You can’t treat plants like pills. Too often, aromatherapy is used as a quick fix for our problems, when it doesn’t really work that way. If you have a headache, you might take an Advil and rest assured that you will soon feel better. So if you’re feeling stressed or anxious and you light some Lavender incense, soon you should feel stress-free, right?
Well, it isn’t that simple. Sure, the Lavender may help soothe your nerves and you might feel a bit better in the moment, and if you’re on a daily regimen for a bit it could certainly take the edge off, but if you don’t remove the source of the stress in your life, it will just keep coming back.
Aromatic medicine is potent and has the power to support us humans on many levels. Our bodies have the innate desire to heal and repair so that we may thrive – and plants are here to offer us support on that journey. But we can’t expect plants to do all of the work for us.
Using herbs to solely address a symptom we’re experiencing is just like taking stomach pills to alleviate digestive upset, or applying a steroid cream to a chronic rash – it’s a momentary fix but it doesn’t solve the root problem. Plants don’t want to just cover up our symptoms – they are deep healers ready to get to the root cause of our issues.
In this article, we’re going to dive into the inner workings of stress and anxiety and potential root causes for them. You’ll learn how to dig deep and discover where your stress and anxiety might be coming from, and we’ll explore tools for addressing the main causes of stress, including ways aromatics can support us in this work.
Healthy Vs. Unhealthy Stress
Some stress is actually good for us, as it works to sharpen our perspective to focus on the task at hand. Acute stress helps our brain and body perform well in a moment where we might really need it, like a test at school, job interview, or emergency situation.
However, problems arise when stress becomes chronic. This occurs when your body sees the potential threat as long-term, so it continues to send out cortisol, the “stress hormone” that keeps your body in fight-or-flight mode to combat the stress.
Chronic stress can cause your immune system to become over-stimulated, which can lead to serious health issues over time. Long-term stress has been linked with a wide range of ailments, both physical and mental; including diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, obesity, gastrointestinal disorders, anxiety, depression, insomnia, and so much more.
Identifying the Source of Your Stress
Chronic stress can come from many places. You might be stressed about bills, a high workload at your job or school, the state of the world, people that rely on you, or a family to take care of. Oftentimes, stress and anxiety can come from a feeling of scarcity, like not having enough time to get all of your responsibilities done or not having enough money to cover all of your needs.
A scarcity mindset can trick your brain to feel like you’re not enough – your mind might fill with thoughts like you’re not successful enough, pretty enough, doing enough, or are good enough. You might constantly compare yourself to others or think that the grass is always greener on the other side.
Our modern society is steeped in a scarcity mindset. It can be too easy to fall into this type of thinking and allow these thoughts to creep into every aspect of our self-talk. It’s very important to examine our inner dialogue and the ways that we speak to ourselves, since these core thoughts are what shape our reality.
In our modern world, we are extremely disconnected from nature. We isolate ourselves away from our communities in boxes that we’ve built called houses. We look at screens for sometimes many hours a day, which can throw off our natural circadian rhythm and cause stress. And our diets are completely different from the natural, wild foods that our ancestors ate, which can also negatively impact our nervous system health and stress levels.
Ancient cultures – our ancestors – used to live closer to the land. Ancient people were often living immersed in nature, inhaling the terpenes and healing aromatics of plants that would be carried through the forest wind.
Trees and other plants in the wilderness release terpenes and various other antimicrobial volatile oils, called phytoncide, that protect them from bacteria and insects. When we inhale the aromatic forest air, it can protect us as well by boosting our immune systems and revitalizing our bodies.
These healing volatile oils have been known to not only support mental health and well-being, but also help relieve stress and anxiety. Japanese researchers have found that “forest bathing,” the act of being in a forest for at least 30 minutes a week, can help lower your heart rate and blood pressure, reduce stress, boost the immune system, and improve mood. Adding a bit of mindfulness and outdoor time into your self-care routine can help you mitigate the impacts of stress on your mental and physical body, and in turn, re-align yourself with nature.
Identifying where stress might be entering into your life is step number one. When you’re aware of the stressful patterns, people, places, or circumstances around you, you can begin to identify ways in which you can do things differently by changing unhealthy patterns and habits into healthier ones.
One great way to combat stress and anxiety is to include self-care and stress-relieving activities into your daily life. These pursuits can be anything that brings you joy and that you can make time for – something that feels accessible and not just another source of stress.
For example, this could include a yoga practice, going for a walk, drinking calming tea at the beginning or end of each day in silence, or spending time in nature. Maybe journaling, practicing breathing techniques, playing or listening to music, or making art speaks to your soul.
This could also look like simply practicing more awareness and mindfulness throughout your day, especially when you feel extra busy or pressed for time. Intentionally slowing down, taking some deep breaths, even taking a short 1 minute walk outside the house or around the office, and returning to your tasks, multiple times a day is proven to help you think more clearly and be more efficient.
Exercise has also been proven to be a major source of stress relief, as it helps to boost your endorphins, the “feel-good” hormones, and reduces cortisol in the body. Physical activity can also help your mind focus on other things besides potential stressors. If working out doesn’t sound exciting, maybe choose an activity that does sound fun, like a dancing class, nature trail jogging, pilates, rock climbing, or a group sport like volleyball.
Physical exercise can take many forms and doesn’t solely rely on paying for a gym membership. It can also look like just simply going for a walk in the neighborhood or a nearby park.
If you can afford a massage and make time to receive one, they can be another great self-care practice, even if it’s only once a month or every several months. Adding relaxing essential oils like Lavender, Lemon Balm, or Neroli into your massage oil or aromatherapy during massage can be very healing and supportive.
Rewiring Your Brain for Stress Resilience
So how do you eliminate stress and anxiety in your life? Once you’ve identified the things or patterns in your life that are causing stress and anxiety, it is then time to address them by either changing how you interact or react to them, removing them completely, or thinking about them in new, healthier ways.
If you’re unsure where stress in your life is coming from, meditation can help you practice self-reflection and potentially see things from new perspectives. The process is easier said than done, but remember that this is a life-long practice – you may not get immediate results, but stick with it, keep an open mind, and be kind to yourself along the journey.
Once the culprits are pointed out, you can begin tending to them, while incorporating healthier daily habits and self-care routines, along with various applications of aromatherapy.
It may sometimes feel impossible to simply remove stress from your life. For example, there will always be bills to pay. However, it is crucial to think of how you can address and reassess the way that you view and react to this stressor in your life. Maybe you cut back on unnecessary spending until you have a few month’s worth of bills in your savings account, or consider a different job, maybe cancel certain services, or grow some of your own food to save money, etc.
Maybe none of this is possible for you, but this is just an example. Contemplating every area that causes stress in this same manner can help unburden ourselves in this complicated modern life.
Aromatic Medicine for Stress Management
Aromatic medicine can accompany any of the above practices in the form of burning incense, diffusing essential oils, or wearing natural perfume. Incense in particular can be like setting a mindfulness timer: ignite your incense and sit in silence, pushing all tasks and thoughts out of your mind until the incense burns out. This is a timeless practice for being in the moment while soothing your nervous system with nourishing aromatic plants.
Many cultures still burn incense first thing in the morning to set intentions for the day ahead, and in the evening to help wind down and reflect on the day and its teachings and lessons. In this practice, you can burn calming incense and nervine herbs for added stress relief.
Incense or essential oil diffusion can also be used throughout the day and are most helpful with repetition. For instance, burn some calming incense every day for 2-3 weeks when you get home to destress from your day at work or school. Take a hot bath with 2-3 drops of calming essential oils diluted into the bath water. Use an essential oil diffuser for 30 minutes once or twice a day for 1-3 weeks. Use a soothing and calming blend of essential oils properly diluted in a carrier oil or made into a stress relief chest rub and apply to your chest 2-3 times a day until you feel its effects are taking hold, or in times of extra intensity.
For more information on the most effective aromatic plants for anxiety and ways they can be incorporated into your life, check out our blog post: 10 Aromatic Plants for Overcoming Anxiety.
Meditation & Aromatics
Meditation can help provide you the much-needed space to unplug from your day and potential sources of stress. Sometimes the idea of meditation can feel overwhelming and it can be hard to begin, but it doesn’t have to be a grand gesture – it can simply be several minutes of quieting the mind and connecting to yourself on a deeper level before or after your day.
You can start small and set aside 5 minutes before bed or in your morning routine where you create space and sit in silence. Maybe you use the time to connect to your spirituality, or some higher power that you believe in; whatever resonates with you.
Pairing aromatherapy and incense with mindfulness and meditation can be very effective. Many aromatics have long accompanied meditation across countless cultures because they enhance concentration and focus, help to quiet the mind, and deliver us into deeper states of spiritual introspection. This can look like lighting incense or setting up an essential oil diffuser as you sit down for meditation.
Aromatic plants like Frankincense, Agarwood, Benzoin resin, and Sandalwood are commonly used alongside meditation for their ability to calm the nerves and the mind, supporting the mental clarity and focus that meditation asks for.
Aromatic medicine and meditation can help you to repattern your mind. However, it’s important to recognize that if you put in the energy to do this work, you must also do the work to remove the causes that create stress in your life. If you skip this, it won’t matter how much you disconnect or rewire your brain, the sources of stress will still be there, and stress will creep back in.
dive deeper into plant wisdom
Let’s think about nature’s power to heal itself. If an area of the forest has been cut down by loggers, it has the potential to heal, as long as the loggers are removed from the situation. The forest has the ability and drive to heal itself, just as our bodies and minds do.
However, if those loggers continue to log, that part of the forest will continue on in its current state of decay. There is not much room for healing while the loggers are still hacking away. If the loggers are removed from the equation, or if the things or patterns in your life that cause stress and anxiety are removed – or at least addressed – healing can begin.
Once that healing process starts, there are countless self-care and aromatic medicine practices that can be incorporated into your daily life to help speed recovery and aid rebalancing, ultimately getting you to a healthy state of thriving and inner peace. This is how you can tackle anxiety and reduce stress in your life in the most efficient and long-lasting way.
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Article Written By Melissa Szaro
© 2023 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.