January 16, 2018

Considerations for Using Essential Oils for PTSD

In this week's post, Lane explores PTSD and how essential oils can be used to treat the symptoms associated with PTSD.


If you read my previous article on this site, about how to choose an essential oil, you can guess what my answer would be if you were to ask me, "What's the best oil for PTSD?" It’s a frequently asked question, for which my standard answer, "it depends," is always followed by the deeply transformative question: "What is it about the PTSD that affects you most?"

This follow-up question is particularly powerful because PTSD describes a constellation of recurrent symptoms that can manifest differently for everyone. Your personal insight and desire for change holds the keys to the unaddressed aspects of your treatment plan. I have noticed no matter how significant and even debilitating the individual symptoms associated with PTSD may be, much of the frustration and discomfort of having PTSD stems from the all-too-often ineffective methods of treatment.

While the standard approach to treating PTSD with psychotherapy and medication may be effective some of the time, they don’t work for everyone. Psychotherapy and medications are the standard treatments for PTSD, but according to my professional patients and private clients, these approaches don’t always cover the myriad needs that arise in the context of PTSD.  

Psychotherapy usually involves recalling painful past memories that may retraumatize a person rather than help them release the memories and move forward with their lives. And, the available medications may not address the specific physiologic pathways that are out of balance for the individual. In other words, serotonin is not the only neurotransmitter that may be out of balance in PTSD, so SSRI medication will only work for some people or do part of the job. PTSD is complex and not yet fully understood by science.

Meanwhile, many people suffer from PTSD. According to the 5th Edition of the American Psychological Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM V), some 9% of adults in the United States will experience PTSD in their lifetime. While not everyone who experiences trauma develops full-blown PTSD, certain people are more prone to it than others, and it usually develops when there is a personal, deeply emotional, aspect to the trauma experience. Notably, PTSD is more common in women than men.

The best EOs for PTSD target your individual symptoms while supporting the areas in your treatment plan that may not be addressed by other methods. Remember EOs work best as an add-on to what you’re already doing, and are not recommended as a stand-alone treatment type.

This article explores a couple of innovative approaches for treating PTSD and provides examples of how EOs can fit in to an overall plan to create success stories.

To set the stage for discussion, it’s helpful to review. The Veterans Administration (VA), classifies the myriad symptoms associated with PTSD into 4 categories:

Repeatedly re-living the event – This collection of symptoms involves recurring and intrusive bad memories or nightmares, or reliving the event as if you are going through it all over again, aka “flashbacks.”

Avoidance of triggers – Avoidance symptoms involve withdrawing or isolating yourself because certain people or situations tend to trigger unpleasant memories of the traumatic event. You not only avoid those people or situations, you also avoid talking or thinking about the event.

Intensified negativity – These symptoms, while closely related to depression are distinct: The way you think about yourself, others, and the world changed for the worse after the trauma, characterized by depressive symptoms, shutting down or numbing out.

Hyperarousal – These symptoms are close cousins of anxiety: You feel always-on, jittery, or wound up and constantly alert for danger. You have trouble concentrating, focusing, or sleeping, may startle easily and get easily irritated, or have sudden angry outbursts.

As previously stated, not everyone who experiences trauma is diagnosed with PTSD. It's when these collective symptoms are ongoing for months and become disruptive to your daily life that the diagnosis of PTSD comes into play.

PTSD can be treated via a symptom-management approach, which our standard treatments are designed to do. We can also choose more novel, holistic, and integrative approaches to address the root cause(s) of the problem. It’s important to note that complex conditions like PTSD are likely to have more than one single cause. The best explanations I’ve heard for possible root causes of PTSD come from Stephen Porges, who developed polyvagal theory, and Peter Levine, who developed something called Somatic Experiencing Technique.

The Vagus Nerve and PTSD
Polyvagal theory, developed by Stephen Porges, offers interesting insight into the world of PTSD. While the theory itself is too complex to explain in this
article, it’s helpful to know that the vagus nerve, also known as cranial nerve number 10, is the longest nerve in the body, stretching literally from the brain stem to the intestines. It quite literally makes the body-mind connection possible, and it plays a key role in keeping us calm, relaxed, and balanced. Stimulating the vagus nerve (vagal stimulation) will produce a parasympathetic, or relaxation response in the body. The growing body of research in psychological neurology is showing that individuals suffering from PTSD can often benefit from vagal nerve stimulation techniques.

The Body Stores Trauma
Polyvagal theory, informs the practices developed by Peter Levine, called Somatic Experiencing Technique or somatic therapy. Dr. Levine basically explains PTSD as the energy of the trauma remaining trapped in the body because it was never properly discharged. 

Levine’s somatic technique is all about helping the client complete any incomplete parts of the fight or flight response by feeling the sensations any memory of the trauma creates in the body, and allowing for the discharge the trapped energy of the trauma.

Levine’s idea about energy being trapped…recognizing and releasing the physical tensions that may remain in the body in the aftermath of a traumatic event. 

What’s nice about somatic techniques is that they allow you to resolve the past by releasing stored emotions. These techniques empower people to be present in the moment, moderate the amount of sensory input they receive from the environment and feel emotions fully, reframing past negatives to build self-confidence, resilience, and hope.

If you are interested, in knowing more about Somatic Experiencing Technique, I highly recommend Dr. Levine’s books Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma and In An Unspoken Voice.

What does all of this have to do with choosing the best EOs for PTSD? EOs can serve as a vehicle for vagal stimulation, and they us back to ourselves, help us experience the body and our senses and our emotions in the present moment.

If you embrace the notion that your vagus nerve is involved in keeping you calm and relaxed, and your treatment outcome goal becomes, "increase vagal tone," or, "support my parasympathetic response," you’ll look for oils that are known to strengthen the nerves, support the nervous system or have a calming effect. 

Your search would likely turn up marjoram, basil, citrus oils like lime and bergamot, as well as frankincense and sandalwood.

If the idea of releasing the trapped energy becomes your treatment outcome goal, you’ll look for oils that are reported to facilitate emotional release and balance, and oils that create spiritual connections. Your research for these types of oils is likely to reveal frankincense, sandalwood, cedarwood, and rose as top picks.

Specific Oils and Success Stories: Tried and true for PTSD
There are many methods for vagal stimulation, and Somatic Experiencing technique is just one of many variations of somatic therapy. While these methods and techniques do not require EOs to be effective, in my experience, EOs can be extremely useful tools for facilitating the process of emotional release and parasympathetic response.

These following success stories are offered here shared as examples to show you how you might use your knowledge of PTSD treatment innovations along with EOs to enhance your treatment plan. Names have been changed to protect client privacy. If you have PTSD, and choose to add innovative approaches to your existing treatment plan, including EOs, I recommend that you do so under the care of a trained professional. Remember that EOs alone are not a substitute for professional medical treatment.

EO Success Story #1
Susan suffered from undiagnosed PTSD for decades years after a combat-related back injury in the Gulf War. She startled easily at loud noises and often had bad dreams that kept her from getting the rest she needed. She regularly attended group support sessions for injured veterans through the VA. She read that marjoram (Origanum majorana) could increase “nerve tone.” After performing a patch test with a drop of marjoram neat (undiluted) on her forearm, and observing no adverse skin reaction after 24 hours, she began placing a drop of marjoram behind each ear every evening before bed. She noticed a profound sense of relaxation, and deeper breathing, consistent with what one could expect from increasing vagal tone. She also decided to create a basil (Ocimum basilicum) and lemon (Citrus limon)  mixture (3:1 ratio, in distilled water) in a spray bottle to spritz her over her pillows before retiring each night. She found that these practices resulted in more restful sleep with fewer intrusive dreams. Loud noises ceased to startle her so easily, and although she still chooses not to attend fireworks shows on the 4th of July, she says she no longer dreads the summer holiday.

EO Success Story #2
Sandra was diagnosed with PTSD a year after being raped. Despite extensive psychotherapy and a number of different medications, the sight of a man with a beard consistently triggered her memories to the point where she became reluctant to go out in public beyond traveling to and from work. Sandra began applying a drop of rose (Rosa damascena) EO topically over her heart, over her throat and on the top of her head each morning before leaving the house. She topically applied a few drops of a mixture of rose and lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) over her heart, throat, on the top of her head and on the bottoms of feet before going to bed each evening. She applied the oils topically over her heart and throat prior to her regularly scheduled therapy and coaching sessions. After gaining further confidence, she substituted ylang ylang (Cananga odorata) for the rose, and continued the same topical application routine. After about 6 weeks, Sandra had the confidence to go shopping alone after work. She said she felt restored and balanced and could venture forth into the world without fear of being triggered. She carries her oils in her purse and inhales or applies them whenever she feels they are needed.

EO Success Story #3
After growing up in a childhood home filled with abuses of every type, Janet found herself in a pattern of self-sabotage and negativity. No job was good enough, no relationship was good enough, and she felt she, herself, wasn’t good enough. When any potential conflict arose in her professional or personal life, she would shut down rather than create an opportunity to criticize or be criticized. In addition to her regular therapy and coaching, Janet began to diffuse frankincense (Boswellia carterii) at bedtime and orange (Citrus sinensis) during the day. She began to inhale frankincense and apply it topically on specific tapping points during her EFT sessions. Soon Janet became interested in adding a daily meditation practice to her routine and she began to experiment with which essential oil would help deepen her meditative state.  She tried frankincense and sandalwood (Santalum album) both, and decided she liked sandalwood the best. She says she is happier and more confident in her relationships now and she applies frankincense topically to her throat area before she engages in any conversation that could potentially be confrontational.

What happens next?
If you decide to take action on any of the ideas presented in this article remember that EOs can be a powerful catalyst for healing and you need to be ready for them. You are likely to have a significant release. While the discharge of the trapped energy is often very intense, it can represent a significant breakthrough in your treatment journey – just be prepared—in a safe place and under the care and assistance of a trusted and trained professional.

You may find that your use of EOs allows you to break through a plateau in your recovery process. Remember that breakthroughs often are accompanied by massive outpourings of emotion, so be prepared for this! Just know and be comforted that you are choosing to have these types of releases and breakthroughs along your journey.

So much of recovering from trauma is about tuning in and becoming aware of yourself and how you interact with the rest of the world, so deciding if you’re ready, and taking ownership of your treatment plan is part of the process.
To get started, follow my 3-step process for choosing the right oil for you. Seek the help of someone who is experienced in your treatment technique of choice and knowledgeable about essential oils (they may not necessarily be the same person). Use only the highest quality therapeutic grade EOs, and follow the basic commonsense safety recommendations, which we’ll talk more about this in our final article. See you then.

Questions for comment: If you have been diagnosed with PTSD, what is it about the condition that affects you most? How have EOs helped you so far?


Lane Therrell is a family nurse practitioner, health empowerment coach, trauma survivor, and self-described EO aficionado. She uses EOs as tools in her health coaching programs whenever appropriate and leads an EO study group (starting in February 2018) for those who want to learn more details about how EOs work. Lane is a distributor for a popular EO brand, and is dedicated to sharing basic EO use and safety knowledge with anyone. Connect with Lane at www.BestHealthInterest.com

Hacking the Nervous System

How Somatic Therapy Can Help Patients Suffering from Psychological Trauma

Is There a Standardized Method for Measuring Vagal Tone

Neuroendocrine System

Phases of Trauma Recovery

Polyvagal Theory Helps Unlock the Symptoms of PTSD – Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Recovering from Trauma

The Body is Key in Trauma: Tips from Somatic Experiencing

What is PTSD?

Here is a link to a really good YouTube video I found that showcases some recent scientific research on orange essential and PTSD/anxiety in animal models.

Orange essential oil may help alleviate PTSD and Anxiety

January 9, 2018

Which Oils Work Best and Why: A 3-Step Plan for Choosing the Right Essential Oils to Enhance Your Treatment Plan

This week, we continue our series with Lane Therrell, who shares with us a step by step process for choosing the right essential oils to treat various symptoms, such as lack of sleep, anxiety, and depressions.

Are you ready to try integrating essential oils (EOs) into your trauma treatment plan? If so, your next question is likely to be something along the lines of: Which EOs work best and why? The answer involves much more than a list, and requires individual customization. With that in mind, I tend to give a standard answer when I’m asked about which oils are best for integrating with trauma treatments: ”It depends.”

Many factors are involved in choosing the best EO. Your choice depends, among other things, on the type of trauma you’ve experienced, the symptoms you’re experiencing, how well your current treatment plan is working, what you hope to accomplish by adding EOs to your treatment plan, the method of EO application, the EOs that are available to you for use, and more.

It’s also true that choosing the “best EO” means choosing the EO that’s right for you.  One recommended EO may not be the only effective EO for your particular set of circumstances. Or, the typical EO most commonly regarded as effective for your circumstances may not work for you at all, or it may have an effect other than what you intend.  Furthermore, the right EO for you may not be the same EO your friend used successfully in a similar situation.

Choosing the right oils for enhancing your trauma treatments matters because the oils are powerful, and not every oil works the same way. Some will help you more than others and you don’t know if or how it will help you until you try. When you’re choosing which tool to use around the house, you don’t use a hammer when you really need a drill. The same principle applies when you plug into EOs. They each have different effects and different best use practices.
Set yourself up for maximum success by choosing the oils that have a use profile that matches the outcome you want to achieve. Ultimately, the act of deciding which EO to use is all about you taking ownership of your health. As such, it becomes a part of your overall healing and recovery process.

There are many different single EOs and a seemingly endless array of blends, or mixtures of EOs, available. There are many hundreds, in fact, even within the product line of any particular brand or manufacturer. So, how do you know which bottle to choose? It can seem overwhelming and complex, but the point of this article is to show you how to simplify the process.

By asking key questions to clarify your needs and treatment goals, knowing where to go to get reliable information on EOs and how to identify a safe, high quality EO supplier, and by being willing to track your experiences, you’ll be able to master the art of choosing the right EO in no time. At the end of the article, I’ll apply the 3-step process in some specific examples tied to some common treatment outcome goals.

Key Questions

These key questions are designed to assess your overall holistic balance and get a sense of how well your current treatment plan is working. Adding an EO into your plan won’t help at all if the rest of your plan is not aligned with your best health interests. Honest answers to these questions and others like them can help you reinforce the bridge you are building from where you are in your recovery process to where you want to be.

-What symptoms are you experiencing that you would like to shift?
-What have you tried so far?
-How well is it working?
-What is your desired outcome?
-What does a successful change look like?
-How do you think EOs can help?

These questions can lead to others, and all avenues are worth exploring. If these questions are difficult for you to answer on your own, consider seeking the help of your coach, counselor, therapist or other trusted expert.

Reliable EO Information and Quality EO Sources

It is important to know where to go to get reliable information on essential oils. There tends to be a lot of marketing hype and a lack of specifics on the internet these days, because the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) prohibits marketers from making claims about the effects of essential oils. (That’s why I have to include a disclaimer every time I write an article about EOs).

This creates a bit of a quandary because responsible use of EOs requires knowledge of the effects of EOs. There is a large body of time-tested and science-based literature on these topics. You can tap into this via reliable sources (see links below).

Citrus essential oils are produced by cold-pressing the rinds of the fruits.
The fruits must be grown pesticide-free to ensure product purity.
Meanwhile, EOs have been popularized via brand marketing so many usage guides for EOs are brand specific. Brand-specific information can be reliable information to use if you trust the brand’s sourcing and processing methods.

One important indicator of a quality EO is that the Latin name of the plant from which the oil is extracted is indicated on the product label. The Latin name is relevant whether the bottle contains a single EO or a blend of EOs. When shopping for EOs, avoid products that do not include the Latin name.

The manufacturer’s production standards for the oil are as important as the Latin name of the plant on the label. You want to make sure the oil is as pure and undiluted, or un-adulterated, as possible. Cheaper is not better when it comes to EOs. That’s because the less expensive an EO is, the more likely it is to have been adulterated in some way. The details of this topic go beyond the scope of this article, but we’ll address it in the future.

Tracking Your Results

Any nurse will tell you to track your results when you’re making a health improvement. Whether you’re tracking blood pressure or blood sugar, or something else entirely, your tracking documentation gives you a reference point and an indicator of trends over time. This helps you determine effectiveness when you’re trying something new, and allows you to see the results over time in visual form if you choose. The type of chart or document you use to track your results will vary depending on your personal preferences and your individual plan. The bottom line is write down what you’re doing so you’ll know what’s happening and can adjust your plan in the future for best results.

Putting It All Together: Nurse Lane’s 3-Step Process for Choosing Essential Oils

I advise my clients to follow these three steps in the order presented, and I recommended that you don’t skip a step. These steps work any time you’re choosing an EO for personal use, not just for enhancing your trauma recovery work.

First, use your key questions to evaluate your treatment plan and articulate what you hope to accomplish by adding an EO. Second, determine which oils are most appropriate and available from a reliable source. Third, try the EO and document how it works for you.

#1: Define the current problem and desired outcome. Ask the key questions, including: What aspect of your existing treatment plan would you like to improve? What do you hope the addition of an EO will do?

#2: Investigate the possible options: Which oils are known to support your desired outcome? Which resources are you using, and do they all say the same thing or something different? What are the recommended methods of use for that oil? Where can you obtain a high-quality amount of this oil?

#3: Try and track: Try the EO, according to the options you identified in Step 2, and keep a record of how/whether it works for you.

If you have any doubts or questions, consult a trained aromatherapy professional or other trusted expert.

3 Scenario Examples Following The 3 Steps

Here is a walk-through of the steps described above for deciding which EO to use for some different treatment outcomes. The scenarios are hypothetical, but they address symptoms or situations you may have experienced if you are in the trauma recovery process.  Remember this is a plan for deciding which EO to use to enhance your existing treatments. It is assumed here that the EOs are part of an existing plan, as they are not meant to substitute for the plan itself, only to enhance the other things you are already doing.

Scenario 1: Adios, Anxiety

Define existing problem and desired outcome: Suppose you’ve been struggling with anxiety attacks and the desired outcome is you’d like to have fewer, and perhaps less intense, anxiety attacks. You see a therapist regularly, and you also have a coach. You don’t like taking medication, and only use it during emergencies. You’ve been working on using anchoring techniques and you want to see if essential oils can support you and strengthen your anchoring techniques in between your regularly scheduled therapy sessions.

Lavender essential oil is very popular in
part because it has numerous uses.
Investigate the possible options: Your resources reveal that frankincense (Boswellia carteriI) and lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) essential oils may support the connecting, calming, and soothing effects you’re looking for. You can inhale them or apply them topically. You can use them separately or blended together.

Try and track: You decide to try integrating frankincense into your daily life by applying it to the bottoms of your feet first thing each morning and before bed. You also decide to try inhaling frankincense and lavender as needed, whenever you feel the onset of an anxiety attack is imminent, throughout the day. You try them separately at first and then together. You also decide to establish a blend of the two oils as an anchor to access memories of a calm/relaxed state.  You track the effects of this plan by keeping notes on the frequency and intensity of your episodes with and without the oils, and the effects due to using the oils separately or together. You also note your feelings before and after using the oils, possibly your blood pressure, your respiration rate. What might you try next?

Scenario 2: Banishing the Blues

Define existing problem and desired outcome: Let’s say you’ve been feeling down-and-out a little more often than you’d like. You’ve been to counselling and therapy, and you’ve even tried medication, but you’re still feeling isolated and joyless, just going through the motions of your day. It’s difficult to get started in the mornings, and you’d like to feel more connected, joyful, and present as you go about your day.

Investigate possible options: Your EO reference materials indicate that citrus oils, such as those extracted from the rinds of lemon (Citrus limon), orange (Citrus aurantium dulcis), lime (Citrus aurantifolia), and bergamot (Citrus aurantium bergamia), can lift your mood. Clinical research studies have even been conducted on this, and you decide to try diffusing and inhaling a variety of different citrus oils, both separately and combined.

Try and track: You decide to try diffusing orange oil in your car on the way to and from work. You try keeping a cotton ball, saturated with a few drops of lime oil applied, tucked in your pocket throughout the day. You also try diffusing or spritzing lemon oil in your office during the day.  You keep track of your moods/feelings before and after diffusing/inhaling the oils, and you compare this to your moods/feelings on days when you were not exposed to the oils at all. How significant is the effect of the oils, if any? If you experience a shift in mood or thought pattern, how long does the effect last? What are your next steps?

Scenario 3: Getting Restful Sleep

Define problem and outcome: Things have been going pretty well for you in your recovery effort. Your main complaint is getting restful sleep. You’ve discussed this with your healthcare providers and they’ve advised you about having better sleep habits. You’ve been working on keeping a set bedtime and making sure your bedroom is dark, quiet, and device free, but you’re still not feeling fully rested when you wake up, even when you get in a full 8 hours. You’d like to wake feeling refreshed and rejuvenated.

Investigate possible options: Your EO reference materials suggest that a good quality lavender essential oil (Lavandula angustifolia) can have a relaxing, even soporific, effect.

Try and track: You try dropping a few drops of lavender on your pillowcase at bedtime and massage your feet with lavender before retiring.  Record your results. What else might you try? For next steps, you may decide to diffuse lavender in the bedroom at bedtime, or take a relaxing warm bath with Epsom salts and lavender before bed.

Exploring EOs Puts You In Charge

Of course, results will vary, but if you decide to explore essential oils, and apply this 3-step process to your personal situation, you’ll discover the oils that work best for you. Much of the value of using EOs in your treatment plan and daily life is that they put you in charge—they allow you to make choices and assess the effectiveness on your own. Because EOs are generally safe, effective, and pleasant when guidelines are followed, you’re likely to experience significant and lasting benefits from your efforts.

While many treatments can be augmented by integrating EOs into them, the oils can be powerful catalysts of emotional releases, and may also cause physical reactions, so you need to be ready, willing and able to handle these effects. If you are ever in doubt, consult with a licensed aromatherapist or other qualified expert. We’ll talk more about examples and using EOs safely in future articles.

Questions for Comment:

What has been your experience in choosing EOs in the past? How might this 3-step process change the way you choose EOs in the future?

Lane Therrell is a family nurse practitioner, health empowerment coach, trauma survivor, and self-described EO aficionado. She uses EOs as tools in her health coaching programs whenever appropriate and leads an EO study group (starting in February 2018) for those who want to learn more details about how EOs work. Lane is a distributor for a popular EO brand, and is dedicated to sharing basic EO use and safety knowledge with anyone. Connect with Lane at www.BestHealthInterest.com

January 2, 2018

Anatomy, Aromatherapy and Anchoring - How Essential Oils Can Enhance Trauma Recovery

This is a 4-part series written by Lane Therrell, who is a nurse practitioner, health coach, and trauma survivor. She has used essential oils personally and with her private health-coaching clients for more than 10 years, and she loves to educate others about them. This series explores how essential oils work, how they combine with other treatments, and which oils may work best for trauma recovery and why. We’ll also take a rational look at how best to choose and use essential oils.


I learned early-on in my own trauma-recovery journey that the more treatment tools I had in my toolbox, the better. Without a doubt, the most delightful tools in the box have always been, and still are, essential oils (EOs). When was the last time you thought of a treatment method as delightful?!? EOs have always been fascinating to me, and they remain one of my favorite subjects. Enthusiasm aside, I’m honored to share what I know about EOs with you in these posts.

This article is for you if you’re interested, curious, and ready to add something new to your treatment plan. In this article, you’ll learn:
  • How human anatomy sets the stage for aromatherapy to work powerfully on multiple body systems
  • Why essential oils are an ideal aromatherapy tool
  • The simplest way to integrate EOs into existing plans and strategies
  • A simple tip to try
My goal is to help you discover whether and how EOs might work for you.

Human anatomy allows aromatherapy to work
Have you ever wondered why the smell of baking bread reminds you of Sunday afternoons at grandma’s house? Or maybe you have some other (hopefully positive) smell-related memory from childhood you can recall.

The reason we have these powerful olfactory memories is because—get ready for the science lesson—aroma-producing molecules have direct access to the part of your brain responsible for memories and emotions.

Our anatomy makes this possible. The olfactory nerve (in your nose) is connected directly into the limbic system (in your brain). Here are a couple of pictures to help explain the complex relationships.

This picture shows the olfactory nerve (in yellow). Notice how it sits at the top of the nasal cavity, ready to intercept aroma-producing molecules as you breathe them

This picture shows the complexity of the olfactory-limbic system. The endpoints of the olfactory nerve are called the olfactory bulbs, labeled OB in this diagram.

The limbic system is a complex network of brain structures, including the amygdala, the hypothalamus and the thalamus, among others. These structures have powerful roles in the functioning of multiple body systems. In other words, the limbic system does way more than control our memories and emotions.  The amygdala affects the fight or flight response of the nervous system and the hypothalamus and thalamus affect hormone creation and flow via endocrine system. And this is just the tip of the iceberg.

So, if the limbic system is responsible for all of that, in addition to our memories and emotions, it’s a powerful system indeed. And since the olfactory nerve provides direct access to all of that complexity, can you see how scents and aromas hold incredible, almost super-hero-like, potential for influencing our bodies in multiple, powerful ways?

But wait, there’s more: When scents activate the limbic system, the process bypasses the cerebral cortex, where most of our higher thought processes—like logic and analysis— take place. This means you don’t have to think about aromas for them to affect you. Of course, you can choose to think about and analyze fragrances if you want—that’s what perfumery and wine-tasting are all about…but that’s another article, not in this series. The point for trauma survivors is, sometimes you want to stop thinking, but you still need to do some inner work, and aromatherapy allows for that kind of thing.

If anyone has ever admonished you to “get out of your head,” or “get out of your own way,” aromatherapy can be an ideal tool because of that direct-access pathway to the brain’s emotion and memory centers it provides. This makes aromatherapy an effective treatment in its own right for the myriad symptoms that can accompany trauma and trauma recovery. It also expands the possibilities for effective integration with other modalities. 

Essential oils as vehicles of aroma
We just talked about anatomy, so now we need to talk a little about chemistry. You didn’t know this was going to be a science lesson, did you, but what do you expect from a nurse? The types of chemical compounds present in EOs matters immensely when exploring which oils work best – but that’s another article.

Many people equate aromatherapy and essential oils. They often go together, and are sometimes used synonymously, but I prefer to think of EOs as a primary tool of aromatherapy, because aromatherapy is a larger, more encompassing concept. There are other ways to deliver aromas, but EOs are the most potent and arguably the most effective, so they get top billing.

While some sources will use the terms “aromatherapy” and “essential oils” synonymously, I prefer to differentiate the two.  Aromatherapy is about treating a symptom through inhalation of an aromatic compound. Essential oils are ideal aromatherapy tools because they are so highly aromatic.

The aromatic chemical compounds from plants are classed chemically as “volatile” compounds. It doesn’t mean they explode into fiery flames, it means they quickly dissipate into the air at room temperature. This volatility, or quick airborne dissipation is what allows them to be so effectively inhaled and therefore accessed by the olfactory nerve.

As specific tools for aromatherapy, EOs are unparalleled. They are pleasant, portable, and when used correctly, can be a very effective enhancement for your trauma therapy practices or any aspect of your balanced, healthy lifestyle. I have also noticed when using them for myself and with my clients that using EOs can be particularly empowering. Learning about them, experiencing the different oils and how they make you feel can help to put you in touch with your own preferences and needs, and allows you to make small, pleasant choices that put you back in the driver’s seat. This was certainly an added bonus in my own personal recovery journey, and I’ve seen this happen with my coaching clients in numerous cases over the years.

EOs and anchoring
Many of our olfactory memories are formed in childhood. We are still forming them all the time. Whether the olfactory memories we have stored away over our lifetimes are positive or negative, the fact that scent is linked to memory is significant, especially if you experience recurring symptoms that are triggered by memories and associated emotions. You can use EOs and the concept of anchoring to literally reprogram your emotional responses.

The same way that the aromas trigger the memories, aromas can be harnessed or reprogrammed by association to affiliate with new, more pleasant memories and emotions. This is where EOs come in because they are pure and consistent markers of the association. This is very similar to a process called anchoring, which you might already be familiar with, especially if you’ve ever experienced neurolinguistic programming (NLP). The object of anchoring is to establish associations between certain gestures or behaviors and certain emotions. The way it works is to think of something that evokes a positive emotion, and then link that feeling with a specific “anchoring” behavior. You can then perform that behavior in the course of daily activities whenever the positive emotion is needed.

Anchoring can be an effective method for controlling the intense emotions which can give rise to the rollercoaster effect post-trauma. While anchoring is effective, there are numerous occasions when it might be helpful to strengthen the anchor. EOs can be harnessed to strengthen anchors for emotional control.

Most of the decisions we make on a daily basis are motivated by emotions, not by facts. Since EOs speak directly to the emotional center in the brain, it means they can provide a strong and effective way to strengthen an established anchored association and prevent you from short-circuiting it with analytical thoughts.

Now Try This...
If anchoring has been part of your treatment plan, try inhaling an EO along with your established anchor, and see if it helps you strengthen your anchor. (This is sometimes referred to as “stacking” anchors, because your established anchor behavior and inhaling the EO could be considered as independent anchors.)

  • Next time you are in a treatment session, or otherwise achieve a truly relaxed state, inhale a specific EO that you already know supports and induces relaxation for you. 
  • Put a few drops of this EO on a cotton ball and carry it with you throughout the day. 
  • Take the cotton ball out and inhale it whenever you feel the need to recall your relaxed state.

Cotton balls or disposable makeup removal pads work well, or you could try an old fashioned handkerchief or a small piece of cloth. Keep your EO saturated material in a covered container to both save the aromatic experience for anchor-time when it’s needed and to prevent the oils from volatizing off the cloth.

Summary and sneak preview:
I hope you enjoyed this brief exploration of how EOs work, and how they can enhance anchoring. In upcoming articles, we’ll talk more about how oils can be integrated with other treatment types and which oils work best and why.

Questions for comment:
Have you tried EOs before? How have they helped you on your journey? What did you learn from this article? What else would you like to know?


Lane Therrell is a family nurse practitioner, health empowerment coach, trauma survivor, and self-described EO aficionado. She uses EOs as tools in her health coaching programs whenever appropriate and leads an EO study group (starting in February 2018) for those who want to learn more details about how EOs work. Lane is a distributor for a popular EO brand, and is dedicated to sharing basic EO use and safety knowledge with anyone. Connect with Lane at www.BestHealthInterest.com

Disclaimer: *These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. The information provided here is for information purposes only.


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Anchoring to Control Your Emotions – How to Make it Actually Work

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PTSD – Can Essential Oils Help Heal The Trauma?

The Olfactory Limbic System: Sex, Emotion, Pheromones, Learning, Memory

Understanding Essential Oils

What Are Essential Oils?

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