One of the most ubiquitous wellness products these days are essential oils, which may make you think of aromatherapy products and fancy day spas. But certain types of these fairly inexpensive oils can really help you feel less anxious and stressed. With so many varieties out there, you may be wondering, Which ones are the best essential oils for anxiety, and how do they work?
Essential oils work through inhalation or topical application and have mind-body benefits, according to Yufang Lin, MD, an integrative medicine specialist at the Cleveland Clinic’s Center for Integrative Medicine. For inhalation, essential oils can be easily used as a room spray or via diffuser. A few drops on a pendant worn close to the skin also allows for a slow release over time.
Topically, essential oils can be added to a carrier oil (a.k.a. a base oil, such as grapeseed or olive oil, to dilute the essential oil before applying to your skin and minimize irritation) and used as perfume, massage oil, cream, or salves. A good rule of thumb for the ratio of carrier oil to essential oil is to use one drop of carrier oil per one teaspoon of essential oil. And of course, adding an essential oil to your bath is a wonderful way to relax at the end of a busy day, says Dr. Lin.
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“The quickest way to change one’s mood is through smell, thus essential oil is an excellent way to reduce anxiety and support relaxation,” she says. “However, it takes a lot of herbs to make a small amount of essential oil, which makes it a strong medicine that should be used judiciously.”
While research on essential oils for mental health benefits is still expanding, there is some info to suggest that certain oils may work for stress relief, better sleep, and more. The thing is, though, even if one study shows that a particular scent is great for, say, reducing anxious feelings, it may not work for every single person. If you don't enjoy a scent, you probably won't feel much better after sniffing it, for instance.
Which essential oils help with anxiety?
The essential oils below have been shown to reduce anxiety in human studies, says Dr. Lin. Other scents are also commonly used to alleviate anxiety and support relaxation, but research beyond animal studies is needed to know if they have real benefits for people.
- Sweet marjoram
Which essential oils promote relaxation?
The essential oils ahead have been shown to help people feel calmer and more relaxed, says Dr. Lin. One potential caveat is that most people have scent memory. So, for instance, if a person has a negative memory associated with a particular scent, they may not feel relaxed when they smell it, she explains.
- Sweet orange
What are the potential side effects of essential oils?
It’s important to keep potential side effects in mind, as they can range from mild to severe. For one thing, certain essential oils (citrus in particular) can cause photosensitivity—meaning you can get a sunburn more easily after using orange essential oil on the skin, says Dr. Lin. (This is why it's important to dilute oils before putting them on your skin.)
Additionally, some essential oils are safe in small amounts, but can be dangerous in higher doses. “Tea tree and eucalyptus essential oils are commonly used for their antimicrobial benefits, but in excess, can cause nerve and liver damage,” warns Dr. Lin. “Some essential oils are toxic in general and should not be used—arnica, parsley, rue, and tansy are a few that fall into this category.”
Certain symptoms can signal that you need to stop using an essential oil, says Bindiya Gandhi, MD, a functional medicine specialist and the medical director at Revive Atlanta. “You should stop an essential oil if you have an allergic reaction to it, including a reaction to your skin, breakouts, or even sneezing,” she says. “You should also stop if you realize it is not helping the symptoms you’re taking it for.”
Finally, do not ingest essential oil without supervision from a trained herbalist, and be extra cautious when using essential oils around young children, the elderly, pregnant women, and small pets because they are most at risk for toxicity and side effects, she says.
The bottom line: Research on using essential oils to ease anxiety or stress is growing, but remains limited. But if you're a healthy adult and are using essential oils safely and at the guidance of your doctor, there is little harm in testing some oils out to see which ones help you feel mentally better.
Curious about trying essential oils for anxiety and stress relief? Here are several expert-recommended oils that you can buy online.
According to a 2012 study, lavender essential oil has been shown to help treat symptoms of anxiety and depression. This might be due to how it impacts the limbic system of the brain, which controls your emotions. Research has also shown that inhaling this essential oil can significantly reduce anxiety levels, says Dr. Gandhi. It can be applied topically, or used with a diffuser or humidifier.
Bergamot oil, which comes from bergamot oranges and thus has an energizing citrusy scent, has been shown to improve mood and reduce symptoms of anxiety, according to research. It can be used with a diffuser or humidifier.
If you’re pregnant and hoping for a Zen birth experience, a 2015 study suggested that orange essential oil may help lower feelings of anxiety during labor. Use this one with a diffuser.
The menthol content in peppermint oil has been shown to help relieve tension and discomfort, which can in turn help you feel more calm and relaxed. Try it with a diffuser.
Frankincense comes from the resin of the Boswellia tree. Massaging a blend of this oil in combination with bergamot and lavender oils helped to relieve anxiety, depression, and pain in terminal cancer patients in a 2008 study.
Similar to lavender, myrrh essential oil (which has a woodsy scent) may help you feel relaxed and less stressed in general. It is best used with a diffuser.
Rose essential oil, which has similar effects to orange oil, has been shown to reduce anxiety during labor in pregnant women when used in a foot bath, according to 2014 research. It can also be applied topically or used with a diffuser.
Although more research is needed, sweet marjoram (also known as oregano) is believed to help relieve headaches and anxiety, as well as promote calmness. You'll want to pop this one into your diffuser and breathe in the relaxing scent.
Similar to peppermint oil, eucalyptus oil contains menthol, which has a cooling effect that may help relieve aches and tension, which can in turn promote relaxation and reduce feelings of anxiety. It can be used with a humidifier or diffuser.
Although there isn’t substantial research on it, tea tree oil is believed to reduce stress and even boost immunity and ward off sickness. This one can be applied topically or used with a diffuser.
Chamomile isn’t just a relaxing tea that can help you sleep. The oil can also have the same calming effect if added to an aromatherapy diffuser or hot bath.
You may already love jasmine for its uplifting floral scent, but 2013 research showed that it can also promote feelings of well-being as well as reduce sleepiness and symptoms of anxiety. Try it with a diffuser.
If you tend to have trouble falling asleep, valerian oil can help you feel more relaxed and calm your nerves at bedtime. This is also best paired with a diffuser.
Although there isn’t sufficient research available, patchouli oil is believed to promote calmness and relaxation if you’re suffering from anxiety, depression, or stress in general. It can be added to a warm bath or diffuser in combination with lavender oil.
According to 2015 research, clary sage can relieve tension and help maintain optimal levels of the stress hormone cortisol in women. This is beneficial because high cortisol levels have been shown to increase the occurrence of anxiety and depression. Research also shows it can help with anxiety, says Dr. Gandhi. Use it as a massage oil or with a diffuser.
Rest assured: This isn’t the same basil you put in your pasta sauce. Holy basil (also known as tulsi) has a minty scent and, according to 2014 research, it may help to alleviate mental stress. Use it by adding it to a diffuser.
If you’ve ever gotten a professional massage, you’re likely familiar with ylang ylang and the fact that it promotes relaxation. Additionally, per 2013 research, ylang ylang can help reduce symptoms of anxiety and promote better sleep.
Similar to rose and orange essential oils, geranium oil has been shown to reduce anxiety for pregnant women in labor, in addition to decreasing blood pressure, according to a 2015 study. You can put it on your skin or in the diffuser to soak up those benefits.
Another one that isn’t just for cooking, rosemary essential oil has been shown to reduce cortisol levels, which can then, in turn, relieve anxiety, according to 2007 research. Use this one with a diffuser.
While research on lemongrass oil is fairly limited, a 2015 study showed that it can potentially provide quick relief when used by people who experience anxiety and tension. Try it with a diffuser.
Sandalwood is another essential oil that is effective for relieving symptoms of anxiety, panic attacks, and depression, says Dr. Gandhi. This one can also be used with a diffuser.
Emilia Benton is a Houston-based freelance writer and editor. In addition to Runner's World, she has contributed health, fitness and wellness content to Women's Health, SELF, Prevention, Healthline, and the Houston Chronicle, among other publications. She is also an 11-time marathoner, a USATF Level 1-certified running coach, and an avid traveler.