How to use essential oils to get the stress-busting benefits of scents in your home

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It's not just a soft-life aesthetic, research has also shown that scents can turn on the parasympathetic nervous system, which relaxes and soothes our bodies.
It's not just a soft-life aesthetic, research has also shown that scents can turn on the parasympathetic nervous system, which relaxes and soothes our bodies.

The comforting smell of warm bread just out of the oven, the stimulating scent when you squeeze a freshly cut piece of lemon rind, that distinctive smell that triggers a memory from childhood . . .

There’s no doubt about it – scents are powerful. They can evoke emotions and take us back in time in an instant.

They can make us feel relaxed and happy.

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Smells impact our bodies through our nervous system, coming in via olfactory cells in the nose and mouth that connect directly to the brain.

Signals from the olfactory nerve go to parts of the brain in charge of emotions and mood. And research has also shown that scents can turn on the parasympathetic nervous system, which relaxes and soothes our bodies.

Essential oils – concentrated extracts of various plants – are a simple, effective way to get the stress-busting benefits of scents.

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Apart from smelling good, essential oils can help us to relax during stressful times.

Here’s a guide to some that can help ease anxiety, boost your mood and help you sleep better.


It’s with good reason that you’ll pick up this scent in so many spas.

Lavender is one of the most studied essential oils in terms of its relaxing effects.

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Lavender essential oil has been shown to have the same effect on receptors in the brain as certain anti-anxiety medications.

Studies have found that lavender oil calms the nervous system and lowers blood pressure and heart rate.

It’s said to help with mild insomnia and improve the quality of sleep, and has also been found to help reduce anxiety and depression in women with postpartum depression.

Lavender contains a compound called linalool, which has a sedative effect, relaxes the muscles and increases circulation.


The oil from this hybrid citrus fruit (a combination of a bitter orange and a lemon or lime) is often used in fragrances as well as in food flavouring.

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Bergamot is what gives Earl Grey tea its signature fragrance.

In aromatherapy it’s most commonly used for anxiety, nausea and pain relief.

Five out of six clinical studies conducted between 2009 and 2013 found that bergamot oil aromatherapy reduced heart rate and blood pressure.


This is an extract from the flower of a tropical tree that grows in Southeast Asia.

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This essential oil comes from the Ylang-Ylang or ilang-ilang flower.

Studies have found the aroma calms the nervous system, decreases blood pressure and lowers heart rate.

One South Korean study found that when ylang-ylang oil was inhaled in a blend with bergamot and lavender oil once a day for four weeks, it lowered participants’ stress responses, including their cortisol and blood pressure levels.


This is extracted from the clary sage herb, which is a close relative of the sage herb.

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A bottle of essential oil with fresh blooming clary sage twigs.

As an essential oil, it’s been found to help people relax and has also been shown to have antidepressant effects.


Inhaling the scent of this oil or applying it to the skin (diluted in a carrier oil) is thought to promote relaxation and reduce anxiety symptoms.

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Extracted from lemongrass has many properties for the treatment of certain diseases, and its smell repels mosquitoes.

People who inhaled three to six drops of this fragrance reported an immediate reduction in their anxiety and tension levels, according to a study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine.


Extracted from the flower of the bitter orange tree, this scent is said to help promote calm as well as boost concentration and mood.

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This oil, with its sweet and spicy aroma, is also used to ease anxiety.

Read more | 5 unlikely ways to de-stress after hours

How to use essential oils

These oils are compounds extracted from plants through distillation or mechanical methods such as cold pressing. Each plant’s unique aromatic compounds give the oil its characteristic essence.

You can get the benefits of essential oils either through inhalation or as a topical application.


Use the oil in a diffuser, in a spray or puta few droplets in a burner or your bath. Apart from the pleasant smell, inhaling certain essential oils (eucalyptus, peppermint and tea tree are the most popular) as they evaporate in the air can also act as a decongestant.

Topical application

Essential oils need to be diluted in an unscented carrier oil (such as almond or grapeseed) as they’re quite potent and might cause irritation when applied directly to the skin.

One to two drops of essential oil in 5ml (1 teaspoon) of carrier oil is a good guide.

This can then be rubbed into the skin, ideally at the body’s pressure points – the temples, behind the ears, the insides of the wrists and the third eye (between your eyebrows, just above the bridge of your nose).

“[The third eye] is a potent point for calming the nervous system,” says Hope Gillerman, an American-certified aromatherapist and author of Essential Oils Every Day.

“You can also put a drop on the palm of each hand, then cup your hands to your face and slowly breathe in,” she adds.

“This is nice because you can hold your hands as close or as far away from your face as you want.”

Massaging the area where the oil is applied is said to boost circulation and increase absorption.

Warning: A few drops of an essential oil added to a bath or combined with a carrier oil and massaged into your skin is generally considered safe, but it’s always best to check with your doctor first if you have a medical condition or if you’re taking medication.

Essential oils shouldn’t be swallowed. Certain oils can damage the liver or kidneys if ingested, and they can also interact with medications.


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