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Essential Oils Have Proven Anti-Anxiety Effects

The most pervasive concept of aromatherapy in North America is that of nice smells making you feel good – a strong whiff out of a little bottle and you’re carried away to your personal ‘happy place’. Not a bad idea, but this concept carries the burden of ‘New Age’ stereotypes with it. Aromatherapy is but [...]

The most pervasive concept of aromatherapy in North America is that of nice smells making you feel good – a strong whiff out of a little bottle and you’re carried away to your personal ‘happy place’. Not a bad idea, but this concept carries the burden of ‘New Age’ stereotypes with it. Aromatherapy is but a simple folk remedy that works only because the yoga-posing, mantra-chanting, tantric-sex practicing user thinks it does. Well, we’ve got news for the ‘Establishment’: Science has validated aromatherapy! Perhaps most profoundly, science has shown that smelling essential oils has true anti-anxiety effects; there’s actual data showing essential oils will actually help you relax. Now all you natural health practitioners can tell your doubting, possibly smirking friends – this stuff is for real.
The body of evidence from controlled, scientifically-valid research has grown significantly over the last decade, demonstrating aromatherapy’s potent anti-anxiety (also called ‘anxiolytic’) action. In most cases, these studies are easily reproduced by the lay practitioner – just rub a little Sandalwood oil on your wrists or diffuse a vial of lavender and you too can partake in the now-proven actions of aromatherapy. A few common oils have significant amounts of research to back them up…let’s have a look at what the science says about these oils, and how you as a regular guy or gal (or mother with one or more active children) can reap these benefits.
Lavender has been the most frequently studied of all the essential oils. Its anti-anxiety (or simply ‘relaxing’) action has been documented both in the laboratory (using stressed-out mice and rats) and in clinical environments with actual human beings. Many, many studies have reported the same thing: inhalation of lavender oil brings calm under a great variety of conditions. At least one study compared Lavender oil aroma to that of Juniper, Cypress, Geranium, Jasmine and Frankincense. It was only the Frankincense that had a somewhat similar effect, but not nearly as effective as Lavender. Several studies compared Lavender’s effect to diazepam (Valium) with Lavender’s aroma having similar (but likely more healthy) calming results. In other studies, Lavender has been shown to improve sleep, decrease conflict between animals, and reduce the amount of pain medication needed by recovering hospital patients.
Sandalwood oil is another well-known stress reducer. For those that may not enjoy the floral aroma of Lavender, Sandalwood could be the oil of choice. Its warm, earthy scent is grounding and centering, being used by some spiritual traditions to enhance relaxed, focused meditative states. The science shows similar results – Sandalwood oil topically applied relaxed the body while stimulating psyche. Studies on sleep/wake cycles using Sandalwood oil topically improved the quality of sleep and lessened waking episodes. A small study using Sandalwood suggested the oil may be helpful in reducing anxiety for palliative care patients. Beyond the scope of Western scientific inquiry, Sandalwood oils and pastes have been used for centuries in Ayurvedic medicine for the treatment of psychological disorders, utilizing its sublime mental-health promoting actions.
While Sandalwood and Lavender have the most data to back them up, many other essential oils have had positive test results. Rose is a standout; it has also been tested alongside Valium (apparently the anti-anxiety gold standard) with better and longer-lasting results. The rose aroma’s effect seem to increase over time, where as benzodiazepines’ effect will tend to decrease – and the test subjects appeared less confused or sedated. Rose, like Lavender, reduced conflict between test subjects as well. For a little variety, you can mix Rose and Sandalwood together (try a 1:4 ratio)…this is a classic Indian aromatic blend combining two of the world’s best known anti-anxiety scents.
Other oils found in research databases include Angelica, Chamomile, Lemon, Lemongrass, Tagetes and Ylang Ylang. Some oils tested didn’t show repeatable results in the laboratory environment, but if you find and oil aroma that you find relaxing, it’s more than likely not purely ‘in your head’; the olfactory (smell) sense is the one of the five senses most directly wired to the brain’s emotional centers. These are, in turn, directly wired to the autonomic nervous system controlling functions such as heart rate, breathing rate, and blood pressure – all of which are closely tied to one’s level of stress.
So what to do with these stress relieving wonders? They’re really easy to use – one of the great features of aromatherapy. Both topical application and inhalation show repeatable results in laboratory tests. A common method of topical application is to dilute the essential oil in a carrier oil like Jojoba down to 10% or less. Essential oils tend to pass easily into the bloodstream when applied to the skin, so nearly any technique will do. A few drops of your mixture can be placed on the wrists and rubbed together (this is nice, as you’ll smell the aroma as well). For inhalation, there’s a great many aromatherapy diffusers available, from little, inexpensive plug in units, to professional models which make a cloud of pure, intense aroma. For anxiety relief, any model where you can smell the aroma will do the job – the higher end diffusers tend to bathe a larger area in your aroma of choice.
In aromatherapy, a little scent and sense goes a long way. You only really need enough oil to get a hint of the aroma for a psychologically active effect – so experiment with small amounts of several oils. There seems to be a great difference in aromatic preference between individuals; some like florals, while other’s find them too fluffy. These folks might find earthier aromas more to their liking. And different aromas will likely have subtly different effects – some can be both relaxing and stimulating (Citrus oils are a good example) where others can be just plain relaxing (the floral aromas generally have this effect). Whatever your choice, know that aromatherapy is now not just some New Age fad…the men in white coats have the data to back it up!
Here are a few of the studies:

The effects of prolonged rose odor inhalation in two animal models of anxiety.

Bradley BF, Starkey NJ, Brown SL, Lea RW.Department of Psychology, University of Central Lancashire, Preston, Lancashire, PR1 2HE, UK.
AIM: To investigate the anxiolytic effects of prolonged rose odor exposure, mature gerbils were exposed to acute (24 h), chronic (2 week) rose odor, or a no odor condition. Anxiolytic effects were assessed using the elevated plus maze and black white box. Rose odor profiles were compared with diazepam (1 mg/kg) i.p. The Jonckheere-Terpstra test was used, with the Mann-Whitney U test to examine significant group differences. In the elevated plus maze, spatiotemporal measures, altered by diazepam, were unaffected by rose oil, whereas exploration, increased (headdip frequency: acute U=100, p

Anxiolytic effects of Lavandula angustifolia odour on the Mongolian gerbil elevated plus maze.

Bradley BF, Starkey NJ, Brown SL, Lea RW.Department of Psychology, University of Central Lancashire, Preston, Lancashire, UK.
Lavender is a popular treatment for stress and mild anxiety in Europe and the USA. The present study investigated the effects of (Lavandula angustifolia Mill. (Lamiaceae)) lavender odour inhalation over 2 weeks or 24 h periods, on gerbil behaviour in the elevated plus maze in mature male and female gerbils, and compared results with the effects of diazepam (1 mg/kg) i.p. after 30 min and 2-week administration. Traditional measures of open entries showed an increasing trend over the 2 weeks exposure, whereas ethological measures indicative of anxiety; stretch-attend frequency and percentage protected head-dips, were significantly lower. Exploratory behaviour, total head-dip frequency, increased after 24 h lavender and 2 weeks exposure. These results are comparable with diazepam administration. There were sex differences in protected head-dip an ethological indicator of anxiety: females showed a significant decrease in protected head-dips compared to both males and to female controls. In conclusion exposure to lavender odour may have an anxiolytic profile in gerbils similar to that of the anxiolytic diazepam. In addition, prolonged, 2-week lavender odour exposure increased exploratory behaviour in females indicating a further decrease in anxiety in this sex.

Anticonflict effects of lavender oil and identification of its active constituents.

Umezu T, Nagano K, Ito H, Kosakai K, Sakaniwa M, Morita M.Environmental Chemistry Division, National Institute for Environmental Studies, 16-2 Onogawa, Tsukuba, Ibaraki 305-0053, Japan.
The pharmacological effects of lavender oil were investigated using two conflict tests in ICR mice, and then the active constituents were identified. Lavender oil produced significant anticonflict effects at 800 and 1600 mg/kg in the Geller conflict test and at 800 mg/kg in the Vogel conflict test, suggesting that the oil has an anti-anxiety effect. Analysis using GC/MS revealed that lavender oil contains 26 constituents, among which alpha-pinene (ratio, 0.22%), camphene (0.06%), beta-myrcene (5.33%), p-cymene (0.3%), limonene (1.06%), cineol (0.51%), linalool (26.12%), borneol (1.21%), terpinene-4-ol (4.64%), linalyl acetate (26.32%), geranyl acetate (2.14%) and caryophyllene (7.55%) were identified. We examined the effects of linalool, linalyl acetate, borneol, camphene, cineol, terpinen-4-ol, alpha-pinene and beta-myrcene using the Geller and Vogel conflict tests in ICR mice. Cineol, terpinen-4-ol, alpha-pinene and beta-myrcene did not produce any significant anticonflict effects in the Geller test. Linalyl acetate did not produce any significant anticonflict effects in either test. Both borneol and camphene at 800 mg/kg produced significant anticonflict effects in the Geller, but not in the Vogel conflict test. Linalool, a major constituent of lavender oil, produced significant anticonflict effects at 600 and 400 mg/kg in the Geller and Vogel tests, respectively, findings that were similar to those of lavender oil. Thus, we concluded that linalool is the major pharmacologically active constituent involved in the anti-anxiety effect of lavender oil.
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