It’s estimated that 19.1% of Americans suffer from anxiety in the average year. Typically the number of females suffering outnumbers men (23.4% vs 14.3% respectively) and statistically, 31.1% of the general population will suffer from some kind of anxiety disorder in their lives. Lavender oil is now widely accepted as an excellent way to help stabilize mood and is the world's largest over-the-counter complementary medicine to do so. Today we’ll look at some of the latest findings about the treatment and how to use lavender oil for anxiety.
Essential oils have two main modes of application, topically and as inhalants. The skin is a semipermeable organ that allows molecules to pass through it into the bloodstream. Diluted into carrier oils to make them safer and to help them spread further, they are carried by the circulatory system to the parts of the body that need them, in the case of anxiety, to the brain. Inhaled, molecules find their way to a part of the brain called the limbic system which controls emotions, cognition, learning, and memory. Each molecule acts as a key to a receptor to switch it up or down. Aromatherapy is done simply using inhalants, massage oils and lotions, and aromatic baths to soothe and calm the autonomic nervous system.
Since people’s levels of interest in this subject will be varied, and of course, the person who experiences a one-off event of being anxious about going to the dentist is clearly going to be different to someone whose anxiety is a day-to-day debilitating condition.
Let’s begin with the simplest questions and then drill deeper into the different ways that the scientists are exploring to discover new ways of how to use lavender oil for anxiety.
How To Use Lavender For Anxiety
Is It Ok to Inhale Lavender Oil?
This is a great question because it’s not easy to see how the idea of, what is essentially sniffing a flower, could help when you feel really unsettled. The answer is yes, it is not only OK to inhale lavender oil, it is positively encouraged. Later in the article, we’ll explore how the molecules interact with different parts of the nervous system to help reduce anxiety and depressive feelings and to promote feelings of calm. One of the most interesting pieces of data is how inhaling essential oils affects oxytocin, one of the primary molecules associated with mental health. You might find it interesting to scroll down.
Research shows that the best way to do that is to sit calmly and inhale for about 5 minutes each day. Sitting quietly and concentrating on slowing your breathing.
Can You Rub Lavender Oil Directly On Skin?
Yes, absolutely you can, and you should, but you will need to dilute the lavender into a carrier oil first.
Essential oils are extremely concentrated. Some, like cinnamon or bergamot, can cause immediate damage to your skin, given the right conditions. Lavender is gentler, but prolonged use of lavender essential oil can result in skin sensitization.
To use it safely, we say you should use:
- 3% dilution for an adult
- 2% for someone in a weakened state
- 1% for a child.
A teaspoon of carrier oil contains roughly 100 drops of carrier oil, meaning we can use 1 drop of lavender essential oil for a child, 2 for an elderly person, or someone who is recovering from a severe illness. We use 3 drops in one teaspoon of carrier oil for a normal, robust adult.
A carrier oil can be any kind of vegetable oil. Most people have olive oil or something like sunflower oil in the kitchen. This works well, but carrier oils also have their own properties and you might feel you’d like to experiment with thicker ones like almond oil which feels more luxurious for massage, for example.
Dilution is important, what you choose to put it into is not.
Where Do You Put Essential Oils For Anxiety?
Another great question, because it can seem odd that we rub oils on to treat something that’s inside. Actually, the best answer is probably that it really doesn’t matter. As long as they can get into the bloodstream they will find their way to the brain. However, it makes sense that the most concentrated access is going to be the best, so if we are to say “Where is the best place to put lavender oil on your body?” we’d probably suggest massaging into the neck and shoulders if you can. If you can’t, then just apply them to the inside of your wrist where there is a good blood supply. As you’ll see as the article unfolds essential oil molecules are profoundly clever things. As long as you give them a route in, they’ll do the rest of the work.
With those questions answered, let’s drill down and start to understand more about what the scientists know about how to use lavender essential oil for anxiety. It’s a strange thing that we can now take tourists into space but we still know very little about the working of the human brain.
That said, research over recent decades has revealed more about how emotions can affect health. Seeing some of the things we now know about this oil may help you to make your own decision about how to use lavender oil for anxiety.
Stress and its effects on The Autonomic Nervous System
The autonomic nervous system can be divided into two key responses. These are “Fight and Flight” and “Rest and Restore.” Already, if you suffer from anxiety, you might have identified that one of these processes is working a lot harder for you than the other. Fight and flight is governed by the sympathetic nervous system, where rest and restore is navigated by the parasympathetic.
When you’re stressed
There are a few biological indicators you might also identify with. The sympathetic system makes the hairs stand on end when we are alarmed. It makes us sweat, and is responsible for the nerves that open the pupils of our eyes. It makes our heart beat faster and changes how we breathe. The most severe example of this is hyperventilation in a panic attack.
Biologically, in an ideal world, when the source of our fear has gone, then the parasympathetic system should take over, calm your heart rate and restore normal breathing. To take flight, our body moves all available resources from bodily systems that you will not need to jump up a tree to get away from a sabre tooth tiger, to fuel the muscles. Resources that would normally have been for the skin, for example, get temporarily stolen to be used as glycogen to fuel stamina to escape. Hopefully, when the tiger has gone, your body can then revert all energetic centers to where they should naturally be.
However, long term stress leads to anxiety
The problem comes though when you don’t fully believe the tiger has gone. Or if there was one, maybe it has a partner. Worse still a family. Maybe they are hungry.
And it goes on.
So we can see that when this happens the parasympathetic system cannot take the reins, and what we have then is the beginnings of an anxiety disorder.
Let’s just take a break from the physiology here for a moment and contemplate the nature of anxiety. Because someone could easily be anxious because of an appointment for example, but otherwise not be troubled by anxiety. Conversely, they could suffer day to day to a degree that might require medication. Actually, clinical evidence proves that lavender oil can help both. So let’s start to break that down.
The Role of Limbic System in Anxiety Disorders
The Limbic system is a very primitive part of the brain that governs our emotions, learning, memory, and how we process thoughts. Oddly, and very fortuitously, it is also the part of the brain that processes our sense of smell. So when we inhale a fragrance, the molecules go up the nose, hit a membrane called the olfactory bulb. This piece of tissue is tiny, about the size of a dime, but scattered across its surface is around 100,000 receptors. These each takes information about the molecule from the olfactory bulb to the limbic system.
The system is made up of several structures, but most importantly for us, the hippocampus, the amygdala, and the hypothalamus.
Consider this: the amygdala is involved with fear processing and the hippocampus with episodic memory. This means that when you associate fear with a situation, you can thank the hippocampus. But likewise, this is part of the reason we associate smells with events and places.
The smell of cotton candy immediately puts us back in the fairground. Bread baking feels homely. I mean, when you break that down, that’s weird, right? How can an external smell change how we feel? But it does. Lemon conjures holidays in places you might never have been to and grapefruit makes you feel refreshed and alive. All of these strange associates are thought to be executed through the hippocampus. Further, it is thought that a large number of lavender’s effects in reducing anxiety are probably executed via effects on the amygdala and hippocampus too.
How to Use Lavender Essential Oil for Anxiety Episodes
It’s quite interesting to explore why this research exists. The problems that pharmaceutical companies have in trying to synthesize new drugs from essential oils are many, so there are relatively few studies into how plant extracts work. A drug company’s primary objective is to heal people, but making money for its shareholders is not far behind. There’s nothing wrong with that, of course. That’s how businesses operate.
In a hospital or a dental surgery though, the money aspect ranks differently, because ideally, the hospital wants to spend the least amount of money on each patient as possible, so they can afford to treat the next one. This means that if an essential oil can improve an outcome, get people out of hospital quicker, with fewer complications, then the study warrants attention.
Because of this, actually, there are lots of data available to us.
Consider that if someone is very stressed when they go onto an operating table, their heart rate is faster and they can be more prone to blood pressure spikes while they are under the knife. These can lead to catastrophic complications. If people can go into the operating theatre calmer, the outcomes have a better chance of being good.
In addition, the calmer someone is, the smaller the risks of them feeling nauseous when they come around from anesthesia. The reasons for someone being calmer in the dentist’s chair are obvious.
What’s nice then, is in this area, we don’t have masses of scientific jargon about molecules. We have reports from actual people about the differences of how it made them feel.
Lavender Helps Reduces Situational Anxiety At The Dentist
There was a lovely trial published in the European Journal of Pediatrics in Feb 2020 that acknowledged that going to the dentist was not only one of the most traumatic endeavors for children but for their parents too. The trial, done by Turkish researchers, was a simple one. They split the children into two groups. Those who were asked to inhale lavender essential oil for three minutes before their tooth extraction and the control group who were not. Then they measured all manner of things from how their faces reacted, how much they cried and how much pain they were in assessed through a questionnaire.
The readings they took revealed that the children in the control group had a significant leap in their heart rates after anesthesia. In contrast, readings taken from the children who had inhaled the lavender showed their pulses had slowed, and their blood pressures had fallen. (Arslan, 2020)
The researchers concluded, “Lavender oil can be preferred as a treatment of choice in routine pediatric dentistry.” They explained that not only were the children calmer but their experience of pain was lower too.
The Role of Smell in Situational Anxiety
Our sense of smell plays a vital role in fear. The ways that lavender oil probably helped those children will have many layers, some we can see, others we do not yet understand.
One thing we do know however is fragrance has a large part to play in how we process memory. Consider how a child who has had a traumatic episode at the dentist before may begin to associate the sterile environment with terror. Offering a softer, happier fragrance may be equally as powerful for them, as the actual molecules that have an anti-anxiety effect.
Understanding Lavender Oil’s Effects on Neurotransmission
We’ve established that the autonomic nervous system is made up of two functional parts, the sympathetic that governs fight and flight and the parasympathetic that should (if everything is going to plan) turn that off and bring about rest and restore.
Biologically, it is made up of two parts two. There is an electrical nervous system, which sends messages along nerve cells to the brain. The point where two nerve cells meet is called a synapse. These junctions have gaps between the nerves, which the electrical signals cannot cross. So, there is a second system, a chemical nervous system, that projects signaling molecules across this gap which we call the “synaptic gap”, or the “synaptic cleft''. These chemical molecules are known as neurotransmitters. There are around 100 of them, but the best-known ones are things like serotonin and dopamine.
When a molecule passes across the synaptic gap, it should find its way to a receptor. We can imagine these receptors like keyholes that need keys to open and close them. Molecules in essential oils can sometimes act as keys (the correct term is ligands) to open or close these receptor keyholes. So, for example, serotonin has many functions in the body. One of which is modulating mood. If there is not enough serotonin to keep the mood level, it can use a kind of skeleton key, another ligand that can do the same job. Often these substitute ligands are found in essential oils.
Lavender Oil for Anxiety Vs Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors
To be clear, doctors have tremendous pharmaceuticals for anxiety, and aromatherapy should not be considered as an alternative medicine. It is best used as complementary medicine under the guidance of skilled practitioners. By that, we mean a physician and an aromatherapist. Please do not consider giving up your prescribed medicine without the support of a medical professional.
The doctor will usually prescribe one of two medications for anxiety. The first are benzodiazepines designed to make anxiety feel further away, and Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) (or sometimes Selective Serotonin and Norepinephrine Inhibitors).
SERT Transporter Molecules
SSRIs work on the principle that not all serotonin finds its way across the synaptic gap to locate a receptor. So, if the nervous system was not a master of recycling these would be wasted. Luckily for us, the nervous system has got this sussed.
It sends what's called a transporter molecule to clean up the gap. The serotonin transporter molecule, or SERT, sweeps up any leftover serotonin and deposits it back into the end of the nerve cell, the bouton, ready to use again. SSRIs stop this from happening. Put very simply, they tell SERT to back off, and leave the slow molecules alone a bit, to see if they can find their way to receptors. That should then activate these to make a person feel calmer.
For a large proportion of people, these work well, but sadly these drugs are accompanied by issues. One of the reasons we ask you not to stop using them is they are associated with nasty withdrawal effects. They can also be connected to rebound problems meaning that just as you have your issues stabilized, they rear their ugly heads when the doctor tries to reduce your dose. In addition, SSRIs are also associated with side effects of sexual dysfunction. So whilst some people may indeed feel calmer, they can be left with a loss of libido or for men problems with impotence and/or ejaculation.
Don’t take my word for it. These depressing pictures are the drug companies' own concerns which is why they are investigating lavender oil in the first place.
It makes sense then, if they can find an agent that can do the same things without upsetting the rest of the body’s chemical balance, they will be onto a winner.
Lavender Oil and SERT
A joint paper written by Spanish and Danish researchers was published in Frontiers of Pharmacology in 2017. In Exploring Pharmacological Mechanisms of Lavender ( Lavandula angustifolia) Essential Oil on Central Nervous System Targets they were able to elucidate that two of the most prominent components in lavender essential oil, linalyl acetate, and linalool also exert an action on this same serotonin transporter protein (SERT) when tested on rats. (Lopez, 2017)
This powerhouse relationship between linalyl acetate and linalool is not a new discovery. One of the reasons that essential oils cannot be patented is that essential oil chemistry is so changeable. It can be affected by anything from climate to insects. So, it’s very hard to determine that one essential oil will work exactly as another. Consequently one of the main things you’ll see in essential oil research is that scientists want to understand what one specific component does. The reason for this is that once they understand that, they can synthesize the molecule and mass-produce a patented drug. This has happened with a tremendous drug called Silexan. Silexan is an orally administered drug that is made up of high percentages of linalyl acetate and linalool but it does not have the broad spectrum of natural molecules that lavender does.
The problem we have now, as aromatherapists, is many clinical trials into sleep and anxiety are now undertaken with silexan rather than lavender essential oil. So, whilst we can expect the outcomes will be similar (and I should say that Silexan’s results are good) we cannot say for certain they will be the same.
Lavender Oils Relationship With NMDA Receptors
The same trial also revealed intricate interactions with the NMDA receptor.
As previously said, the hippocampus is a key brain structure, implicated in both cognition and emotion. We spoke of how it was involved in episodic processing, and how it is associated with certain circumstances that create fear responses. It is richly populated with N-methyl-d-aspartate NMDA receptors which affect several aspects of emotions including anxiety, fear, anxiety, and depression. Most importantly, these receptors play a part in synaptic plasticity, which means how synapses change to create conditioned fear responses.
Interaction with these NMDA receptors can have profound anxiolytic (anti-anxiety) effects.
Those of us who have suffered from stress and anxiety might also be interested to know that it is these receptors that are responsible for how our learning and memory suffer when we’re under pressure
Again then, think of the effects of simply inhaling lavender essential oil for a few minutes before you do some revision or you take an exam.
Thinking about Anxiety and Oxytocin
Oxytocin is a fascinating molecule. On a physical level, it is what kicks labor off in childbirth, brings in the mother’s milk, and promotes maternal bonding. It is involved in orgasm and that smooshy feeling we feel after we orgasm. It's known as the “Bonding molecule” or sometimes the molecule of love and would you believe, it surges when we hold hands.
Strangely, oxytocin also has a bearing on bone density. Levels of the neurotransmitter drop in post-menopausal women when estrogen drops, and it's this chemical change that plays a part in osteoporosis. Thus, scientists wanted to know if they could influence levels of oxytocin using essential oils so that they might also be able to support natural bone density.
Oxytocin has strong anxiolytic properties and anti-stress benefits. On the most surface level, we can see why some good sex when we feel down could be useful. Nature’s own internal healing system. If you’re not lucky enough to have a horny Brad Pitt ready and willing at any given moment, you could try supplementing with some inhalation of essential oils.
The researchers found that those who sniffed essential oils for around 5 minutes each day for a month had higher levels of oxytocin in their saliva. There is substantial scientific and medical interest in potential therapeutics that involve oxytocin with a view to being able to help psychopathologies associated with fear, anxiety, fear, and social dysfunctions. Possible applications may include generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, posttraumatic stress disorder, autism, and schizophrenia, among others.
Biological Effects of Using Lavender Oil for Anxiety
One of an aromatherapist’s favorite things to say is that essential oils don’t have side effects, only main effects, and that is true. But there are situations where we need to consider the main effect as problematic as a side effect. For example, how safe would it be for us to get behind the steering wheel if we have been spending time trying to sedate ourselves with lavender oil. Are we still ok to drive? It’s an important factor, isn’t it?
This was assessed in a clinical trial published in the Journal of the Medical Association of Thailand in 2012. (It’s interesting to see just how widespread these aromatherapy practices are being used, isn’t it?)
Lavender Relaxes and Refreshes
Twenty healthy volunteers had their biological markers assessed after inhaling lavender oil.
The group was split into two. One group was given lavender essential oil and the other had sweet almond oil to smell. Then the researchers assessed changes in their heart and respiratory rates, their blood pressures, and skin temperature to get a measure of the arousal levels within the autonomic nervous system. Additionally, participants were asked to describe any changes they felt in their mood. Did the changes feel pleasant or unpleasant, and how comfortable, relaxed, sensual or refreshing did they feel in order to assess subjective behavioral arousal.
Then the fascinating bit. They had electrodes put onto their heads to assess any changes in brain waves too. Results revealed that the lavender oil caused significant blood pressure decreases. Heart rates slowed and skin temperatures dropped. Together these painted a picture of a decrease of autonomic arousal. (Sayorwan, 2021)
In terms of mood, the lavender oil group rated themselves as feeling not only more relaxed but also fresher and more active than those who had just had the almond oil.
Anxiousness seems to have its own brain wave profile. It is associated with decreased alpha waves, and an increase in beta waves, and it can be affected by low delta and theta waves. Alpha waves have an important role to play in brain activity and studies suggest that they might be useful in reducing anxiety symptoms (as well as depression.) When we go into states of deep relaxation, such as meditation, we see changes in theta waves.
The biofeedback readings revealed that the lavender essential oil increased both alpha and theta brain activities.
Lavender and Massage for Anxiety
Depending on where an aromatherapist has trained, potentially they would give you different answers on this. American aromatherapists tend to concentrate on inhalers and rollerballs, but in Britain, massage stands front and center of how anxiety and stress are treated.
Consider how the body is made up of some many pores, each acting as a doorway for the oils to get in. How the long slow, penetrating strokes of massage soften and ease the muscles that hold onto worrying thoughts. How reassuring the power touch is and how calming it is when you feel anxious.
Adding a couple of drops of lavender essential oil to a tablespoon of carrier oil, and taking time to either massage yourself, or someone else smooth in the oils is exquisitely calming and soothing.
Lavender Oil in The Bath
English researchers from the University of Wolverhampton published a study they had done on the effects of lavender oil on anxiety when it was used in the bath. Eighty women without any psychological diagnoses were split into two groups and were given either grapeseed carrier oil or lavender essential oil to put in their bathwater. (Morris, 2002)
Actually, there were two studies assessed by different questionnaires. The first was about words that people would use to describe different aspects of their mood and the second was about how they were feeling about events that were coming up in the future.
Positive mood changes were found after both groups’ bathing regimes when they were assessed for energetic arousal, tense arousal, hedonic tone, and anger frustration. Interestingly, there was no difference in the control group for anger-frustration, but the lavender oil group showed a big improvement. They also found that the people who had been using the lavender oil had fewer negative responses about the future.
How Effective Is Lavender Essential Oil For Anxiety In A Foot Bath?
It is interesting that something can feel very relaxing, but sometimes it doesn’t create as many physiological changes as you would expect. The lavender foot bath is a great example of this. There is no doubt that it feels blissful. It’s so refreshing to your feet and you can feel the relaxation climbing up your legs. A Japanese study published in the Journal of Complementary Medicine in 2000, split a group of young women into two groups. Those with lavender essential oil in their footbaths and those without. Both groups reported feeling much more relaxed. The lavender did show changes in their autonomic nervous system, but they were not significant. (Saeki, 2000)
So, depending on your viewpoint, if you are only interested in feeling a bit calmer, a few drops of lavender essential oil in a bowl of warm water will do the trick. If however, you want to see longer-lasting results and clear physiological changes taking place, having a massage with essential oils, or better still systematic repeated inhalation of lavender will show better effects.
How To Use Lavender Oil For Anxiety - Massage Rollerball
Method of Use: Apply to the insides of the wrists, to the back of the neck. This blend can also be used as a massage oil.
Or, place some onto the palms of your hands and inhale slowly for about five minutes.
Safety: Not suitable for use in the first 16 weeks of pregnancy
How To Use Lavender Oil For Anxiety - Baths and Footbaths
Really, how to use lavender oil for anxiety is to try to implement it in as many ways as you can. Have a rollerball ready on hand so you can apply topically, or inhale it, or better still do both. Add lavender oil to your bath and try to get the occasional massage.
Breathe deeply and slowly, concentrating on imagining the aromatic molecules going up your nose, down into your lungs, and slowing the breath.