What Is Aromatherapy?

Aromatherapy is a holistic practice in which people inhale or smell essential oils. It has been shown to carry many benefits for wellness and stress relief.

Studies have shown that aromatherapy does indeed have an effect on the brain and can alter behavior. Rosemary, lavender, and the other scents listed below are some of the most popular aromatherapy scents.

This article discusses what aromatherapy is, how it works, and popular essential oils. Learn the benefits of each oil so you can match the right scent with your aromatherapy needs. The article also covers safety precautions to keep in mind when choosing essential oils.

How Scents Affect Mental Health

Essential oils have been used for centuries for healing both physical and mental ailments. Among their reported benefits are improving memory and attention, creating a calming effect, preventing inflammation and illness, and more. But how can smelling something affect how we feel?

More research is needed to fully understand the connection between essential oils and stress relief. However, we do know that smelling essential oils activates the emotional center of the brain. The hippocampus and the amygdala, which are parts of the brain responsible for memory and emotions, respectively, are connected to the olfactory bulb, which is responsible for the sense of smell.

Aromatherapy may also affect hormonal levels and regulate the nervous system, leading to increased feelings of relaxation.

Essential oils may be smelled or absorbed through the skin via massage or by soaking in a bathtub. The following are common ways in which people engage in aromatherapy:

  • Aroma sticks (also called inhalers, they are portable objects that absorb the oil)
  • Aromatic spritzers
  • Body creams, oils, or lotions
  • Diffusers
  • Facial steamers
  • Salts (to use in the bath)


Rosemary is associated with feelings of contentment, and it’s been shown to have positive effects on performance and mood. Rosemary may reduce cortisol levels, which can help relieve anxiety and stress.

Research finds that rosemary has pain-relieving, anti-inflammatory, anti-spasm, anti-anxiety, and memory-boosting properties when inhaled.

Compounds in rosemary—specifically rosmarinic acid and carnosic acid—may have the potential to improve symptoms of conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, anxiety, depression, epilepsy, and withdrawal syndrome. More research is needed to determine how the mode of administration (such as inhaling these compounds or consuming them orally) may influence the effects.

Smelling rosemary creates a stimulatory effect, increasing the function of the central nervous system and improving mental awareness. This means that rosemary aromatherapy may be a good choice for mid-day when you want to keep your energy levels up.


The scent of lavender is associated with feeling calm, and for good reason. It may help lower blood pressure, calm the nervous system, and even improve your mood.

Smelling lavender may have a relaxing effect without making your mind feel cloudy or foggy. Lavender aromatherapy may be recommended to someone experiencing stress, anxiety, or depression.

Lavender contains a compound called linalool, which has been shown to lower blood pressure and reduce anxiety.

Smelling lavender is also linked with improving pain and inflammation. In one study, people with menstrual pain smelled lavender for 30 minutes during the first three days of their period. They experienced less menstrual pain after two months of doing this.

Another study found that, in babies, lavender aromatherapy during massage helped improve symptoms of colic.


Peppermint aromatherapy has been found to:

  • Boost mental function
  • Help clear coughs and colds
  • Lower stress levels
  • Reduce physical pain

Peppermint may also help relieve bacterial, fungal, and viral infections when inhaled.

Peppermint is used in products like mouthwash, gum, and toothpaste because it provides a sharp, fresh taste that many people enjoy. Peppermint may help you feel energized when you smell or consume it, and may even help to reduce symptoms of fatigue.


Ylang-ylang promotes calmness and reduces stress, making it a good option for unwinding and de-stressing at the end of a long day. Inhaling ylang-ylang may actually slow breathing and heart rate, so it may help people who are in shock or have experienced trauma.

Research has found that using ylang-ylang in aromatherapy may help improve anxiety, depression, and high blood pressure.

One study found that participants who inhaled ylang-ylang or applied it topically to the skin felt an increase in their sense of self-esteem. Ylang-ylang aromatherapy has been used to help post-menopausal women relieve anxiety, improve self-esteem, and lower blood pressure.

Ylang-ylang works to boost mood by improving serotonin levels in the body. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter responsible for mood regulation, cognition, learning, and other functions.


Research has shown that lemon oil may possess antidepressant effects. It is a good choice for stress relief and mood enhancement as well.

Lemon oil has also been linked with improvements in mental and physical task performance and increased heart rate. People often find that the scent of lemon oil makes them feel more energetic and more “activated.”

Lemon oil may help relieve respiratory tract infections when inhaled. In addition, one study found that lemon oil aromatherapy helped relieve nausea and vomiting during pregnancy.


Frankincense has cognitive effects such as increased alertness. Some research suggests that frankincense may actually improve memory as well.

Frankincense may be a good essential oil to diffuse in your room when you’re studying for a test or completing a work project.

Some research claims that frankincense is a good essential oil for clearing mental distractions and helping you calm the mind, especially during meditation.

In traditional Chinese medicine, frankincense is used along with myrrh to improve blood circulation and eliminate blood stasis. It also has expectorant properties, which means that inhaling frankincense may help you cough up phlegm or mucus if you have a cold.

Frankincense may help clear the airways if you have asthma. Of course, it’s best to consult with a doctor prior to treating asthma on your own with frankincense.


Like lavender, bergamot essential oil also contains linalool, which may help reduce blood pressure and anxiety. Studies of the effects of bergamot essential oil mixed with other essential oils have shown that people experienced:

  • Improvements in depression symptoms
  • Pain relief
  • Reduced heart rate
  • Stress reduction

In one study, participants who were in the waiting room of a mental health treatment center inhaled bergamot essential oil. The bergamot lowered their heart rates and blood pressure levels, and overall, they reported feeling less stressed.


Inhaling lemongrass may help cool down body temperature, especially during warm weather.

Lemongrass aromatherapy may aid digestion, relieve nausea, and improve symptoms of menstruation like headaches and muscle cramps.

People often report lemongrass aromatherapy as a stimulating and reviving experience. You might diffuse some lemongrass in your home when you want to feel more vibrant or energized.

Lemongrass oil may help reduce anxiety. One study notes that lemongrass aromatherapy had an anxiolytic (anti-anxiety) effect on participants, even after limited exposure. However, further research is needed to understand lemongrass oil as a potential anxiety treatment.

Safety Concerns

Many essential oils are not regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). While some essential oils may benefit physical and mental health conditions, they should never replace treatment by a qualified healthcare professional. Take safety precautions when using essential oils.

Buy Quality Oils

It’s important to be informed about the quality of the product you’re buying. Most essential oils are sold in a dark-colored bottle, and the manufacturer should clearly identify the source (where the oil comes from) on the label. Be sure the ingredients are pure, meaning the oil doesn’t include other types of perfumes.

Dilute Oils

Essential oils should always be diluted before use. For instance, use three to five drops of oil per 1/2 cup of water in a diffuser. Diffuse oils in a ventilated area. Only diffuse essential oils for about 30 minutes at a time, taking regular breaks in between.

Store Oils Properly

Remember that heat, light, and oxygen affect the quality of the oil. Be sure to store your oils in their original containers (bottles with air-tight tops) and in a cool, dark place away from direct sunlight. Keep oils out of reach of children and pets.

Consult With a Doctor

Consult with a doctor about any pre-existing health conditions you have before starting aromatherapy. For instance, if you already have high blood pressure, you may want to avoid stimulating oils or anything that could potentially increase your blood pressure or heart rate.

If you notice any adverse symptoms like headache, nausea, vomiting, irregular heartbeat, or sinus irritation, stop aromatherapy right away and consult a doctor.

Use caution if you’re applying essential oils to your skin. You should never apply an essential oil directly to the skin, but rather, dilute it in a carrier oil like coconut oil. Ingesting (swallowing) essential oils is not recommended.

If you have adverse reactions to topical application of essential oils like skin burning or skin rashes, be sure to seek medical attention right away.

A Word From Verywell

Aromatherapy can be a fun and easy way to de-stress. You can try different scents and find out which ones you like best.

However, aromatherapy is usually a complementary treatment, which means it shouldn’t take the place of other physical or mental health treatments. If you are seeking treatment for a health condition, be sure to reach out to a doctor or mental health professional.


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