Essential Oils for Anxiety—Do they Actually Work?

Notice how often you’ll get the advice to “just breathe” when you’re mid-freakout? As simple as it sounds, the direction can be anything but helpful—in fact, it can often feel quite annoying, not to mention insensitive. But as it turns out, there’s actual science behind the notion of lengthened breathing when you’re experiencing stress—and essential oils for anxiety can support this practice in a major way, says Amy Galper, certified aromatherapist.

But first, what are essential oils?

“Essential oils are aromatic liquid substances that are extracted from different kinds of plant materials using the process of steam distillation,” Galper previously told Well + Good. They’re a key component of aromatherapy and can be used in a variety of ways. While some people like to use essential oils in an oil diffuser, others prefer to enjoy their benefits in the form of candles, body washes, pillow sprays, and so on.

Whether you add them to your essential oil diffuser or choose to use candle, roll-on, or tea iterations, relief awaits ahead.

How to use essential oils for anxiety

While the causes of anxiety are quite varied, the effect of it often materializes in overthinking and not being able to quiet your mind. One of the best things to try for it? “Just simple inhalations,” Galper says. “Sniffing essential oils can help quiet that constant chatter that’s in your head, and help you reconnect the mind and body in a healing way.”

Of course, it’s not about replacing Xanax or L-theanine. “Using essential oils or aromatherapy is a holistic approach to healing,” she says. “If you feel like you might be having a panic attack or are just dealing with an anxious moment, smelling certain scents can help slow down that rush you’re feeling.”

That’s because the nerve endings in your nose have a direct impact on the part of your brain called the hypothalamus that manufactures the hormones responsible for emotional reactions, says Galper, adding that a given scent can influence how you respond to, for example, a stressful encounter with a coworker or your mom.

“You can use oils and scent to overcome fears thanks to this neurological communication,” says Galper. “Sniff a certain essential oil to help you lower nervous energy and trigger your body to instead go into a state of calm.” Thank goodness for the ol’ olfactory sense.

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So what essential oil is best for anxiety? Keep reading for the best chill-inducing options to try when you’re in need of some quick calm.

The 12 best essential oils for anxiety

1. Rosemary

The earthy green herb is perfect for everything from vegan pastas to DIY pedicures—but it also works wonders for relieving stress and centering an overwhelmed mind. “Rosemary is great for clarity,” says Galper. “It helps you focus when there’s too much going on, and can bring a tremendous calm to someone who’s feeling scattered.” (Cue everyone raising their hands.)

To harness the power of rosemary essential oil wherever you are, tuck the UpNature Rosemary Essential Oil Roll On ($10) in your pocket and be on your way.

2. Lavender

There’s a very good reason the purple plant’s scent is often used for unwinding in the bath and even spritzing on your pillow: It’s extremely relaxing, and has even been proven to help you catch quality zzzs. “Lavender essential oil is really good for shutting down that overactive thinking loop that can happen with anxiety,” says Galper. Basically, it shifts you from busy mode to a calmer one.

The great news is, there are tons of ways to incorporate lavender oil benefits into your daily routine. Looking to unwind in the shower? Try the Jason Natural Body Wash & Shower Gel ($9). Hoping to drift asleep peacefully? Spritz your room with the Aura Cacia Relaxing Lavender Aromatherapy Mist ($6).

Whether you’re spraying it on your pillow or rubbing it on your pulse points, Madeline Lucas, LMSW, says that lavender can be especially helpful when easing into sleep.

3. Eucalyptus

While eucalyptus is typically thought to be an energizing essential oil, great for waking up the senses in the morning, research shows that it can help ease preoperative nerves and reduce anxiety, too.

To experience the benefits of eucalyptus for yourself, make room in your shower for the J.R. Watkins Awaken Aromatherapy In-Shower Mist ($10)—it’s a personal fave. If you want to bring the power of eucalyptus with you wherever you are, though, the Plant Therapy Eucalyptus Pre-Diluted Roll-On ($10) may be a better option.

4. Clary sage

Clary sage is often used to help balance hormones—but it’s also considered an herbal antispasmodic, says Galper, which means it relaxes your physical body. “Often, anxiety can manifest itself in tight shoulders, a stiff neck, a cramp in the stomach. Clary sage can help relieve that ‘holding-in’ in the body, which helps you relax,” she says. Next best thing to a massage?

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As a bonus, research shows that clary sage can help ease tension and relieve menstrual cramps, too. Add the Silk Road Organic Clary Sage Essential Oil Roll On ($13) to your daily routine—or specifically during that time of month.

5. Peppermint

According to Lucas, peppermint can be incredibly soothing, particularly because it has physical soothing effects. Simply smelling the essential oil can awaken your nasal passage, while rubbing it on can sometimes offer a slight chilling effect, which can be grounding. “I breathe in peppermint oil in moments of heightened anxiety or panic, as it sort of sharply brings me back to the present moment,” she says.

And it makes sense—a 2019 study found that inhaling peppermint oil before intravenous catheterization can significantly reduce not only anxiety but the pain associated with the procedure, too.

To add peppermint to your routine, consider a vial of the Plant Therapy Organic Peppermint Essential Oil ($9). And as for where to put peppermint oil for anxiety? Your wrists are a great choice, but you can really douse the stuff wherever you desire (on your pillow, into a tissue, etc.)

6. Patchouli

Researchers found that patchouli can significantly boost dopamine and reduce depression. Additionally, they found that inhaling the fragrance can “ease stress, reduce anxiety, and boost mood” overall.

Suffice to say, you might want to start lighting patchouli-infused candles in your home. May we suggest the P.F. Candle Co. Patchouli Sweetgrass Classic Standard Scented Soy Wax Candle ($27)?

7. Marjoram

The mint relative of clary sage works similarly well in the physical relaxation realm. “Marjoram will aid in reducing muscle stress,” says Galper. “Sometimes people run around the city all day and their bodies are so wound up that they can’t fall asleep at night. It’s not the mind but the body that’s still buzzing.” Sound familiar? Apply marjoram oil before working out or to sore muscles post-sweat sesh. (FYI: The Gya Labs Marjoram Essential Oil, $10, is a particularly popular pick.)

8. Valerian

Looking for other ways to calm your mind—especially before bed? Lucas says valerian can help. “Valerian is an herb whose scent has been known to help aid with sleep and calm the nerves,” she shares. In fact, according to the National Institutes of Health, valerian is a common ingredient in sleep aids. Case in point: The ingredient is in Hum’s Mighty Night ($40) supplement.

9. Jatamansi

Jatamansi (aka spikenard) is often used in naturopathic treatment of neuropsychiatric disorders. The essential oil is particularly unique because it not only reduces stress and anxiety, it also prevents making impaired decisions while stressed, research shows. So, if your goal is to approach life feeling less stressed and more centered, adding the Pure Gold Spikenard Essential Oil ($15) to your routine may be worthwhile.

10. Chamomile

Maybe you sip chamomile tea before bed to signal your body it’s time to chill out. (Amazon reviewers love the Celestial Seasonings Chamomile Herbal Tea, $19.) But smelling it in essential oil form can help calm your body and your mind (and you don’t have to wait for it to steep). “Chamomile is a really powerful anti-inflammatory, so I think of it as being great for inflamed emotions. Anxiety that’s coming through from a burst of anger or an emotional encounter, for instance, is something chamomile is good for quieting,” says Galper.

11. Geranium

In a study of 100 women in labor, researchers found that inhaling geranium essential oil effectively reduces anxiety, not to mention diastolic blood pressure. So, whether you’re carrying a baby or nerves surrounding a big meeting coming up, geranium might just become your new BFF. (FYI: The HIQILI Geranium Essential Oil, $10, has over 15,000 rave reviews.)

12. Pine

What’s interesting about this fresh tree scent is that it’s scientifically proven to clear out inflammation in your bronchial passageways, says Galper (so it’s not just a gorgeous, cleansing smell that reminds you of the holidays). “Oils like pine, spruce, and fir can help slow down your breath and allow you to take deeper inhalations, which itself subdues your overactive mind.” Thank you, calming forest friend. (No time to take a walk through the woods? Add a vial of the Healing Solutions Organic Pine Oil, $10, to your cart.)

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