Can Certain Scents Help Us Manage Stress and Anxiety?

I’ve always suffered from anxiety. When I would have an anxious episode as a kid, my mum used to run me these lavender baths; “magic baths”, she’d call them.

If I’d had a bad day at school or I didn’t feel well, the thought of a magic bath, just that extra bit hot with lavender steam filling the room; I’d instantly feel more calm.

I’d always assumed that this was just my mum working her magic. There’s just something about a mum’s presence, reassuring tone and the fact that they always have the answers, that puts you instantly at ease. But then, as I got older, my mum told me that lavender is actually an essential oil that is renowned for it’s calming effect.

Throughout the past 18 months or so, as we’ve been in and out of lockdowns and forced to have at least one existential crisis a day, my mental health has definitely taken a hit. Although things like dressing up for no reason and working out are known to make us feel better, there are just some days where you don’t feel motivated and you need to turn to other remedies.

This got me thinking about scent, and whether or not they can help us manage our low moments.

“Scent can absolutely have a positive impact on our state of mind because its relationship with emotion is so strong, it can drive how we feel,” says Director of Scent Australia Home, Andrew O’Keefe.

“The introduction of specific scents can positively impact our reactions, responses, and recollections in everyday life.”

Scents definitely have emotions attached to them. Like the perfume your ex wore the sh*t out of, that you instantly recognise whenever you smell it. Depending on how your relationship ended and your feelings towards that person, the scent could attract or repel you.

I guess I’ve always known this, but I’d never thought of it as a tool to manage mental health.

“The way that scents can help us with stress and anxiety, relates back to the link between sense of smell and the limbic system,” O’Keefe says.

Basically, this means that if you’ve had a calming experience in an environment that has a certain smell, that smell is likely to bring you calm wherever you go.

“Our experience is that stress and anxiety are helped with scents that bring on a sense of calm, and this is achieved by creating triggers of what a calm environment might be.

“We’ve found Green fragrance notes work very well in this, generally as they invoke outdoor / forest feeling. Our ‘Invigorate’ scent has notes of Eucalyptus, and reminds me of walking through the Australian bush, bringing a sense of meditative peace.”

The positive impact of scent depends on the experiences of an individual’s experiences, as well as our biology. For example, a pleasurable response to a sweet fragrance could simply be owing to human instinct: we are naturally attracted to carbohydrate-heavy and sugar-laden foods. Some of us may react differently to sugar, given our genetic make-up, which would attract us to these scents less.

Overall, it seems pretty legit that the right scent could lead you to a sense of calm and bring you back to your centre, on a day where you might be feeling excess stress, anxiety and inner chaos.

It takes a bit of individual research to find out which scent might work for you.

Which Scents Are the Best For You?

According to Healthline, these are 10 popular essential oils and their health claims:

  • Peppermint: used to boost energy and aid digestion
  • Lavender: used to relieve stress
  • Sandalwood: used to calm nerves and help with focus
  • Bergamot: used to reduce stress and improve skin conditions like eczema
  • Rose: used to improve mood and reduce anxiety
  • Chamomile: used to improve mood and relaxation
  • Ylang-Ylang: used to treat headaches, nausea, and skin conditions
  • Tea Tree: used to fight infections and boost immunity
  • Jasmine: used to help with depression, childbirth, and libido
  • Lemon: used to aid digestion, mood, headaches, and more.

How to Use Scents Effectively

You could use any of these in a diffuser at home, which requires some water and a few drops of essential oil and will release small amounts of fragranced steam. This is especially good when you’re sick with the flu; eucalyptus and lemon have helped to clear my sinuses in the past.

If you’re lucky enough to own a bath, one of the best calming exercises is to run a hot bath, add a few drops of an essential oil of your choice and soak for an hour or so. The bath itself is calming and with that added layer of essential oils and steam… it’s a winner.

Lastly, the most traditional way is to wear the scent on you. This could be a perfume or an essential oil that includes scents suited for you. If you’re using an oil, dab it at the centre of your collarbones and on either wrist. If it’s a fragrance, you can be a little less generous with maybe just a spray or two.

Scent Australia Home has some beautiful fragrances that use essential oils and even one that is designed specifically for stress relief which you can find here. You can shop the full offering here.

If you or someone you know needs support around mental health, please visit Beyond Blue to discover resources and services that can help.