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Essential Renaissance: Five scents for a calm mind.

Aromatherapy is the fastest way out of your head and into a more measured, peaceful place. The sense of smell is one powerful message-delivery system, allowing us to tap into a powerful fusion of smells, memory, and emotion—a phenomena you’ve probably experienced countless times.

Why does it work? First, a definition: very (very) simply, aromatherapy is the use and study of aromatic essences on one’s state of mental and physical well-being. It takes advantage of the unique way our bodies assimilate and download information carried by the volatile oils that make various substances, well, smell-able, for lack of a better term.

These volatile oils are actually tiny, tiny aspects of the whole. So, say you smell cinnamon—tiny particles of cinnamon are actually entering your body. These chemicals dissolve in your nose’s mucus membranes, where they trigger specific neurons. Then, that information is relayed to the olfactory center of your brain where the message splits—one branch to the frontal lobe for identification, the other to the limbic system (the brain’s ambassador of emotion) to see if there might be some kind of memory (grandma’s house), physical response (hunger), or emotional response (nostalgia).

This effect is probably familiar (balsam pine and winter holidays, anyone?), and that’s one reason why aromatherapy is so popular and so potent: its effects (on mood, on well-being) can be immediate.

Perhaps you already have essential oils at home, but even if you can’t get out and get any right now, chances are you have a fragrant teabag you can use as a sachet or access to early (or dried) fragrant flowers. In a pinch, even naturally-scented Castile, laundry, or hand soap can serve aromatherapeutic purposes, as can candles, incense, or evergreen boughs sustainably foraged.

No matter what you have at hand, there is bound to be a scent to comfort you (think fragrant cinnamon or warm vanilla, the yeasty scent of hot, baked bread…).

In case you have (or are planning to have) a store of essential oils, here are five scents to help you out of your head and into a more peaceful place:

  1. Lavender is tonic for the mind, body, and heart. It slows breathing, heart rate, and sedates the nerves (exactly what you need when you’re anxious or stressed). Lavender also happens to be perfect for the kind of anxiety that keeps you up at night.
    lavender plant

    Lavender flowers

    There are many ways to access lavender’s many benefits. The simplest? Carry a small vial of lavender essential oil, inhaling the scent whenever you need it. Alternately, apply a bit to the pulse points, backs of the hands, or to your hair (due to its close proximity to your nose, if it’s long enough). You can also add it to a warm bath—especially helpful if you have trouble sleeping—or use any variety of aromatherapy infuser, including a simple, steaming cup of hot water dosed with a few drops of oil. Breathe.

  2. Citrus! Wild orange, lemon, lime, or grapefruit are fabulous allies when hit with the double-whammy of exhaustion and anxiety. Citrus wakes up receptors in the brain, sparking energy, creativity, and hopefulness while, at the same time, kindling joy. Citrus is especially effective first thing in the morning or during those long afternoon hours when your energy starts to flag. If you have a bottle of citrus oil, adding a few drops to your shampoo or conditioner is a great way to start your day. Alternately, keep your nose close the next time you peel an orange, lemon, or grapefruit, and save the peels. Kept in an airtight container, they’ll keep their scent for days.
  3. Maybe it’s because we have such easy access to it here in Maine, but pine is a scent with immense power. Clearing, grounding, and focusing, pine helps pull us out of the world of “what-if” and “if-only” and into the present moment. When we’re present, breathing, and calm, everything is tackled more easily and seems more manageable.One way to get in some quality pine time is to take a walk in a pine forest, perhaps taking some cuttings to arrange around the house. Maybe you even have a forgotten pine-needle-stuffed pillow you picked up at one time or another—dig that out and keep it nearby. Whenever things get overwhelming, just give it a squeeze and breathe deeply.
  1. Perhaps you’re well-versed with the calming effects of chamomile tea. The scent of chamomile—sweet and a tad bitter—is incredibly effective in calming the mind. You can get this benefit from inhaling the steam from a cup of brewing tea or by tossing a handful of teabags into a warm bath (this is a good way to “recycle” used teabags, too).
  2. Peppermint is another popular, easily-accessed Turn to it when you’re feeling tired, foggy,  sluggish, or unfocused to boost energy and mood. Try tea, fresh herbs, or a bottle of essential oil and discover how invigorating and refreshing the crisp coolness of mint really can be.

And, of course, feel free to experiment to see what works for you. Once you begin, you may be amazed by how many soothing scents you already have in your household.

Be well, be calm, and breathe deeply. 

~Amy Holt, Writer/Editor