The world can feel overwhelming at times – we are still navigating the challenges of a pandemic, the news is filled with tragic events, and life in general can be stressful. There are so many herbs that can help ease anxiety, it’s almost as if the plants know how chaotic life can feel and they want to offer us support. Herbs can positively affect us past the physical level, altering our mental and emotional state – especially aromatic plants.
Aroma has a direct affect on the brain and limbic system, which controls our emotions and mental state. The limbic system has a connection and influence on our memory, learning, energy levels, anxiety, depression, stress levels, emotions and so much more.
Aromatic plant medicine can help reduce anxiety and soothe many troubling symptoms that come along with it, like feeling nervous, restless, tense, or panicked; an increased heart rate; fast breathing; feeling shaky or weak, and trouble concentrating or getting stuck in a worry-loop.
In this article, you’ll learn about the most effective aromatic herbs and essential oils for anxiety and the many ways they can be incorporated into your life.
History of Aromatherapy and Anxiety
Incense and aromatherapy have been used to ease anxiety for ages across different cultures. For example, Buddhist and Hindu temples have a long history of burning Benzoin resin for calming a racing, over-thinking mind to pave the way for meditation and prayer. And many doctors in Traditional Chinese Medicine, Tibetan Medicine, and Ayurveda have been using Frankincense to relieve nervous tension, stress, anxiety, depression, insomnia, and other nervous system issues for centuries .
Many scientific studies have found aromatherapy to be effective in anxiety relief. In fact, one study showed a significant decrease in anxiety levels after patients with end-stage renal disease inhaled the aroma of Rose water over the period of one month . Another scientific study reported that aromatherapy was helpful for reducing anxiety in cancer patients, with aromatic massage and Lavender showing the most promising results . These encouraging studies are inspiring more research in this field, which may help scientifically back-up what many ancient cultures and indigenous communities have known all along – the power of aromatic medicine.
Ways to Use Aromatherapy for Anxiety
There are a wide variety of ways to receive the benefits of aromatic herbs for anxiety. The most traditional and original aromatic medicine is incense, but you can also use the same plants in essential oil form in an essential oil diffuser to experience their aromatic benefits. Hydrosols, like Rose water, are also a great way to incorporate aromatherapy into your daily life.
You can also expand into using aromatic plants topically – your skin will absorb the healing properties of the plant and your nose will take in the aroma. Utilizing anxiety-relieving plants in topical applications like massage oils, lotions, salves, and even chest rubs can be an effective and calming way to address anxiety.
The Root Causes of Anxiety
Anxiety can manifest in many ways in our lives, and oftentimes we may not even be aware that it’s happening. It can bring about headaches, generate irregular or shallow breathing patterns, promote heart palpitations, or cause feelings of overwhelm in social situations. The root cause or sources will be different for everyone.
We live in a society that desires quick fixes for everything – but anxiety is a complex condition with many potential causes – a single remedy might not be possible for everyone. Plants can offer us a lot of support, but without addressing the root cause of anxiety, the symptoms may begin to creep back in over time. Healing is holistic and herbs are only one part of the process. Holistic medicine focuses on the whole person, not just addressing the symptoms they have, and involves many lifestyle factors.
Identifying, removing or changing the circumstances that cause the mind and nervous system to become unbalanced is very important when attempting to alleviate anxiety. If you solely invite plants into your life, but don’t shift anything else in your lifestyle, you may not get the results you are seeking.
It can also be helpful to incorporate self-care and stress-relieving activities into your daily life, which can be anything that brings you joy that you can make time for. Examples include yoga, meditation, going for a walk, spending time in nature, therapy, journaling, massages, breathing techniques, playing or listening to music, art, or simply practicing mindfulness – slowing down and not feeling so rushed in life.
Other things to consider might be carefully examining the ways anxiety has the potential to manifest in your life, like the stress in your work or home life, too much caffeine consumption, or not enough sleep. Of course, this is easier said than done, but these are all important things to consider.
10 Aromatic Herbs for Anxiety
Anxiety is a complex issue and is felt differently in everyone. While there are many herbs for anxiety, it is important to remember that everyone is different and will interact with plants in slightly unique ways – due to the root causes of the issue as well as different energetics in plants and people. The most efficient way to find the best plant for you is to either see a professional herbalist or aromatherapist who can help, or if you wish to go it alone, start with one plant and observe how it makes you feel.
There may not be a more iconic flower than Rose. This herb is considered a gentle tonic for both the heart and the mind. Like a loving hug, Rose is believed to help calm and support the heart, restoring a sense of comfort to the mind, body, and spirit. It can also be calming to the nervous system and help dissolve feelings of hopelessness and indifference. It is believed to help relieve nervous anxiety, insomnia, and heart palpitations in some cases .
Rose allows us to relax with a deep sigh, and make space for more positivity in our lives. It is emotionally soothing and can help improve mood and boost confidence. It also has a heart-warming ability to help you connect with yourself and others in a deep, loving way. Research has shown that Rose can potentially lower blood pressure, cortisol levels, heart rate, and blood oxygen levels.
These alluring flowers are one of the most common and popular herbs used for stress relief – and for good reason. Lavender is calming for the mind and the heart, helping you find inner peace. It can be beneficial for those that feel like they are drowning in their own thoughts.
Lavender helps regulate the parasympathetic nervous system, which can result in lowered heart rate, slower breathing, and lowered adrenaline levels. Clinical investigation also points to Lavender having an antidepressant effect, uplifting and ushering in positivity.
It is believed that Lavender aids in releasing mental blocks – that feeling of being stuck that can lead to frustration and irritability. One herbalist, Peter Holmes, refers to Lavender as “both habit-breaker and crisis smoother.” This soothing and supportive plant can help you find balance and more effortless self-expression . Lavender can also be a great sleep aid, relieving insomnia and calming the mind at bedtime.
Sometimes anxiety can cause you to feel disconnected from your physical body, which can often occur when you’re too busy, overworked, or wrapped up in outside influences. The aroma of the roots of this tall, perennial grass is said to be nourishing, reconnecting, and grounding, providing the space and energy for you to slow down and center yourself.
According to Gabriel Mojay – “relaxing an overheated, hyperactive mind and nurturing an insecure self-identity, the oil imbues us with the calm, reassuring strength of Mother Earth, and her deep sense of belonging.” Vetiver is beneficial for perfectionists constantly striving for improvement to relax and let go .
The invigorating aroma of Clary Sage is known to be both stimulating and relaxing simultaneously. It is believed to help calm the mind and ease tension, nervousness, and mental fatigue. The earthy quality of its aromatics is grounding and can help steady the mind. It can help bring you back down to reality, especially when you’re feeling frazzled or unsettled.
For these reasons, Clary Sage is often used for nervous anxiety, depression, indecision, emotional confusion, and mood swings. It is said to revitalize, clarify, and inspire .
The fresh, fruity, citrus aroma of Bergamot is uplifting and gently relaxing. This mood-booster is known to help balance the nervous system and relieve nervous anxiety. It has been commonly used to help ease nervous indigestion and loss of appetite caused by emotional stress. Many report that their moods are uplifted after just smelling this plant’s essential oil. I like to think of it as liquid sunshine.
Bergamot is believed to help dispel stagnant energy, supporting the release of unexpressed feelings and emotions. Repressed emotions can lead to undesirable feelings of built-up tension, anxiety, irritability, insomnia, frustration, sudden mood swings, and more . Bergamot can help you process and release these emotions, restoring balance to your mind and soul.
Sandalwood has been traditionally used to help calm the mind and support mental clarity for meditation, prayer, and other spiritual practices. Due to its cooling nature, it’s commonly used for conditions considered “hot”, like headaches, insomnia, and nervous depletion. Sandalwood is believed to be helpful for those who tend to overthink things, which can lead to compulsive worry and over-attachment .
It is important to note that several species of Sandalwood are struggling in the wild. Indian Sandalwood (Santalum album) and Australian Sandalwood (Santalum spicatum) are classified as vulnerable species . Avoid sources that have been wild-harvested and look for plantation-grown varieties and sustainably cultivated Sandalwood.
The sweet, calming energy and aroma of Chamomile flowers have been used for centuries. This plant is believed to help reduce stress and anxiety, and bring a sense of ease to the spirit. Interestingly enough, it has an energetic influence on the solar plexus – the complex network of nerves located in your stomach area. Lying half-way between the area where we get our “gut instincts” and the empathetic heart, the solar plexus represents the center of our psychological needs and wants.
Chamomile has an affinity for soothing nervous tension and anxiety felt in the solar plexus; particularly in times when our emotional needs and wants feel intensified or unmet. This can come out in many ways, such as actions of overbearing, over-controlling, self-criticism, irritability, frustration, depression, or resentment. Chamomile can help us let go of fixed expectations, calmly see and acknowledge our own limitations, and open up to receive the support that others have to give .
This exotic, majestic flower has a calming effect on the heart. Due to this nature, it is commonly used for anxiety that is felt in the chest, like a fast heartbeat, chest tightness, heart palpitations, or high blood pressure. Ylang-ylang has also been traditionally used to balance the mind, soothing feelings of restlessness and anxiety . This is another aroma known to help both calm and uplift the mind and spirit.
This common kitchen herb has a refreshing, invigorating aroma and a long history of use in aromatic medicine. Rosemary has been traditionally used to boost mental clarity and focus. An herb helpful for harmonizing the heart and mind, it is believed to help boost confidence and self-esteem, especially when feeling held back by doubt and self-criticism. Rosemary can offer us inspiration and realignment with our self-identity.
Rosemary helps build up and repair the nervous system so that going forward, we’re better suited to handle stressful situations. It is also known to lower cortisol levels (high cortisol levels are associated with stress). Elevated cortisol kicks in our “fight or flight” response, so by reducing our cortisol levels with the aid of Rosemary, we’re able to move into relaxation mode by the activation of our parasympathetic nervous system, opening our hearts and eventually letting down our guard.
Similar to Lavender and Rose, Jasmine has an affinity for the heart. Its ability to both calm and support the heart make it an effective plant for calming the nervous system, soothing tension, and elevating the mind. Jasmine is well-known as an aphrodisiac, and it can help ease anxiety that may be holding you back in relationships or intimate interactions. Due to its neutral nature – it's neither warming or cooling – Jasmine is believed to be a beneficial remedy for most people with nervous anxiety, restlessness, and depression .
Plants Offer Us Support
Herbs can work on very subtle levels. If you feel like a specific plant is not working well for you, it may be that there is a botanical out there better suited to your needs. After reading this list, we suggest you pick one or a couple of plants that speak to you the most, and explore adding them into your life in different ways for at least a few days or weeks with an open mind and intentional attention. You can use the herb(s) as incense; in a hot, relaxing bath; as an herbal tea to drink; in an essential oil diffuser; an herbal-infused massage oil; in food recipes, like Rosemary; the list goes on and on.
Pay attention to how the plant is making you feel. Is it working for you? If you do experience any discomfort or a worsening of symptoms, or any new symptoms, stop the use of that plant immediately. Though, all of the plants listed above are generally considered safe and gentle herbs.
Please make sure that you consult with your doctor or herbalist before ingesting herbal medicine, especially if you are on any serious medications. And please never ingest essential oils unless directed by an advanced professional aromatherapist.
If you want to learn more about the benefits of aromatic plants and how to use them for healing and wellness, join us in the Aromatic Medicine Garden online membership!
Explore our library of in-depth plant monographs and epic plant talk videos to deepen your knowledge and confidence in working with plants from the perspectives of both aromatic medicine and herbalism.
You'll also get a ton of recipes that will keep you busy and engaged with the plants you love, and receive additional core teaching videos on all things healing and aromatic.
Click here to learn more about our Aromatic Medicine Garden Membership and take your understanding of aromatic plants to new heights.
Article Written By Melissa Szaro
- Sylliassen, E. (2019). Materia Aromatica: an In-depth Guide to the Traditional Ritual, Aesthetic, and Medicinal Uses of the 20 Most Common Incense Plants. Chimacum, The Northwest School of Aromatic Medicine. E-book.
- Barati, F., Nasiri, A., Akbari, N., and Sharifzadeh, G. (2016). The Effect of Aromatherapy on Anxiety in Patients. Nephrourol Mon, 8(5):e38347. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5111093/
- Li, D., Li, Y., Bai, X., Wang, M., Yan, J., and Cao, Y. (2022). The Effects of Aromatherapy on Anxiety and Depression in People With Cancer: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Frontiers in Public Health, 10. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpubh.2022.853056/full
- Mojay, G. (1997). Aromatherapy for Healing the Spirit: Restoring Emotional and Mental Balance with Essential Oils. Rochester, Healing Arts Press.
- United Plant Savers. (2022). Sandalwood – Santalum spp. Retrieved from https://unitedplantsavers.org/species-at-risk-list/sandalwood-santalum-spp/
© 2022 The Northwest School of Aromatic Medicine. All rights reserved.
*The statements above have not been evaluated by the FDA, and are for educational purposes only. This article is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. This article should not be taken as medical advice. Please consult your physician before you use this information for health purposes.