Aromatherapy for Stress Relief

Melissa Martin, Certified Intuitive Eating Counselor, Certified Pilates Instructor |

Aromatherapy and the use of essential oils has exploded on the market and become mainstream. You can find various products in most retailers, spas, and even drug stores. What is aromatherapy and how does it work? We will explore this as well as various techniques for the use of stress relief.

Aromatherapy is the use of volatile plant oils, including essential oils, for psychological and physical wellbeing. It has been used for thousands of years for various health reasons and is not a new fad. The two main routes of absorption for essential oils are inhalation and topically through the skin. Assuming you are using high quality therapeutic oils, the benefits are truly endless.

How does it work? When used via inhalation, it is utilized by the body through olfaction, the scientific term for “smelling”. Olfaction has an enormous impact on the brain, which is the control center of our lives. In a nutshell, odors wafting through a room are made up of various molecules. Like snowflakes, molecules come in all shapes and sizes. Inside of the nose, we have an olfactory membrane, which is essentially a smelling apparatus. This membrane is made up of specialized nerve endings waiting for molecules to interact with. As air is inhaled, aromatic molecules are carried into the nose, deep into the nasal cavity, passing over the olfactory membrane. The membrane contains specialized receptors that are able to recognize millions of different molecules based on their shape. Just like a lock and key, aromatic molecules fit into certain receptors which then sends a message almost instantly to the brain telling it which molecule or smell is coming into the nose. The parts of the brain receiving the information from the olfactory membrane are the limbic system and cerebral cortex. Why this matters is because the limbic system holds our instinctive behaviors and automatic emotional responses, which can be tapped into to help shift our moods. Think of some of your favorite, nostalgic smells from your childhood. Maybe it’s walking into your grandmother’s kitchen and smelling a fresh batch of cookies baking in the oven. The same thing happens when we use certain smells to induce a relaxation response- we have an emotional response to what we are smelling. The limbic system also facilitates memory storage and retrieval, taking your right back to a certain memory attached to a specific scent.

Olfactory stimulation is the only type of sensory information that reaches the cerebral cortex directly, unlike the other senses, which must make stops in other areas of the brain first. The cerebral cortex is what enables us to think, learn, remember, create, use language, and perform complex tasks. Essentially, the cortex gives us the ability to use our minds and bodies with great skill while the limbic system gives us the motivation and desire to do so.

Now that we understand how powerful the sense of smell is to our brain and wellbeing, let’s discuss ways we can use essential oils to harness their benefits both emotionally and physically.

  1. Essential oil diffuser or inhaler. You can purchase either of these in a health food store or online. Simply add water and your favorite essential oil to the diffuser and it will vaporize a fine mist into the air. You can use smells that are uplifting and energizing, or calming and grounding to match the mood you would like to experience. For inhalers, simply add a few drops to the inside cotton wick and deeply inhale from each nostril. This is a great option because you can carry it with you anytime you need it and no one else can smell the scent you’re inhaling but you.
  2. Topically through the skin. What I love about using essential oils topically is that you get to experience both the smell as well as skin nourishing benefits. Just make sure to dilute a few single drops of an essential oil into your favorite lotion or body oil before applying. You can also put 5-6 drops to a bath mixed first with Castile soap and/or Epsom salt.


Now that you’ve learned what you need to get started, check out your local health food or online store to stock up on all your aromatherapy needs. You can create a very lovely and enjoyable experience no matter what kind of mood or day you’re experiencing!