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Chances are you've already come across essential oils—maybe you've even used essential oils for anxiety. Like when your yoga instructor rubbed some on your shoulders at the end of practice, or when you always feel so zen at your friend's apartment because she has that aromatic diffuser on her countertop. In this increasingly health-conscious world, these plant-derived liquids are suddenly popping up everywhere.
What Are Essential Oils?
The practice of using essential oils is known as aromatherapy, and these oils are highly concentrated liquids extracted from a plant, explains Hope Gillerman, certified aromatherapist and author of Essential Oils Every Day. "And while they have a very strong aroma, it's not the aroma itself that has the beneficial effect," she says. "It's the chemicals in the liquid that can have a physiological and chemical effect on your brain chemistry and body."
Benefits of Essential Oils
While the uses for these essential oils can be anything from clearing skin to healing damaged hair, one of the major things essential oils can help with is anxiety. (Jenna Dewan Tatum even uses them to beat stress.) Stress-induced anxiety is extremely common: It's what you feel when you're running late to a meeting, making a big presentation in front of your boss, or dealing with a huge fight with your partner and, bam—your heart starts to race, your pulse skyrockets, and it becomes hard to focus. What's more: Anxiety is the most common mental health illness in the U.S., affecting over 18 percent of adults each year. And while essential oils should never be used as a replacement for prescribed anxiety medication, they can be an additional stress reliever, or help people with stress-induced, situational anxiety. (This Weird Test Could Predict Anxiety and Depression Before You Experience Symptoms.)
How to Use Essential Oils
Here's how it works: "What happens when you open a bottle of essential oil—or put it on a tissue, dab it on your body, or put it in a diffuser—is that liquid is so highly volatile, which means that it evaporates very quickly, that it essentially creates a vapor around your body that you inhale," says Gillerman.
When you breathe in, those particles go in two directions. "They instantly go into your sinuses, where there are nerve receptors from the olfactory part of the brain," she says. "The vapor is then absorbed directly into the brain tissue, where it impacts memory, emotion and the lymphatic brain, which is connected to your heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing," says Gillerman. "But the particles are also inhaled into your lungs, where they enter your bloodstream and get involved in your [hormonal] endocrine system, where they change your body's reaction to stress." (Learn More About the Potential Health Benefits of Essential Oils.)
The more of the particles you inhale—and the closer they are to your nose—the stronger the effect of the essential oil. Gillerman recommends putting a bit on your fingertips and dabbing it on your temples and the spot between your eyebrows at the top of the bridge of your nose. "That's a very potent point for calming the nervous system," she says. Slowly breathe in and out for five to six breaths. "You can also put a drop on the palm of each hand, and then cup your hands to your face and breathe in," she says. "This is nice because you can hold your hands as close or as far away from your face as you want."
Not all essential oils are created equally, though, and certain oils are thought to better target anxiety while others may have different benefits. "Just make sure any oil you use is completely natural, organic plant essence," says Gillerman. Essential oils are not regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, but you should look for options that are certified organic, says Gillerman. "It's your surefire way of making sure that you are getting an essential oil that is not diluted or polluted with a toxin or petrochemical."
So if you're suffering from anxiety, first talk to your doctor about potential anxiety treatment options. Then, if together you decide to try essential oils for anxiety and stress relief, these are your best options. (Also Consider These Anxiety-Reducing Solutions for Common Worry Traps.)
Lavender Essential Oil
There's a reason lavender is used in so many spa services: It really will chill you out. "The reason I like lavender as an essential oil for anxiety is because not only does it contain linalool, which has a sedative effect, it also relaxes the muscles, lowers blood pressure, increases circulation, [and] lowers the cortisol in our bloodstream—all things that we are looking for to help us deal with stress," says Gillerman. And science agrees—in one study, patients suffering from an anxiety disorder were given lavender orally and it improved symptoms of restlessness and disturbed sleep, and had a positive effect on general well-being and quality of life. (Love everything lavender? Try This Iced Lavender Matcha Green Tea Latte.)
Try it: Majestic Pure Lavender Oil ($22; amazon.com)
Lemongrass Essential Oil
Lemongrass is another spa staple, and for good reason. People who inhaled three to six drops of the fragrance showed a reduction in their anxiety and tension levels immediately, according to a study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine. Plus, despite responding with anxiousness to a test designed to measure anxiety levels (makes sense), these same people completely recovered from the stress in just five minutes.
Try it: Lemongrass Pure Essential Oil ($12.99; amazon.com)
Bitter Orange Essential Oil
The bitter orange tree actually yields three different essential oils: oil that comes from the fruit; petitgrain, which comes from the leaf; and neroli, which comes from the flower. "These are all fantastic essential oils for anxiety, especially when it comes to sleep," says Gillerman. One study performed by researchers from Mei University in Japan found that people who inhaled orange fragrance were able to reduce the antidepressants they took, and the orange oil returned their endocrine and immune systems to normal levels. Another study published in the journal Physiology & Behavior found that people who smelled orange (or lavender) oil while waiting for a dental procedure were significantly less anxious than those who listened to calming music or those who had no stimulation at all. And who doesn't get some anxiety when going to the dentist? (Related: 10 Essential Oils You've Never Heard Of and How to Use Them)
Try it: Bitter Orange Undiluted Essential Oil ($6.55; amazon.com)
Clary Sage Essential Oil
If you get sick of lavender, Gillerman recommends clary sage. "It's a terrific muscle relaxant, and clary sage has a really potent effect on the hormonal system, which would be highly effective for people whose lives are being ruled by difficult hormonal shifts in their body." Think anything from menstruation and pregnancy to other hormonal disorders. In fact, clary sage oil could reduce cortisol levels by up to 36 percent and has an antidepressant-like effect, according to a study published in the Journal of Phytotherapy Research. (Did You Also Know That Essential Oils Can Help With PMS Symptoms?)
Try it: Clary Sage Therapeutic Grade Essential Oil ($9.99; amazon.com)
Vetiver Essential Oil
"Vetiver is an oil that's called a base note—that means it has a very low evaporation cycle," says Gillerman, so you can put it on your body and it will still be evaporating two days later. The fact that it sticks with you for so long could be good for someone who knows she's going to be in a drawn-out stressful situation. (These 10 Expert Tips Could Also Help Reduce Stress.) "Base notes tend to slow you down, calm you, make you feel grounded—that isn't a medical term, but the grounding you get from a base note relaxes your diaphragm, loosens your muscles, helps you focus—basically the opposite of what anxiety does," says Gillerman. Vetiver oil was linked to lowered anxiety in one study (albeit, done on rats) published in the journal Natural Product Research, so more research needs to be conducted into its effects on humans.
Try it: Plant Therapy Vetiver Essential Oil ($13.95; amazon.com)
Chamomile Essential Oil
You've likely heard about the soothing, sleep-inducing effects of chamomile tea, and those extend to chamomile essential oil. Chamomile is also a base note, so it has that same grounding effect as vetiver, says Gillerman. But studies have also shown a proven physiological response to it. Chamomile may actually "provide clinically meaningful antidepressant activity," according to research at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. (PS: These Five Aromatherapy Benefits Will Change Your Life.)
Try it: Chamomile Best Essential Oil ($14.99; amazon.com)
Ylang Ylang Essential Oil
This extract comes from the Indonesian Cananga tree. When the essential oil was inhaled—in a blend with bergamot and lavender oil—once a day for four weeks, it lowered people's stress responses, as well as their cortisol and blood pressure levels, according to one study done by Geochang Provincial College in Korea.
Try it: Ylang Ylang Best Essential Oil ($11.99; amazon.com)