By Dr. Mercola
Many people experience fear and anxiety prior to medical procedures like surgery. This anxiety, in turn, may lead to increased use of painkillers and anesthetics, prolonged hospital stays and even slower wound healing and worsened ability to fight infection. Risky opioids and sedatives are sometimes given to quell patients’ nerves, but recent research suggests aromatherapy may be a far safer alternative.1
In fact, aromatherapy, which involves using essential oils for health and well-being, has the potential to benefit numerous aspects of your life, even if you don’t have any medical procedures in the pipeline.
Lavender Aromatherapy May Calm Your Nerves
Whether you’re nervous about upcoming surgery or due to something entirely unrelated, like a public speaking event or an exam, aromatherapy is a simple, DIY tool you can use to help calm your nerves. In the featured study, 100 patients admitted to a medical center for ambulatory surgery were given either lavender aromatherapy (inhaled) or standard nursing care (the control group) while in the preoperative waiting room.
Their levels of anxiety were recorded upon arrival to the waiting area and again upon departure. Those who received the aromatherapy had a greater reduction in anxiety compared to the control group, with researchers noting:2
“Aromatherapy may offer a simple, low-risk, and cost-effective method of reducing preoperative anxiety … Given the adverse effects of preoperative anxiety and the simplicity of aromatherapy, health care providers should consider the use of preoperative lavender aromatherapy in the ambulatory surgery setting, in which a short preoperative waiting time necessitates a convenient method of anxiety reduction.”
It’s far from the first time that lavender aromatherapy has been found useful for anxiety relief. A Korean study also found that lavender reduced both insomnia and depression in female college students3 while research published in Phytomedicine found that an orally administered lavender oil preparation was as effective as the drug Lorazepam for the treatment of generalized anxiety disorder.4
A paper published in the journal Evidenced-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine also detailed the many studies showing the potential for lavender oil to offer calming effects.5 “Several animal and human investigations suggest anxiolytic [anxiety reducing], mood stabilizer, sedative, analgesic and anticonvulsive and neuroprotective properties for lavender,” the researchers explained.
Among them was a study showing orally administered lavender oil is effective in the treatment of subsyndromal (or preclinical) anxiety disorder, improving sleep quality and duration along with general mental and physical health, without causing any unwanted sedative or other side effects.6
Further, in a study comparing lavender oil with sweet almond oil, the lavender oil caused significant decreases in blood pressure, heart rate and skin temperature which, according to researchers, “indicated a decrease of autonomic arousal.” The lavender oil group also said they felt more active, fresher and relaxed after inhaling lavender oil than those in the almond oil group.7
Other Essential Oils for Anxiety
Many ancient cultures, including the Chinese, Indians, Egyptians, Greeks and Romans, used essential oils in cosmetics, perfumes and drugs for purposes ranging from spiritual to therapeutic.8 In the modern day, aromatherapy is used in health care settings, health spas and homes, both by professional aromatherapists and amateurs, while accumulating research backs up its many potential uses and benefits.
Aside from lavender, essential oils with strong anxiety-relieving potential include orange, sandalwood, rose, bergamot, clary sage and Roman chamomile,9 while other research has concluded the essential oil of jasmine can also uplift mood and counteract symptoms of depression.10 Further, research shows:
- A systematic review of 16 randomized controlled trials examining the anxiety-inhibiting effects of aromatherapy among people with anxiety symptoms showed that most of the studies indicated positive effects to quell anxiety (and no adverse events were reported).11
- People exposed to bergamot essential oil aromatherapy prior to surgery had a greater reduction in preoperative anxiety than those in control groups.12
- Sweet orange oil has been found to have anxiety-inhibiting effects in humans, supporting its common use as a tranquilizer by aromatherapists.13
- Ambient odors of orange and lavender reduced anxiety and improved mood in patients waiting for dental treatment.14
- Compared to the controls, women who were exposed to orange odor in a dental office had a lower level of anxiety, a more positive mood and a higher level of calmness. Researchers concluded, "exposure to ambient odor of orange has a relaxant effect."15
Even the National Cancer Institute's (NCI) PDQ online database, which provides “evidence-based information summaries” for health professionals, acknowledges the potential for aromatherapy and essential oils to provide mental and emotional support:16
“A large body of literature has been published on the effects of odors on the human brain and emotions. Some studies have tested the effects of essential oils on mood, alertness, and mental stress in healthy subjects …
Such studies have consistently shown that odors can produce specific effects on human neuropsychological and autonomic function and that odors can influence mood, perceived health, and arousal. These studies suggest that odors may have therapeutic applications in the context of stressful and adverse psychological conditions.”
Each Essential Oil Serves a Multitude of Purposes
Most essential oils have a multitude of benefits, which is to say that lavender oil or sweet orange, for instance, aren’t only useful for anxiety; they can be used for multiple purposes. For example, in a study on patients undergoing open heart surgery, a cotton swab containing lavender essential oil was placed in the patients’ oxygen mask for 10 minutes.
The aromatherapy led to significant reductions in blood pressure and heart rate, with researchers concluding it could be “used as an independent nursing intervention in stabilizing mentioned vital signs.”17
Lavender aromatherapy has also been found to reduce pain from menstrual cramps18 and, when diffused twice daily in an adult facility for people with dementia, reduce the frequency of agitation in elderly patients.19 Choosing the right essential oil for you, for any given purpose, may therefore require some trial-and-error or, preferably, direction from a professional aromatherapist. Take lemon essential oil, for instance.
When inhaled, it’s said to improve mood, but you might want to avoid doing this near bedtime, as lemon oil inhalation has been found to shorten sleeping time in animal studies.20 The latter could be a benefit in the morning or whenever you need to stay awake, of course, which is why it’s so important to do some research on an essential oil’s possible effects before using it for one purpose or another.
Neroli oil is another example. While research suggests it may help reduce stress in post-menopausal women, it may also relieve menopausal symptoms, increase sexual desire and reduce blood pressure at the same time.21 To put it another way, the reason each essential oil has so many different effects is due to the wide variances in plant chemicals. NCI’s PDQ online database explains:22
“Essential oils are made up of a large array of chemical components that consist of the secondary metabolites found in various plant materials. The major chemical components of essential oils include terpenes, esters, aldehydes, ketones, alcohols, phenols, and oxides, which are volatile and may produce characteristic odors.
Different types of oils contain varying amounts of each of these compounds, which are said to give each oil its particular fragrance and therapeutic characteristics. Different varieties of the same species may have different chemotypes (different chemical composition of the same plant species as a result of different harvesting methods or locations) and thus different types of effects.”
How to Harness the Power of Essential Oils
Many people dip their toes into the field of aromatherapy by choosing a few essential oils with scents that appeal to them. You can experiment by diffusing the oils in your home or adding a couple drops to a natural massage oil. Some of the most common ways to use essential oils include:
- Massaging them (blended with a carrier oil) into your skin
- Adding them to bathwater
- Using them in a hot compress
- Heating them in a diffuser
- Rubbing a drop onto pulse points
Essential oils can also be added to body lotions, shampoos, homemade cleaning supplies and even wound dressings. By combining different combinations of essential oils, you can create a seemingly endless number of blends with a similarly wide range of uses. For more information on the properties of individual essential oils, be sure to check out our Ultimate Guide to Herbal Oils.
EFT Is Another Natural Option for Anxiety Relief
Getting back to anxiety, if you’re anxious about an upcoming medical procedure, the Emotional Freedom Techniques (EFT) is a tool you should know about. EFT, which involves stimulating different energy meridian points in your body by tapping them with your fingertips while simultaneously using custom-made verbal affirmations, significantly increases positive emotions, such as hope and enjoyment, and decreases negative emotional states, including anxiety.
It is particularly powerful for treating stress and anxiety because it specifically targets your amygdala and hippocampus, which are the parts of your brain that help you decide whether or not something is a threat.23 EFT has also been shown to lower cortisol levels, which are elevated when you're stressed or anxious, while improving symptoms of psychological distress, including anxiety and depression.24
Like aromatherapy, EFT is a tool you can do yourself as well as with the guidance of a qualified practitioner. You may find that keeping both of these natural strategies — aromatherapy and EFT — at the ready provides convenient anxiety relief during the times when you need it most.