Here's what you should you be diffusing or rolling to help with relaxation.

Brierley Horton, M.S., R.D.
April 08, 2020
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We're already a pretty stressed-out culture: according to a Gallup survey, Americans are one of the most-stressed groups of people in the world.

Then add on our current climate (ahem, COVID-19 and social distancing at home) and we're going to assume that at some point your stress level has reached—or might soon reach—record levels. Truth be told, ours has at times.

The thing is, a little bit of stress is actually OK. It helps us adapt to new situations. But prolonged stress? Well, that's not healthy.

Fortunately, managing your stress doesn't necessarily require crazy yoga poses or long runs (although exercise can definitely help). Reining in stress can be as simple as aromatherapy via essential oils.

But how do essential oils help stress?

It's true: research shows that using essential oils in aromatherapy can relieve stress and also may have a positive effect on heart rate and blood pressure, and thus on your risk of heart disease.

There are two main ways that essential oils are used: you can dilute them in a carrier oil and apply them directly onto your skin—usually using a roller. Another common way is to diffuse them—either via an actual diffuser, or by adding them to a cotton ball or a tissue. Some experts say that diffusing essential oils—in whatever way you prefer—is best for stress relief.

Which essential oils are best for stress relief?

Here are a few essential oils with science-backed benefits.

Bitter orange

Research shows that bitter orange essential oil helps to reduce anxiety in mice. In fact, in one study, using bitter orange essential oil just once helped suppress their anxiety-induced behaviors. But also, bitter orange helped quell anxiety in adults during pre-op procedures leading up to minor surgery.

There are other oils with research-backed benefits for anxiety, too: verbena (or Lippia alba), lemongrass (or Cymbopogon citratus) and sweet orange (or Citrus sinensis). (Buy it for $7 at Target.)

Bergamot

When Taiwanese elementary school teachers inhaled the scent of bergamot, their blood pressure and heart rate lowered. In fact, as little as a 10-minute session once a week was sufficient to shift them toward a more balanced state. Even more convincing: teachers with moderate to high anxiety benefited more than those with just "light" anxiety. (Buy it for $26, Bed, Bath & Beyond)

Frankincense

In one study, mice were given a topical application of frankincense diluted with oil, and researchers found their stress hormones were lowered. And specifically GSH, a compound that's elevated when mice are stressed, was lowered. In the same study, mice also fell asleep quicker and required less sleep, compared to their counterparts who just got the carrier oil treatment. (Buy it for $8 at Bed, Bath & Beyond.)

Lavender

A new review study—to be published in the May-June 2020 issue of General Hospital Psychiatry—found that lavender aromatherapy is the best go-to (compared to supplemental lavender) for short-term anxiety treatment. And other, predominantly animal-based, studies have yielded similar findings. Plus, it's been shown to work in different animals, via different forms, and also under different types of anxiety-inducing tests—all of which suggest that lavender is quite effective. (Buy it for $12 at Target.)

There's one final caveat, though: most (in fact, nearly all) of the research on essential oils has been done in animals. And animal anxiety may not directly represent anxiety in humans, so take the findings with a small grain of salt (here are some other tips including foods and lifestyle habits to help reduce anxiety).