Aromatherapy is the practice of inhaling the scent of essential oils to improve your well-being. One theory of how they work is that by stimulating the smell receptors in your nose, they can send messages to your nervous system. They are also thought to have a subtle effect on the body’s chemical and energy systems. Because of this, aromatherapy is often used as a natural remedy to relieve anxiety and stress.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) doesn’t regulate essential oils, so be diligent in your practice. You should only use therapeutic-grade oils that don’t contain synthetic fragrance.
Essential oils must be diluted with a carrier oil before they’re applied to the skin. This reduces your risk of irritation. For adults, every 15 drops of essential oil should be diluted with 1 ounce of carrier oil. Use of essential oils in children should be under the supervision of their health care provider. For children, the mixture is much more diluted with a ratio is 3 to 6 drops of essential oil to 1 ounce of carrier oil. Some popular carrier oils are almond, coconut, and jojoba.
Essential oils should never be ingested, despite claims on the internet that suggest otherwise. There’s not enough research on any one essential oil to prove it’s safe to swallow. Each essential oil is very different, and some are toxic.
Keep reading to learn more about the essential oils you can use to relieve your symptoms of anxiety.
Valerian is an herb that has been used since ancient times. It’s thought to contain compounds that promote sleep and calm nerves. It can have a mild sedative effect on the body.
How to use: Add a few drops of valerian oil to an aromatherapy diffuser and inhale. Valerian may make you sleepy or relaxed.
Jatamansi is in the same plant family as valerian. It’s used in ayurvedic medicine to calm the mind and encourage sleep. According to a 2008 study on mice, jatamansi may relieve depression by decreasing GABA neurotransmitters and MAO receptors in the brain.
How to use: Massage diluted jatamansi oil into your temples or forehead.
Lavender is one of the most popular aromatherapy oils. According to 2012 research, lavender aromatherapy is thought to calm anxiety by impacting the limbic system, the part of the brain that controls emotions.
How to use: Enjoy a relaxing lavender bath by combining several drops of lavender oil with a teaspoon of carrier oil or an unscented bath gel. Stir the mixture into warm bathwater just before entering.
Jasmine oil has a gorgeous floral scent. According to a 2013 study, inhaling jasmine oil can promote a sense of well-being and romance. Unlike some other essential oils used for anxiety, jasmine oil is thought to calm the nervous system without causing sleepiness.
How to use: Inhale jasmine oil directly from the bottle or allow the scent to fill the room through a diffuser.
Holy basil, also called tulsi, isn’t the basil you use when making lasagna. But it’s from the same family. It contains eugenol, a compound that gives it a spicy, minty aroma. According to 2014 research, holy basil is an adaptogenic herb that has shown promise in treating physical and mental stress.
How to use: The eugenol in holy basil has a powerful fragrance, so a little goes a long way. Add a few drops to an aromatherapy diffuser and inhale as the oil is dispersed throughout the room.
Sweet basil essential oil comes from the same herb that you use to make marinara sauce. In aromatherapy, it’s thought to help calm the mind and relieve stress.
According to a 2015 study on mice, the phenol compounds in sweet basil oil helped relieve anxiety. These compounds were found to be less sedating than the anxiety medication diazepam.
How to use: Add several drops of sweet basil oil to a room diffuser or inhale through an inhaler tube.
Bergamot oil comes from bergamot oranges and has an invigorating citrus scent. According to a 2015 study, both animal and human trials have found that bergamot helps relieve anxiety and improve mood.
When used topically, bergamot may increase sun sensitivity.
How to use: Place a few drops of bergamot oil onto a cotton ball or handkerchief. Inhale the aroma two to three times to help relieve anxiety.
Chamomile is well-known for its relaxing and sedating properties and intoxicating scent. There isn’t much research on chamomile essential oil for anxiety. Research has shown, however, that chamomile supplements may benefit people with mild to moderate generalized anxiety disorder.
How to use: Massage diluted chamomile oil into your skin or add it to a warm bath.
Rose essential oil is extracted from rose petals. Roses have an enchanting floral scent known to relax the senses.
According to 2014 study, using a rose aromatherapy footbath can reduce anxiety in pregnant women during labor.
How to use: Soak your feet in a basin filled with warm water and diluted rose essential oil. You can also add rose oil to your favorite non-scented moisturizer or shea butter and massage into skin.
Vetiver may be less known than other essential oils, but it’s not less effective. Vetiver oil comes from the grassy vetiver plant native to India. It has a sweet, earthy scent and is used as an aphrodisiac.
How to use: Enjoy a relaxing massage with diluted vetiver oil, or add it to a diffuser.
Floral-scented ylang ylang is used in aromatherapy to promote relaxation. According to a 2006 study on nurses, inhaling a blend of ylang ylang, lavender, and bergamot lowered stress and anxiety levels, blood pressure, heart rate, and serum cortisol.
How to use: Apply diluted ylang ylang to your skin, add to a room diffuser, or inhale directly.
Frankincense oil is made from the resin of the Boswellia tree. It has a musky, sweet aroma that’s thought to ease anxiety. According to a 2008 study, an aromatherapy hand massage using a blend of frankincense, lavender, and bergamot improved anxiety, depression, and pain in people with terminal cancer.
How to use: Massage diluted frankincense oil onto your hands or feet. You can also add frankincense to a diffuser.
Clary sage is different from the common herb used to make stuffing at Thanksgiving. It has a woody, herbal odor. Due to its calming abilities, it’s often used as an aphrodisiac.
According to a 2015 systematic review, clary sage can ease tension and help control cortisol levels in women. Cortisol is known as the stress hormone. High cortisol levels may increase your risk of anxiety and depression.
How to use: Inhale clary sage oil directly when you feel anxious, or massage the diluted oil into your skin.
Musky patchouli is used in ayurvedic medicine to relieve anxiety, stress, and depression. It’s often combined with other essential oils such as lavender. Patchouli is thought to promote calmness and relaxation, though most evidence is anecdotal.
How to use: To relieve anxiety, inhale patchouli oil directly or add it diluted to a warm bath or room diffuser.
Geranium oil is distilled from the geranium plant. According to a 2015 study on women in the first stage of labor, inhaling geranium oil effectively reduced their anxiety during labor. It may also help decrease diastolic blood pressure.
How to use: Apply a few drops geranium oil to a cotton ball and waft under your nose a few times.
Lemon balm has a fresh, uplifting aroma. In aromatherapy, it has a soothing, restorative effect. Most success stories on inhaling lemon balm for anxiety are anecdotal. But according to a 2011 study, taking lemon balm capsules may help people with mild to moderate anxiety disorders. It may also improve sleep.
How to use: Lemon balm is a great oil to add to a diffuser to add scent to an entire room. You can also inhale it directly.
Also known as oregano, sweet marjoram is thought to calm nervousness and anxiety. It’s also used to ease headaches, a common symptom of anxiety. There’s little scientific evidence to back up marjoram’s effectiveness for anxiety. Still, it’s a go-to folk remedy for many aromatherapists.
How to use: Dilute marjoram with a carrier oil and rub into your temples. You may also apply to your wrists or add to a diffuser.
Fennel is best known as a cooking spice. It has an anise aroma and is used to treat many anxiety side effects such as digestive problems. It may also help relieve anxiety that’s related to menopause and other conditions.
According to a 2017 study, fennel supplements helped menopause side effects such as anxiety, hot flashes, sleep problems, and depression. It’s unclear if inhaling fennel would have the same effect, but it may be worth a try.
How to use: Add diluted fennel oil to a warm bath to help relax your body and your mind.
Essential oils may cause an allergic reaction when used topically. To avoid this, it’s important to do a patch test on a small area of skin before use.
Place a few drops of diluted essential oil on your wrist or elbow, and cover the spot with a bandage. Check the area in 24 hours. If you experience any redness, rash, or itching, the oil isn’t safe for you to use on your skin.
Essential oils aren’t safe for everyone. Talk to your doctor before using essential oils if you’re pregnant, breastfeeding, or have an underlying medical condition. You should also consult your doctor before using essential oils on children.
Remember: Not all essential oils are created equal, so you should only buy them from a reputable source. Essential oils are not monitored by the FDA.
Although research has shown that aromatherapy may help relieve anxiety, it’s no substitute for seeing your doctor. If you have a stressful day at work or you’re anxious because you have an important appointment, an aromatherapy session or two might be just what you need.
But if you experience chronic anxiety that interferes with daily activities, call your doctor or a mental health professional. They can work with you to develop a management plan tailored to your needs.