Essential oils for PTSD

This week, I wanted to talk about Essential Oils for PTSD as part of our commitment to PTSD Awareness Day on 27th June. Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is a serious mental health issue. It’s estimated that around 3 in every 100 adults will experience it at some time in their lives and it profoundly affects their everyday existence. However, it’s all too seldom spoken of. 

Even though most people associate PTSD with war, 90% of people with PTSD (or PTSI - Injury) have survived catastrophes, torture, assault or abuse. Often traumas can derive from road traffic accidents, a natural disaster or indeed many other kinds of trauma. Pertinently, we should note that many refugees often arrive in new countries with the after effects of torture and the sheer trauma of what has happened to their homelands too. 

What Causes PTSD?

As yet, scientists do not really understand what causes PTSD. Some suggest it may be the brain's way of preparing us for repeat incidents, which seems plausible to me. It also seems that the likelihood of PTSD forming may be connected to the strength of the emotion that accompanied the original experience. 

The brain has what is known as “plasticity”. That is, that cell turnover means the brain can renew and restore itself, and so it should heal over time. Normally, that might take a few weeks or maybe months. Everyone is different. 

Sometimes, though, these feelings don’t go away and can last for months or even years. 

Indeed, I myself, live with PTSD myself after having been in a very abusive relationship over twenty years ago. The symptoms come and go. I can have several months, even years, when I am fine, then boom something triggers me and I am off. These days, I am pleased to say attacks are very rare occurrences, but incidences can be every bit as unsettling as if the trauma is still new. 

What is it like to have PTSD?

Flashbacks

Most people associate PTSD with flashbacks. These can be triggered by sights, sounds, smells or even emotions. Sometimes it can feel as if you are experiencing the initial event over and over again, others it can feel like a disassociation. You're not quite back there, but you’re not here, in this reality, either.

For me, at least (I wouldn’t want to put words in anyone else’s mouth, because everyone’s experience is different and subjective), flashbacks aren’t like they are portrayed in the movies. I don’t see it as the scene playing out, but almost like a jolt out of this body. I still feel the same emotions, the fear, the stress, the panic, but because the visuals are not there, it can be hard to disentangle them from things happening in today’s reality. 

Disjointed Reality

Even more confusing is that emotions that belong to things that happened twenty five years ago can often get overlain on far smaller things that happen today. Consequently, the sheer size of the emotional connections to things that would be mere trifles to some people can become huge to me, so there is a constant battle to work out what an appropriate response might look, to ensure I remain in the here and now. 

For example, I had an argument with a friend recently and she said something that I feel is not true. The “gaslighting” took me right back into a PTSD spiral. I was terrified that I was going to hurt her because I was so furious. It was entirely out of perspective for the squabble, and I was fully aware of that, but all the feelings of confusion and rage came pouring out of Pandora’s box. I became hyper vigilant and defensive in all aspects of my life. No-one could say anything to me, because I was right back in the place of being attacked. Everything felt like a criticism that was going to escalate into my getting beaten up. There was no escaping the sense that I might have to defend myself physically against an attack. Even typing was difficult because I kept discovering my knuckles were white from clenched fists. 

That’s been about three months now, and thanks to my husband insisting that I do some serious work with some rose and other essential oils for PTSD, I am only just beginning to simmer down. 

Insomnia

Sleep takes on a whole new meaning! Often people experience terrible insomnia, or when they do sleep, nightmares. The nightmares may be linked to the actual event, but also can be unrelated and randomly disturbing. 

Feeling Alone

PTSD can be very isolating. To avoid potential triggers, many people develop coping strategies that avoid venturing toward anything remotely connected to it in their mind. They may distance them from friends and loved ones as a means of avoiding delicate thought processes, likewise certain places can become no-go zones. As an aromatherapist, I find certain smells can be awful triggers for people. I know of one veteran who cannot go to barbeques because the smell of burning flesh is too close to a suicide bomber he saw in Helmand Province. In an unrelated incident, another lady was raped and her attacker knocked over her glass of wine. The stench of red wine now sends her reeling. Consequently, she is terrified of any communal gathering in case a friend of a friend of a friend orders red wine. Clearly, all bars are out for her too. For many people, groups, clubs and hobbies are just too problematic to continue with. 

The Mind and Emotions

The brain also finds focal points. It becomes hypervigilant around the PTSD. For many people this means dreadful anxiety. For me, not so much anxiety, it is terrifying, all consuming rage. I imagine this happens now because it would have been very dangerous for me to get angry then, but I don’t know. In either case, it’s extremely difficult to concentrate on anything. This is not only tortuously irritating for the sufferer, but for everyone around them. It’s often very difficult for me to focus on conversations, for example. 

Accompanying that, of course, is irritability on both sides, and for the sufferer, guilt. Guilt is an overriding part of PTSD and can take many forms. Feeling guilty for no longer participating in everyone’s lives as you used to is definitely a thing, but there are much bigger issues at play. PTSD is often associated with survivor guilt, and/or feeling that somehow you could have prevented certain outcomes associated with the event. Moreover,  they feel they are somehow responsible for what happened. 

As one would imagine, PTSD is very linked with low mood and depression

How Can Essential Oils for PTSD Help? 

I think the first thing to say is that symptomatically, I don’t think they can. 

That is, I’ve attended many lectures and read lots of papers, but as far as I know no-one has found an oil that can stop you from having flashbacks. 

That said, managing stress and actually getting your body chemistry to a place where it settled and modulated can make huge differences. For many people, rises in symptoms are related to stress. 

Getting Calm

GABA is the body’s calming neurotransmitter. Its job is to keep the nervous system cool, calm and collected. Research points to the probability that achieving a GABA rich substrate may help people with PTSD. 

What’s amazing is we now understand that the body has many ways of making neurotransmitters, one important one is through olfaction. When we smell relaxing essential oils for PTSD (or do baking, or smell flowers, etc) the olfactory neurons express GABA. They also co-express the mood modulating neurotransmitter serotonin, which is involved in around 300 different bodily processes, but here it is useful to say digestion, mood and sleep.

Other neurotransmitters include dopamine that makes us more motivated and is involved in arousal, and glutamate which, again, has many functions, but it’s useful here to talk about memory. We’d expect these latter two to be associated with the more stimulating essential oils like rosemary and peppermint, for example. It’s useful to point out here that just like no essential oils have side effects, essential oils for PTSD will have many main effects. It might be tempting to use oils like peppermint and rosemary to help your focus, but they are also very invigorating and awakening. Far better to make a project of calming the system into an entirely GABA rich place where your mind quietens and hopefully sleep settles too, then, eventually concentration will follow that. 

Inhalation of Essential Oils for PTSD

Taking time to just sit and inhale an essential oil, or a tissue, or from the bottle, for five minutes a day can have dramatic effects. Personally, I think that  if you can manage to do as much as twenty minutes in a sitting, try to do so. It makes an enormous difference to me. On one hand, I really cannot concentrate on what is, effectively, doing nothing, for twenty minutes, which is why I started to record my notes about oils and to put them into stories. Then, I don’t really have to concentrate, but the meditation notes can still subliminally hear the work. 

So, clearly, inhalation of essential oils of PTSD is important, but I would say that, wouldn’t I? That was one of the main reasons I created Aromythology because I love sitting and quietly dreaming myself into a calm place. But it’s not the only way. 

Using Essential Oils for PTSD in Massage

If you can tolerate being touched, The Royal College of Psychiatrists recommend reflexology and massage as excellent tools for helping PTSD. I find getting a massage helps me enormously, because I tend to feel physical pain in my muscles from stress. My back is painful and a continual reminder of how flipping angry I am. Like I say, I also have issues with my hands from clenching my fists. Is there is sensation there, you brain seems to be consistently drawn to the fact your back feels tense, your hands are defensive. Releasing the muscles tends to make the stress feel like it is moving away. 

In 2005, (Field et al) proved that massage changes body chemistry during times of stress. They completed a literature study of all the different data that had been amassed around the subject and showed that interventions reduced the levels of the body’s main stress neurotransmitter, cortisol, and increased levels of serotonin and dopamine. The changes weren’t just small either. Cortisol was reduced by an average of 31%, serotonin increased by 28%, and dopamine, again, 31%. 

It makes me smile. If you have ever had a massage, think back. Did you come out with a bounce in your step, ready to take on the world? Dopamine, baby. 

Get Your Essential Oils for PTSD in The Bath

I believe wholeheartedly in the power of aromatic baths. Warm water opens the pores to allow your essential oils for PTSD treatments to enter the body easily, plus, of course you inhale the evaporated vapors. Consider how every hair on your body sits in a follicle attached to a pore, and that every pore is a gateway into the body. The water supports and relaxes muscles and, for me at least, is a reminder of the safest place I ever was, in the womb. Perhaps it is because I am a Cancerian that I am such a water addict, but at the first sign of trouble, I am in that bath! Truthfully, I use a shameful amount of water doing it each day, but it is one of my main coping methods of life. 

One More Warning When Using Essential Oils for PTSD 

So important, just check how you are with the fragrance. For this kind of healing, only use fragrances you like. Stuff what I say in this list. Ignore the text books, the most important thing is how does it make you feel? If it makes you feel calm that’s it. If you don’t like it, it makes you flinch, even if you can’t quite put your finger on why put the top back on and move onto the next oil. If nothing else, see the journey as an exploration of you. You may be intrigued to discover things about yourself you didn’t know. 

Essential oils for PTSD then 

To be fair, almost any oil will be helpful, as long as you use it mindfully and really focus on slowing your breathing down. I like to do “slow breath in for 4, hold, out for 4, hold”. 

I always say to my students that that first breath in, is a breath back to yourself. The more attention you pay to your breathing, the more helpful you will find inhaling your essential oils for PTSD.

Lavender 

Top of the list of essential oils for PTSD. Of course. It has to be, doesn’t it? 

Soothing, relaxing, helps you sleep, makes you feel less anxious. 

I could write essays of proofs, but what’s the point. Sometimes you just know instinctively that something is right, and of course we always know that lavender will be when it comes to calming someone down. 

There is one interesting bit of science I’d love to show you though, if I may? 

What do The Pharmaceutical Companies Think About  Essential Oils for PTSD

As a company, VINEVIDA does not endorse oral use of essential oils, whether that’s essential oils for PTSD or otherwise. That’s a sensible stance, given that most people don’t understand how the body metabolizes every oil. That said, there are some circumstances where the scientists are excited. One instance is a drug called Silexan, a synthesized version of some of the major components of lavender oil that you do take orally.

Synthesizing it means that the chemistry is then predictable, which in turn means they can make much more reliable assumptions on how it will affect the general public. A clinical trial in 2012 studied a set of people suffering from anxiety and restlessness, including a subset with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

They were given 1 × 80 mg/day Silexan over 6 weeks; 

At recruitment, 96% reported feeling restlessness, 72% were living with anxiety and a massive 98% said they had a depressed mood; 92% were suffering from disturbed sleep.  

Of those 62% reported feeling less restless. 

57% said they felt less depressed. 

51% said their sleep had improved and 62% of those suffering from anxiety said they felt calmer too. 

Jointly, they reported waking less frequently, and when they did wake, being able to get back to sleep faster. More, they also felt more refreshed in the morning, and their mood was better.

Indeed, over all, the Mental Health Score increased 48.2% (Uehleke, 2012)

Do I recommend taking the oils internally, well, no, because they taste absolutely hideous, and my old dad would be appalled at my table manners for sharing this, but burping up lavender oil after you’ve taken a capsule is not as unicorn and fairies as you would imagine! Bleuch...

Honestly, inhalation, massage, baths, diffusers. There is plenty enough to go on there. 

Vetiver 

So, when I teach aromatherapy, I try to get my students to think in terms of how the oil will affect the body’s energy, rather than the physical properties, if that makes sense. When you start to understand it from an archetypical viewpoint it helps you to intuit more about how to make changes with essential oils, even if a text book has nothing to say. 

In the case of essential oils for PTSD, we want to push energy down from the head. We want to calm that spin out energy that is quickening things up and we want to slow things down. 

Vetiver is the big gun of slowing things down. 

I think, maybe you have to experience a drop of vetiver coming out of the bottle to really get a sense of what it does. 

It forces you to concentrate, because the drop takes so long to come out of the bottle. It is mesmeric, how long it takes. It focuses the mind, and you almost can’t look away for fear you might miss something. 

And the color, It’s so dark! The molecules are massive, so the oil is heavy, thick and treacle slow. 

Everything about vetiver is heavy and slow. It’s like it has brought the darkness of the soil up to meet you, drawing you down like a comfort blanket into the womb of the Earth. You cannot be fretful with Vetiver. You can’t hurry or worry.

It’s. Just. So. Chill. 

It’s a great oil to have with you in case of panic attacks.

Most importantly, to use a very in vogue word, it grounds you. It stabilizes and soothes you. Vetiver is The Oil of Tranquility.

Oddly too, in my book, I relate some scientific studies done around vetiver and memory. As I said earlier, ordinarily you might want to go for the refreshing herbs, but the trial showed that memory and recall also improves with vetiver, presumably because your brain is too much like marshmallow to be bothered with what it is you want to concentrate on. 

Jasmine

My unfailing love for Jasmine seems only to get stronger as I age. I adore rose flowers, but somehow as my estrogen leaves me, so does my need to be enveloped in rose oil. Jasmine though, that’s a different matter. 

I always cite the old sanskrit saying “Where there is Jasmine, there can be no worries”, and that feels so right to me. It’s so intoxicating you get lead from this reality into a dreamlike landscape of a hundred and one nights.
Jasmine absolute has a very sophisticated aroma. It is complex and I love how that feels a bit like complex PTSD too. As if there are many strands of the story, that will take a million lifetimes to unpick, but there is all the time in the world to do it. 

I’d recommend Jasmine absolute, if your brain is distracted. The reason why it is one of the most effective essential oils for PTSD is because it borders on being “controlling” itself. You can’t ignore it. Your mind has to conform when it asks you to be quiet. Inhibitions fall away for sex and you will just forget where you are. 

If this existence feels like a tedious and hopeless treadmill, Jasmine can really help. It’s the cheapest holiday from worry you’ll ever have.

Cedarwood

We’ve talked a lot about cedarwood over the past few weeks, because it was May’s Oil of The Month, but it deserves a reminder that cedarwood has no truck with unwanted thoughts. It is like a bouncer at the doorway of your mind, saying no you cannot come in. 

It’s very powerful stuff. Like all essential oils for PTSD, it will be down to your preference to the oil of course, and to my mind, this feels more like a man’s oil than a woman’s, but part of the journey with an oil is to decide whether things like that are right or not, and how you get with them personally. 

Feel free to have a play with my Aromythology Cedarwood Meditation for Peace

Helichrysum 

When I write a book about a specifi essential oil, I immerse myself entirely in it. It influences everything in my life, including the music I listen to. Helichrysum essential oil brought me to a song about PTSD that eventually was so woven into the tapestry of the things the plant had taught me, that I used  it as the opening of my  book. Wrong Side of Heaven  by Five Finger Death Punch is about the homeless plight of veterans. 

If you listen to this song, it is exactly how I feel the oil. There is a rawness about it that says “Life sucks and yes, everything you are going through is sh*t, but what are you gonna do? You have to find a way to get through this.” 

This is one of the most powerful essential oils for PTSD because it’s an oil for deep trauma on all levels, physical, emotional and mental. There is nothing gentle about it. It’s gritty and when words are sour and nothing feels good in life any more, helichrysum can help. 

There is a line in the song that says “I saw the devil today. He looked a lot like me.” and “I’m on the wrong side of Heaven and the righteous side of hell”. That’s such a powerful description of what it feels like to have PTSD, that you carry everything horrific with you, you know you can’t be blamed for all of it, yet the filthy weight is always on your shoulders. It follows  you everywhere. 

Helichrysum understands that, and is wonderful for helping you to carry the load. 

Frankincense

Frankincense is one of the most helpful essential oils for PTSD because of how it slows the breath and takes you to a much softer and gentler place in life. Like Vetiver, Frankincense is a superb antidote to panic attacks, especially if you can center yourself enough to count backwards. I’ve found counting backwards from ten really helps me. 

We, perhaps, take it for granted now, because it is so easily obtained, but historically, it was a commodity of priests and kings. 

There is real courage in the quietness of prayer. A choice in taking space to be silent perhaps never more so than if you have PTSD, because your own thoughts can be really cruel sometimes. They are a very common enemy hidden in plain sight.  

Frankincense rules rational thought. It’s not really interested in the subconscious stuff. It likes to play with ordinary, everyday feelings around existence. What you believe, what you plan, what you aim to do. 

It takes you to the quintessential you, the quiet place at the center of the storm. 

In so many religions, frankincense is the aromatic token of the divine masculine. Ruled by the sun, it is God. God speaks in Frankincense (and myrrh, actually, for that matter). 

Frankincense is a prayer for safety, a plea to the heavens for grace. Science doesn’t exactly explain why that happens, or how, but I suspect that, in the future, we may find it may be something to do with the way it interacts with the CB1 receptor. 

The CB1 receptor is part of our endocannabinoid system. It has several functions including pain, memory, appetite and mood, but is most famous for the feeling of connectedness with the universe that people experience when they use another plant medicine, cannabis. 

Again, this one has a song I use - The Prayer - Andre Bocelli and Celine Dion.

Neroli

I don’t really talk about Neroli that often, and to be honest it’s not one of the oils that I go to in my healing clique, but it is one of my most favorite fragrances and I love how clever it is at uplifting the mood and settling nerves. It’s one of the unsung heroes of the essential oils for PTSD. 

If you’re not aware, it’s made from orange blossoms, so that the lovely uplifting nature of positivity is already there. It’s in petitgrain too. That’s the gift of the orange. Oranges know about feeling happy. But more than that, blossoms know about new growth budding. They understand what it means to have to come through winter’s death and trust that beauty will follow. 

I adore it. 

You know, the most gorgeous fragrance I ever experienced didn't come from an essential oil. It was the flowers on a grapefruit tree at Oxford Botanical Gardens. They had that same hope, that same promise of something better, more exciting, was around the corner. As I say, the perfume was like nothing I have ever smelt before. It was astonishing. I often wonder why no-one has made an essential oil from it. Perhaps it doesn’t have too many oily components, maybe? Or there weren’t many flowers, so perhaps it would be too costly. Anyway, we’re getting off track! 

Neroli is calming, uplifting and, incidentally, if your stomach and bowel tend to follow your emotions, neroli has a wonderfully soothing effect on the gut. 

I’ve not written a meditation with this one, but I can give you a piece of music. Benedictus by Karl Jenkins must be one of the most healing pieces of music in my opinion. I wanted to use it for the meditation I wrote for Rose, but of course, there were copyright issues surrounding it. If you have never seen the video too, it’s worth it. Warning.. have a tissue ready. It always makes me weep working with this combo. 

Rose 

We don’t sell any rose oils at Vinevida yet (I’m working on it guys and gals, I’m working on it!) It’s a massive investment if you don’t have any but I promise you, it will be the best investment you make. For so many reasons, outside it being one of the best essential oils for PTSD, it will settle any hormone imbalances down and make your menstrual cycle better. It improves libido in both sexes and of course, who doesn’t feel better with great skin! 

But more than that, scientifically we say it has an anti-conflict nature (in rodent trials) and certainly, it calms rage and stops you wanting to argue with the world. Again we can see how that would play out in PMT and PTSD. For me, it is second to none for calming my rage. The only other oil that comes even close is, funnily enough, Kanuka oil that has absolutely no evidence to say that it would do that, but it does. 

I’m sure you will have read my saying that there was a historical Indian Mughal emperor, called Jahanghir who said of rose “There is no other scent of equal excellence to it. It restores hearts that have gone and brings back withered souls. “ He said it in argument that his mother in law had discovered the oil as a bi product of making rosewater and found the scum settled around her jug. In thanks for her wondrous discovery, he awarded her a string of pearls. Now, I can’t say if the Sultana did in fact discover the oil, but I agree with his description of its effect. In fact, I don’t think anyone has ever described it better. (Ashley, 2015)

In medical astrology, we say that rose medicine falls under the sign of Venus, which is code for saying it acts upon the heart. It softens and protects the heart, makes it more courageous and heals grief. Perhaps most importantly, it makes us feel brave enough to sleep. It has a  hypnotic effect that helps us to fall asleep faster and to sleep longer. Personally, I find I have fewer nightmares when I work with rose and geranium oils. 

Again, if you would find it helpful, here is my Aromythology Rose Meditation for Peace, Harmony and Love.  At the time of writing, there are just over 11k views. 10k of those may be me! I use this one a lot! Incidentally, if you do use these, do leave me a note on the video. It would lovely to know they had helped. 

Spikenard

I’d like to start by saying this a very treasured oil. Gathering it in Nepal comes at human cost since parents have to put young children into care so they go and collect medicinal plants so they can make enough money to be able to live. It is not an oil you should play with or experiment with, but desperate times require desperate measures. 

There is nothing that comes close to how it deals with deep rooted fears. Spikenard understands terror and is a medicine for times of horror. When faith begins to desert you that you will ever improve, or that life will ever get less scary, spikenard is salvation. This too, has a song from when I wrote my book

Integrating Essential Oils for PTSD into Your Lives

Remember, everyone's experience with PTSD is different. People with PTSD will often say they feel as if nobody understands them. Sadly, that only gets worse being alone. I find the easiest way to use my essential oils for PTSD are on an arompendant, but likewise, maybe you could make them a bath oil (personally, I find single notes are best for me, but everyone is different and many people love blends) or even make them a diffuser blend to use.  

Don’t forget too, there is huge amounts of data in the post I did about essential oils for uplifting mood. 

To me, there are no better ways to time travel than scent and music. I hope my experiences of essential oils for PTSD can go a little way to helping. 

Heal well. 

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