Aromatherapy: Quickest Runway to Lifting Moods, Soothing Psyches

Aromatherapy is one of the oldest and most popular integrative therapies, and for good reasons. Aromas are intrinsic to everything from the pleasure of reclining on clean sheets to the relaxation inherent in a hot bath at the end of the day.

Smell is considered the oldest and least understood of our senses; yet, it is generally accepted that scents rapidly and powerfully transport us back in time to beloved people and cherished events. One of my dearest relatives always smelled strongly of either rose oil or strawberries. The memories my aunt’s kindness and warm smile, her fiery red hair, and the way she made me feel loved remain vivid in my mind many decades later and are instantaneously reactivated by roses.

Technically, aromatherapy is the purposeful application of essential oils to achieve a desired emotional or physical benefit. Essential oils are extracted from plants and most often applied topically after they’ve been diluted in a carrier oil or diffused in the air.

Yet, even if you have not consciously thought to use essential oils for any specific purpose, many of our mundane experiences are enhanced by aromatherapy. For example, if you’ve ever savored a cup of bergamot-scented Earl Grey tea on a chilly afternoon, or burned candles or incense to create a specific mood, you’ve used aromatherapy.

Aromatherapy is such a part of daily life that we find ourselves easing a cough or congestion with a eucalyptus lozenge, warding off warm-weather insects with citronella, or polishing furniture with lemon oil. We even chew peppermint gum to wake ourselves up after lunch.

When I was a graduate student, I’d regularly rub diluted peppermint oil on my temples to help me feel focused and to reduce the nausea I so often feel due to lifelong irritable bowel syndrome. And I’d carry lavender seeds in my pocket to remember to remain calm. In addition, I carried fresh rosemary sprigs in my pockets both because I love the scent and because this herb is supposed to enhance courage. Initially, my classmates found this quirk to be both amusing and endearing; before long, they were asking me which oils to use when and how best to discretely carry them.

These are just a few of the benefits of aromatherapy. What may surprise people is that there is some research supporting what many of us have known for while.  For example:

  • Peppermint reduces nausea, vomiting and pain postoperatively, during pregnancy, and when undergoing chemotherapy.
  • Lavender enhances feelings of calm can help people drift off to sleep. That said, lavender’s relaxing properties mean that it’s probably too sedating to be the first choice before any sort of demanding mental task.
  • Rosemary oil has been linked to greater speed and accuracy, as well as improvement in some aspects of memory when inhaled before performing cognitive tasks.

With regard to its other uses, you probably already know that aromatherapy pairs well with a number of integrative therapies, including massage, meditation, and guided imagery, to name a few. I have taught clients and students to practice mindfulness meditation by noticing how a scent changes over time.

And psychologically, pairing a scent with another response – such as the deep calm invoked by meditation – results in what is called “higher order conditioning.” This term refers to the fact that eventually, the scent alone will quickly evoke the feeling of calm even before meditating.

Of course, you don’t need to remember any fancy terms to reap the benefits of feeling more relaxed and peaceful – it is enough to reach for your favorite scented oil, or lotion, or pocket full of herbs, and breathe.

P.S. from Health Journeys: Not sure where to start your aromatherapy experience? Try our Rapid Relaxer Set, designed to help get you to a place of relaxation and calm, centered focus in no time. This set includes the N.O.W. Tone Therapy System (perfect for reaching a deep meditative state in under 3 minutes), plus Aura Cacia's Lavender Aromatherapy Mist & Lavender Essential Oil.


Akbari, F., Rezaei, M., & Khatony, A. (2019). Effect Of Peppermint Essence On The Pain And Anxiety Caused By Intravenous Catheterization In Cardiac Patients: A Randomized Controlled Trial. Journal of pain research, 12, 2933–2939.

Buckle, J. (2015). Aromatherapy for stress in patients and hospital staff. Alternative and Complementary Therapies, 21(5), 210-213.

Moss, M., Cook, J., Wesnes, K., & Duckett, P. (2003). Aromas of rosemary and lavender essential oils differentially affect cognition and mood in healthy adults. International Journal of Neuroscience, 113(1), 15-38.

Moss, M., & Oliver, L. (2012). Plasma 1,8-cineole correlates with cognitive performance following exposure to rosemary essential oil aroma. Therapeutic advances in psychopharmacology, 2(3), 103–113.