you’ll associate that essential oil with a particular feeling.
“Let’s say you inhale a bit of lavender before bedtime. You start to train the brain that lavender is relaxing and it’s time to go to sleep,” Kreydin explains. She notes that you can also use essential oils during the day and pair them with a relaxing activity like meditation. “You are telling your brain, ‘OK, this is downtime.’”
It doesn’t have to be a once-a-day endeavor, either. In fact, it may be to your benefit to use essential oils as much as what works for you. “Just like we exercise our bodies, we can exercise our brain to relax, and integrating essential oils in intervals throughout the day can have a nice ripple effect,” Kreydin says.
7 Best Essential Oils for Anxiety
Whether you decide to visit an aromatherapist or figure out which scents work best on your own, here are seven of the best essential oils for anxiety:
One of the most popular essential oils, particularly for stress and anxiety, lavender has been shown time and again to have relaxing effects on people (2). “Because it acts as a sedative, it tells the central nervous system it’s time to relax,” Kreydin explains. While lavender may not be the best option for daytime use in some people (it may trigger sleepiness), it’s a fast-acting essential oil for those who do benefit from it.
How to use it: Kreydin recommends using an aroma stick for lavender inhalation so that it doesn’t overpower entire spaces.
An ideal essential oil if you’re feeling flustered, ylang ylang can help clear out the negative headspace you might be stuck in. In one study, subjects who applied ylang ylang oil rated themselves more calm and relaxed than subjects in the control group (3). Kreydin praises the “cooling effect” ylang ylang has on people, as well as its “affinity for liver energy, which is where we store our anger and frustration.”
How to use it: Since ylang ylang has a powerful floral fragrance, and too much can cause headaches, Kreydin recommends using an aroma stick over a diffuser.
Though rose is one of the more expensive essential oils, its therapeutic benefits make it worth every penny. A 2017 study observed that rose oil had physiological and psychological relaxation, analgesic and anti-anxiety effects (4). A highly recommended essential oil for women, particularly older women, Kreydin says it can do wonders for those going through menopause and the stressors that can come along with it. Plus, who doesn’t like to stop and, quite literally, smell the roses?
How to use it: Once again, Kreydin suggests an aroma stick over a diffuser when using rose.
When it comes to jasmine—a very floral scent—sometimes less is more. But jasmine offers unquestionable benefits for some people dealing with anxiety. Jasmine oil has a stimulating effect that could be useful for relieving depression and uplifting mood, one study found (5). In addition, jasmine has been revered for centuries for its anti-inflammatory and analgesic properties (6). So, if your physical pain is causing stress, jasmine may be able to help with both issues! Because jasmine has such a strong scent, Kreydin suggests balancing it out with complementary scents like cedarwood or frankincense.
How to use it: As with other stronger scents, it’s best to dilute jasmine if using a diffuser, or use it in liberal doses with an aroma stick.
While peppermint may remind you of brushing your teeth, that might not actually be a bad thing, especially if you find yourself stuck in a negative headspace. Kreydin says that peppermint is as refreshing a scent as it is stimulating. In fact, some studies have found peppermint to enhance memory and increase alertness (7). For some users, peppermint awakens thoughts of, “this clears my brain and I feel good. I have a clean slate.” Peppermint has also demonstrated calming effects in combination with other essential oils. In a study on nursing students, subjects who inhaled a blend of lavender, peppermint, rosemary and clary sage aromas experienced lower levels of anxiety and perceived stress than the control group (8).
How to use it: Users can reap the benefits of peppermint via diffusers and massage oils, or by diluting it in a warm bath.
Derived from the leaves and small twigs of the bitter orange tree, petitgrain oil has sedative and relaxant properties. A 2017 study suggested that inhaling petitgrain essential oil can improve workplace performance and reduce stress levels through balancing the autonomic nervous system (9). Petitgrain delivers more of a “green and grassy” scent, which Kreydin says is ideal for people who don’t react well to florals. Kreydin likes to mix petitgrain with a sweet and relaxing citrus, such as mandarin or tangerine, to give patients a calming and serene scent profile.
How to use it: Depending on how you respond to petitigrain and its complementary scents, you can put it in a diffuser before bed or use an aroma stick.
While citrus scents can give some users a feeling of sunshine and happiness, others may feel overwhelmed by essential oils such as lemon or orange. (And overwhelmed definitely isn’t a feeling you want to have when you’re trying to de-stress.) This is where neroli, which comes from the flowers of the bitter orange tree, comes into play, Kreydin says. For those who respond well to it, neroli can pull double duty as a mood booster and a tension reliever. A 2014 study on postmenopausal women found that neroli oil may have potential as an effective intervention to reduce stress and improve the endocrine system (10).
How to use it: Neroli can be used via diffuser or directly on the skin, but Kreydin warns that the scent may still be too strong for some.
How to Choose an Essential Oil for Anxiety
If you’re a newcomer to the essential oils realm, it’s best to figure out which scents work best for you when you’re in a stress-free state. If you’re in a panic mode, you don’t know what your response is going to be. (For instance, if you’re panicking and a scent like lemon triggers an unpleasant memory, it could make it worse.)
When you’re feeling more even-keeled, do a test inhalation and see how the various essential oils make you feel. For many, it’s different from what they had initially expected, Kreydin says. If you’re used to synthetic scents (like those from candles or detergents), the actual scent may come off as too strong or even unpleasant to you.
That’s why booking an appointment with an aromatherapist may make the most scents— ahem, sense—when it comes to anti-anxiety essential oils and/or essential oil blends for anxiety.
Not only does this allow you to experience essential oils for anxiety in a controlled environment, but an aromatherapist is “someone who understands the chemistry of essential oils, which ones can and cannot interact with certain medications, and how your body will react with them,” Kreydin notes.