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Aromatherapy: Does it Even Work?

I work with many clients who struggle with anxiety and depression whether it is related to their personal or professional life, or for some, perhaps both. My job as their clinical therapist is to help the client identify reasons/triggers/stressors that are contributing to their anxiety, and then helping them to find possible coping strategies to help reduce the symptoms. One strategy I often suggest is aromatherapy in conjunction with deep breathing/meditation exercises. I also typically have lavender scents in my office as well, as I personally find it to be a pleasant and relaxing smell for the office.

I often explain the scientific basics on deep breathing/meditation exercises to clients as there is some scientific evidence for deep breathing exercises to work due to the physiological affects it has, which is explained in more detail in one of my other blog post, “What are the physiological effects of deep breathing exercise and is it helpful” .

Does aromatherapy work on its own, without deep breathing exercises in conjunction with it? The short answer is no, not really. I recently found an article that seemed to provide some explanation, or actually lack of explanation about aromatherapy from Time, “You Asked: Does Aromatherapy Really Work?” by author Markham Heid. Heid explains in the article some interesting insights about aromatherapy.

Below are some key points from his article.

  • No Convincing Evidence. Dr. Edzard Ernst, former chair of complementary medicine at the University of Exeter in the UK did two different research studies about the health effects of aromatherapy. He believes that it is “wishful thinking” to think essential oils reduce anxiety/depression.
  • Different Factors. Many integrative medicine doctors who have done research studies on the health effects of aromatherapy find there to be many different factors in play, that the aromatherapy alone did not necessarily decrease the anxiety or even physical pain. For example, one study was researching how applying lavender to patients with dementia decreased their anxiety/agitation. While applying lavender may have helped, it could have simply been more based on the social interactions between patient with dementia and their caregiver that decreased their anxiety/agitation
  • Placebo Affect. The researchers also noticed that perhaps there is the placebo effect in play where people have “expectancy” that if they sniff lavender, then they will feel less anxious.
  • Activates Nervous System. Some other researchers believe that essential oils have the power to activate your central nervous system in ways that increases attention and helps improve sleep. Others believe that aromatherapy stimulates receptors in your nose that then sends messages to the nervous system and then to the limbic system (which is the part of the brain that controls emotions).
  • Unwanted Side Effects. Other studies even show that some people have side effects in which they may even have allergic reactions when applying essential oils to their skin.

So, it looks like there is little scientific evidence to prove that aromatherapy actually works. That being said, if you feel like it works for you, placebo affect or not, I would say continuing doing it, ideally in conjunction with deep breathing exercises, (as long as you are not having unwanted side effects/be sure to consult with your doctor). At the very least, doing aromatherapy while doing some deep breathing exercises/meditation allows for you to have some time to focus on yourself, which is the core of practicing self-care. Practicing self-care is certainly one of many coping skills to help reduce anxiety/depression.

If you are currently struggling with anxiety or depression, it may be a good idea to connect with one of our skilled counselors at Symmetry Counseling today. You can contact them at 312-578-9990 to set up an appointment.

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