Grief, Emotions, and Essential Oils
Feelings of sadness, confusion, loss of hope, and disorientation numbed my soul as I recovered from that second miscarriage. Finding the way forward felt like stumbling through a thick, cold fog, arms outstretched, fingers searching for the threshold of an open door. I wondered if I’d ever feel the sun warm my face again. But as scents of lavender, lemon, peppermint, and other essential oils began infusing our home, the clouds began to thin.
When we bought our first starter kit of essential oils, we had some specific wellness goals in mind. We hoped they’d help the issues I’ve discussed in previous posts in ways other things had not. Support for emotional wellbeing wasn’t expected, but when my mood shifted within days of beginning to diffuse, I became intrigued with understanding how and why the fog was lifting.
As I began researching, I learned that the sense of smell directly stimulates the limbic system, our emotional control center and the area of the brain that stores memories and emotions. Essential oils provide a path for supporting the daily emotional patterns we all experience as well as resetting emotional patterns, and even trauma, from the past. As one expert puts it in this podcast, the effects are “kind of bizarre, but undeniably real.”
God designed our senses to enhance our experience of His goodness in creation. Can you imagine walking through Eden, inhaling the lush fragrances of flowering plants, observing the natural beauty of the garden, listening to the singing of the birds, feeling the brush of a breeze across your cheek, and savoring a berry as its juices burst in your mouth?
Unlike sight, hearing, touch and taste, smell isn’t filtered before we’re aware of it; it’s a direct hit to the brain that generates an instant response. It’s this part of the brain that’s directly stimulated when we inhale essential oils. Some oils promote the release of endorphins, the hormones we relate to as feel-good emotions. They calm the nervous system, telling the brain its safe for the body to relax. This quiets the fight, flight, or freeze response and shifts the body into a state where it can rest and heal.
Essential oils can be used for emotional support in two types of ways. One is for the every day stressors we all experience. Stress links directly to our emotions and can feel like a huge cloud casting deep shadows. It raises cortisol levels which then affect things like blood pressure, energy, blood sugar, and immune response. If the stress response kicks in and stays on, the body never gets to recovery mode. We experience this as a lowered immune system, loss of quality sleep, elevated blood pressure, and feelings of anxiety, depression, and being overwhelmed.
Essential oils are an easy and enjoyable way to ease the body into a more calm, relaxed state because of the ways they interact with the feedback loop involving the limbic system, the nervous system, the adrenal glands, and cortisol production.
For example, Lavender, Frankincense, and Orange help balance chemicals in the body we identify as feelings of anxiety, worry, and nervousness. I like to describe Lemon as “sunshine in a bottle” because of how it promotes a sense of focus and happy. Lavender, Frankincense, and Copaiba have properties that support feelings of peace and calm. The blend Purification helps dispel feelings of anger. The blend Stress Away is one of my favorites: one whiff and its notes of Lime and Vanilla transport me to a tropical beach where waves crash on white sands and all is right with the world.
I found it helpful to create my own daily routine as I began incorporating essential oils into my self-care regimen: a whiff of Peppermint to help jumpstart my brain in the morning, a drop or two of Lemon Vitality to flavor my water and support healthy detoxing processes, Peace and Calming to put on my feet before bed at night, and so on. It wasn’t long before little stashes could be found all over the house, anywhere that put them within easy reach as I went through the day.
Once you’ve experienced the effects of essential oils on everyday emotions, then you may want to try using them to support the reprocessing of deeper emotions like grief and other forms of trauma. Like other self-care measures, they are not a substitute for professional counseling therapy. But, as with modalities like exercise, massage, hydration, and rest, they are a wonderful way to begin shifting your emotional patterns. This is the second way of using essential oils for emotional support.
Unlike normal memories, the body encodes traumatic memories in a way that disrupts the entire nervous system and leaves them stuck in the nonverbal, nonconscious part of the brain. Traumatic experiences have a way of shutting down the language center of the brain making it difficult, if not impossible, to verbally process. Memories are encoded as emotions in these hidden corners of the brain and they build over time creating patterns that we act on, even without understanding the reasons why. Curiously enough, this part of the brain, though not stimulated by language, is stimulated by smell.
When we smell essential oils, they help unlock traumatic memories and force them into the light. They function as a trigger and open a path that allows us to return to places where we experienced emotional pain and begin a process of restoration. What a gift from the One who promises that He is, even now, making all things new!
If this topic intrigues you, I highly recommend these podcasts by Dan Allender and Jeanette White: Grief, Emotions and Essential Oils Part 1 and Part 2. Other resources include Releasing Emotional Patterns Using Essential Oils and the Aroma Freedom Technique. Works by Dr. Caroline Leaf (Switch on Your Brain) and Elizabeth Erickson (Mind Your Brain) have informed my understanding of the limbic system and how the brain interacts with essential oils.