I’m talking about aromatherapy, of course, one of my all-time favorite ways to induce a relaxed, happy state. Aromatherapy, as the name says, is the use of aromas for therapeutic purposes. Right now I want to focus on how to use aromatherapy to elicit a relaxation response, by using the powerful link between our sense of smell, emotions and memory.
The Scent-Emotion-Memory Connection
The part of your brain that supports olfaction, emotion and long-term memory is the same. It’s called the limbic brain (also known as the primitive brain.) That’s why those three functions are so closely interconnected. I won’t bore you with the physiological details on how it all works (kinda complicated), moreover I’m pretty certain you’ve had a direct experience of this neurological connection.
Maybe it’s the smell of warm apple pie that instantly takes you back to your mum’s kitchen as a child, or the perfume of your first grade teacher evoking a carefree time of your life.
For me it’s the smell of butter-heavy, dark chocolate cake. Suddenly I’m eleven years old, it’s my birthday party. There’s a strong 80’s vibe in the air, scrunchies, velour pants and all. Mum baked my favorite cake and with a few girlfriends I’m enjoying a few too many slices of it. An indigestion will surely follow. But for now it’s a fun, light time.
A waft of Jean-Paul Gaultier’s Classique and it’s October 18th 1993, my first day in New York City. A friend of a friend had offered to put me up, she wore that strong perfume. Since then, whenever I happen to smell it I am transported right back to that day. Her place on Madison and 80th street, waking up early the next morning and coming upon the Metropolitan Museum, stunned by its size and beauty, already feeling at home in my new city, excited, a tad apprehensive…All of it comes alive in an instant when I smell Classique.
The end of the year holidays have a lot of smells associated to them as well. Gingerbread cookies, fresh pine trees, roasted chestnuts, the smoky, woody smell of a crackling fire in the fireplace...What does it all conjure for you? The excitement of the season, a feeling of abundance, or lack perhaps? Joy or loneliness, family celebration or dysfunction? Not all pleasant scents evoke pleasant feelings. Often it’s a mixed bag. The point here is that scents are powerful to stir up strong emotions, delightful and not-so-delightful ones alike. So why not use this connection to our advantage? Why not create new associations, deliberately this time, between a chosen scent and a desired emotional state? You’ll then be able to access that same emotional state at a later time, upon smelling that scent. How does that smell? Oops…sound? ;)
Creating a New Scent-Emotion Association to Relieve Anxiety
All you’ll need are a natural scent you enjoy (in the form of essential oil, preferably organic) and moments when you feel calm. Hopefully you can find some of those! Perhaps after a yoga class or a massage, while taking a walk in nature, meditating, playing with your pet or making art? Anytime you happen to feel relaxed is a good time to pull out your preferred scent and take a few deep breaths. Let the scent saturate your consciousness as you relax into the pleasant experience you’re having. You can sniff right out of the bottle or place a few drops on a tissue. As you repeat this experience you’ll be forming a strong association between your chosen scent and feeling relaxed. You can then use that association in reverse and smell the same aroma to evoke the same relaxed feeling when you need it.
I recommend not waiting to feel anxious to make use of this new scent-emotion association. Instead take a sniff of your essential oil upon waking in the morning, prior to a work meeting, presentation, family gathering, or any situation that you foresee as potentially anxiety-producing. In other words use your scent-emotion connection as preventative medicine. Of course you can also use this method when you’re already feeling anxious, absolutely. The one caveat with that approach is that overtime you may unwittingly create a new association, one with feeling anxious! It may take a while though. If that happens just start the process with a new lovely scent.
What Scents Should You Use?
Any scent you like is the short answer. What we’re after here is a connection between a scent and an emotion. That said some aromas are more conducive to relaxation. As seen in this post, anxiety is energetically light, cool, mobile, subtle. It benefits from earthy, spicy scents that are warming and grounding such as clove, ginger, vetiver, basil, lavender, geranium, frankincense, patchouli, vanilla. You’ll probably find a blend of those more enjoyable and more powerful too. My simple rule of thumb is smell it and if it makes you go “Aaaaaaaaaah…” that’s the one.
I have personally used this method all my life and love it. Lavender is my #1 scent. I use it almost before every class, every client. It’s so strongly associated in my brain with being calm and focused that even if I’m anything but it brings me there. Aromatherapy is portable, simple and effective. Try it.
If you don’t feel confident around essential oils and are looking to relax, I’ve got you covered. Join me on 11/24 and 12/22 at 2pm at Athleta for my Naturally Stress-Free class. I’ll bring an assortment of those delightful scents, you can pick your favorite one, and of course we’ll relax deeply, so you can make that neuro-association right there and then. Be sure to sign-up online beforehand.
Happy Holidays, Happy Sniffing xo