You may have seen headlines in the news about how the scent of lavender can help calm anxiety. The news isn’t totally surprising, considering that essential oils and aromatherapy have been used by alternative medicine practitioners for hundreds of years to address problems like stress, pain, and sleep issues.
The new study, published in Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience, suggests that sniffing a compound in lavender—called linalool—affects the same parts of the brain as anti-anxiety drugs, only without impairing movement the way medicines like Valium can. Linalool was also found to affect the brain by smell alone, without being absorbed into the bloodstream—another potential plus for people worried about medication side effects or interactions.
The catch? That research was done in mice, and scientists can’t yet say if the results would translate to people. Previous studies that have tested the effects of essential oils on anxiety in humans, on the other hand, have had mixed results.
In 2009, a study published in Holistic Nursing Practice found that the use of lavender or rosemary essential oil sachets was associated with a reduction in stress levels and pulse rates for graduate nursing students taking exams.
“Lavender is often considered relaxing,” says Eugene Lee, MD, assistant professor of family medicine at Loyola University Medical Center, who was not involved in the study. Rosemary, on the other hand, has been shown to be stimulating. “It depends on the type of anxiety you have,” he adds. For some people, rosemary might activate the brain and make anxiety worse, “but if you have racing thoughts and rosemary helps clear your mind so you can focus better, it might help.”
Other studies have found that various scents may help reduce anxiety in hospital patients, people undergoing chemotherapy, women in labor, older adults in hospice care, and other people in stressful situations.
On the other hand, several studies have also found no effect at all. One scientific review, published in 2000 in the British Journal of General Practice, found that aromatherapy has “mild, transient” effects on anxiety in humans, but that the effects “are probably not strong enough for it to be considered for the treatment of anxiety.”
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So what’s the bottom line on essential oils for anxiety? There really isn’t one, says Dr. Lee. “Some people find them really helpful, and some people say they do nothing for them,” he says. On the plus side, he says, they’re generally safe when used as directed—although there can be some risks associated with them, especially if they’re ingested orally or applied directly to the skin.
Amanda Lattin, chair of aromatherapy at the American College of Healthcare Sciences, says stress and anxiety—along with insomnia and pain—are some of the main reasons people seek out aromatherapy. She recommends working with a registered aromatherapist to better understand how certain scents affect you personally, and how to use them.
The simplest way to incorporate essential oils into one’s daily life is by inhaling them, she says—either via a diffuser that disperses fragrance into the air, or by sprinkling a few drops on objects like your pillow at night. (Essential oils can also be applied to the skin, used in bathing, or mixed into creams and lotions. But some people may find them irritating when applied topically, especially if they’re not diluted.)
And while lavender is probably the scent with the most research behind it, it’s not the only essential oil aromatherapists recommend for anxiety. Lattin says her patients have had luck with bergamot, sandalwood, and sweet orange oils, as well.
Ultimately, she says, how a person reacts to aromatherapy is very individualized. “Part of what makes aromatherapy effective is how our brains and our central nervous systems respond to this old-fashioned stimulus,” she says. “It’s absolutely true that what works for one person may not work for another, or could even have the opposite effect.”
Dr. Lee agrees. “Your memories have a lot to do with it,” he says. “If you have a negative or traumatic experience with lavender somewhere in your past, it’s probably not going to be a nice and relaxing smell for you.”
And it’s important to remember, says Dr. Lee, that essential oils—or any type of complementary alternative medicine—should not take the place of mental-health counseling for people who are seriously struggling, and they should not be a person’s only go-to treatment for panic attacks or anxiety disorder.
Shopping for essential oils can be tricky, too. Like the supplement industry, essential oils aren’t well regulated, and there’s no guarantee that what’s on the label will match what’s in the bottle.
Look for reputable brands that include the plant’s Latin name, the country of origin, and the date of production on the label. “Those are all good signs,” says Lattin. Brands should also have more information on their websites, including details about the tests they conduct to ensure their products meet certain standards.
Here are a few of the top-rated essential oil products on Amazon that may help relieve anxiety. If you’re thinking about giving them a try, be sure to loop in any other medical or mental-health professionals you’re currently seeing; they may be able to provide additional guidance or alert you to any potential side effects or interactions for which you could be at risk.