Aromatherapy is the use of organic compounds called essential oils to improve a person’s mood, mental state, or health. The oils are extracted from various plant parts, such as roots, seeds, leaves, and blossoms, and can be blended together. Treatment involves diffusing oil into the air, dissolving it in a bath, or applying it during a massage, among other techniques.

How Aromatherapy Works

Researchers aren’t sure how aromatherapy works, but most believe that chemicals in essential oils trigger smell receptors in the nose that are connected to areas of the brain related to mood. For people with depression, certain oils are believed to bring about a sense of calm or to elevate mood. Methods of aromatherapy include:

  • Diffusion. Diffusion is the process of spreading a scent gently and continuously throughout an area. This is usually done by a machine called a diffuser, which will allow you to transform a room or your entire house into a therapy solution.
  • Room spray. Sprays are good way to get scents into an area quickly and conveniently. You can buy them premixed, or add some of your favorite oils to water in a spray bottle to make your own.
  • Massage. Aromatherapy oils are a popular addition to a full-body massage. Combining aromatherapy with massage is a great way to relax and ease away both physical and mental stress.
  • Baths. Various oils and salts that contain oils are available to turn your bath or shower into a relaxing, therapeutic experience.
  • Skin and hair products. Scented beauty products are an easy way to keep a scent with you throughout the day.

The following essential oils are sometimes used to help ease the effects of depression: 

  • jasmine
  • sandalwood
  • ylang-ylang
  • clary sage
  • basil
  • bergamot
  • rose
  • geranium
  • neroli
  • petitgrain

Pros of Aromatherapy

Aromatherapy is an easy way to help beat stress with calming and relaxing scents. The oils are usually inexpensive, and usage is simple. 

Cons of Aromatherapy

Although aromatherapy is generally safe, the oils could cause an averse or allergic reaction in some people. People who are particularly sensitive to strong scents should consider other options. Like most alternative therapies, aromatherapy should not be used as the only therapy for moderate to severe depression.

There is little to no clinical research to support the efficacy of aromatherapy as a treatment for depression. However, people often use it as a complement to more traditional depression treatments.

What the Expert Says

Aromatherapy is best when incorporated with other alternative therapies, such as massage or meditation, according to Dr. Mason Turner, Chief of Psychiatry, Kaiser Permanente San Francisco.

“It really can help bring the person into the present moment,” he said.  

Using comforting scents, such as the smell of fresh baked cookies, can also elicit a conditioned response. “Scents bring up memories the way no other senses can,” Dr. Turner said. “They can be very powerful in jogging fond memories.”