This page is part of a series of articles covering relaxation techniques especially suited to managing and reducing stress.
If you are worried about your stress levels or those of somebody you know then you should seek professional help from a doctor or counsellor. Stress left untreated can be dangerous to your health and wellbeing.
This page examines how our sense of smell can help us relax and affect our perceptions of personal wellbeing.
It has long been known that smells and aromas affect us but relatively little is known about what the sense of smell actually is and why we find some scents pleasant and some unpleasant. Compared to many animals, notably dogs, our sense of smell is underdeveloped - we have evolved to rely more heavily on our other senses, especially vision. Everything around us has some kind of a scent including, importantly, us.
We all have our own unique scent, most of the time we are unaware of it but research has shown that our perceptions of each other are in part based on our personal aroma, not just our physical appearance or our behaviour or ability to communicate.
It is claimed that our personal scent can be more important in dating or choosing a partner than what we look like. Our personal smell can make us ‘look’ more appealing to potential partners. Personal scent has nothing to do with the perfume, aftershave, deodorant, soap, laundry detergent or other cosmetics we use, despite what advertisements for such products may claim. Personal scent is unique – our base or ‘naked’ smell, we cannot change it although we may sometimes be able to temporarily mask it. Our personal smell transmits information about ourselves, information that is subconsciously interpreted by others.
For more see ‘The Smell of Love’ at Psychology Today.
The Power of Smell
Smells are important in many industries, perfumery, wine-making, coffee roasting, food-production, cosmetics and tobacco to list some of the more obvious ones. Perfumers and wine-tasters, for example, have developed language and systems to try to accurately describe smells – perfumers use the term ‘notes’ to describe the lifespan of a perfume and how the scent changes as the perfume evaporates. Wine producers use the word, ‘bouquet’, to describe the subtleties in the aroma and taste of a wine.
There are lots of examples of when smell can affect our thoughts and emotions in everyday life. There exists a close relationship between scents, emotion and memories. Many people suddenly and vividly recall distant memories when exposed to certain scents - the perfume worn by their mother, for example, can remind them of childhood. Certain aromas affect us psychologically, the smell of lemon is said to increase our perception of personal wellbeing. Supermarkets use the smell of freshly baked bread to make us feel hungry and buy more food, the smell of frankincense incense in a church can help us to feel more relaxed and in touch with our spiritual side.
Aromatherapy uses essential oils in a controlled way to promote personal wellbeing. Essential oils are concentrated, naturally occurring, chemicals extracted from flowers, trees and other plants. These oils are harvested very carefully from specific plant parts, like the flower, at specific times of the growing cycle. Potentially vast quantities of plant material is required to produce small quantities of essential oil.
Approximately 150 kilograms of lavender is required to make one litre of lavender essential oil.
For this reason essential oils can be expensive but usually only small quantities are required for therapeutic benefits. Some essential oils offer physical as well as emotional benefits and can be applied topically as antiseptics and anti-inflammatories - lavender oil, for example, is useful for treating minor burns. Aromatherapy can be used for many ailments, but is commonly used to aid relaxation, promote calmness and reduce stress.
Essential Oil Buying Tips
As essential oils can be expensive. These tips can help you minimise the expense and gain maximum worth:
- Buy the best available. Although many places sell essential oils, both online and in stores, the grade of such oils can vary. The quality of the oil is essential for maximum therapeutic benefit, do not buy the cheapest but insist on the best quality. Ideally buy organic, undiluted oils that have been produced from fresh and sustainable sources and are sold by reputable dealers.
- Buy only a little. Apart from the financial implications there are two reasons why you should only buy small quantities of essential oil. Only a very small quantity, a few drops, of essential oil is needed at a time. Essential oils lose their potency quickly and have short shelf lives, buy fresh and use quickly.
- Store carefully. Keep your oils in a cool, dark place as direct sunlight and heat can destroy their delicate chemical properties.
- Favour pure essential oils over mixes. There are lots of essential oil mixes available for sale, these use a combination of oils to help with various ailments. As the chemical structure of essential oils is delicate premixed solutions are not always the most effective. Buy pure single oils and mix them yourself.
Which Essential Oils to Buy?
There are literally hundreds of different essential oils on the market, many of them will help you to relax. You may need to experiment to see which oils work best for you. The most common and most available essential oils to aid relaxation help relieve stress include:
- Lavender - One of the most common essential oils, lavender oil can help to relieve headaches and promote good sleep.
- Camomile – Helps relieve tension and promotes relaxation and sleep.
- Bergamot – A sweet citrus fruit used in earl grey tea, bergamot essential oil can help relieve some symptoms of depression, can aid digestion as well as generally helping to reduce tense muscles.
- Jasmine - Helps to lift your mood and relieve stress and depression. Jasmine has also been used as an aphrodisiac and is said to increase libido.
- Frankincense – Commonly used to help combat stress, frankincense provides a warm and soothing aroma that can also help to calm respiratory problems such as asthma.
- Sandalwood – Can help to calm and balance emotions, relieve tension and calm the digestive system.
Using Aromatherapy to Help you Relax
Essential oils can be dangerous if used in large quantities, they can cause skin irritations or allergies and be poisonous if ingested. Certain oils can be dangerous to health in other ways. Before using any essential oils always read the label or consult a qualified aromatherapist.
There are two main ways that aromatherapy and essential oils can be used at home to help you to relax: through massage and through inhalation, using a diffuser or other medium.
Massage by itself can be a useful relaxation technique, massage with essential oils can further enhance the experience.
Essential oils should always be blended with a carrier oil before they are used in massage. These carrier oils dilute the essential oils and can help with absorption. Common carrier oils include almond, avocado and jojoba, extra virgin olive oil can also be used.
Carrier oils are not potent like essential oils and are used in greater quantities, care should be taken to find the most suitable carrier oil for you.
The general rule of thumb is to mix a few drops of essential oil with a teaspoon of carrier oil – different essential oils will require different dilution depending on their potency, read the label.
Massage is usually most effective before bed and can help promote a good night’s sleep.
Make sure you are warm and your skin is dry. You can use self-massage or ask somebody else to massage you. For self-massage work on your forehead and face, shoulders, hands, feet and the small of your back. If you have somebody to give you a massage then as well as the areas mentioned above get them to work on your back.
You can use inhalation to gain benefits from essential oils. Commonly this is achieved by using a diffuser – a diffuser is anything that enables the essential oil to be evaporated and dispersed into the air.
Although there are many different ways of diffusing essential oils some of the most common include:
- Heat diffusers use the heat of a candle or other source to warm the oil and disperse it into the air. These are commonly available and can be inexpensive.
- Mist diffusers are used to create a fine mist in the air. Mix your essential oil with water and use the mist diffuser to add fragrance and a calming effect to the room.
- Passive diffusers can be anything that lets oil naturally evaporate into the air. You can place a few drops of oil onto your pillow or a tissue, for example. You can also use a saucer or other ceramic vessel as a passive diffuser.
You can also apply a few drops of essential oil to a warm bath, not only will your skin absorb the oils but you will also benefit from the relaxing aroma. If you can’t take a bath then put a few drops of essential oil into a bowl of hot water, cover your head with a towel over the bowl and inhale the steam.
Further Reading from Skills You Need
Understand and Manage Stress in Your Life
Learn more about the nature of stress and how you can effectively cope with stress at work, at home and in life generally. The Skills You Need Guide to Stress and Stress Management eBook covers all you need to know to help you through those stressful times and become more resilient.