Aromatherapy and PTSD

by Suzanne Grosser

A lot of alternative therapies are being tried for PTSD. Aromatherapy is one of those. If you are or someone you love is suffering from post traumatic stress, this is one more way to facilitate healing. Both the cost and  risks can be low.

I could not find a study that tested this therapy for PTSD.  This does not mean that it will not work, only that is has not been tested. Anyone out there with information about new studies I may have missed, please contact me.

How it works:

Scent connects to parts of your brain that are difficult to reach via the intellect. You can talk about your trauma, and you should, but we often hide our deepest emotional pain even from ourselves.  By manipulating the scents you are exposed to, your brain can be calmed and anxiety can be released. If you are depressed and listless, other scents can be used to lift your mood and boost your energy.

Scent bypasses the thinking parts of our brain. It is primal. When your lover sneaks up from behind and hugs you, your startled brain reacts not to his spoken words or the sound of his voice. It is his scent that assures you that this is safe. It will be several more seconds before his voice and his words process through the more complicated parts of your brain.

We think about what we seen. We try to make sense of what we hear. Scent goes straight to our emotions. It is often the most powerful part of a memory. Do you remember exactly what your Grandma looked like when you nine years old? Probably not, but the smell of apple pie baking can take you right back to her kitchen. Scent is about how you feel, not what you think

The danger:

The right scent can calm frazzled nerves. The wrong one could trigger a flashback.  Burning hardwoods can elicit the camaraderie around a campfire, conjuring up the taste of blackened marshmallows and the notes of  Kumbaya. Or it can tap into panic and fear as you choke on the smoke, dropping to your knees, struggling to find your way out of the fire that destroyed your home when you were twelve. Know your triggers!

The only other danger is trying to substitute this for all other treatments. Don’t do it! Keep taking your meds and going to therapy. Meditate.  Exercise your body and your creativity. Don’t use aromatherapy as your only treatment. In the fight against PTSD, use every weapon you have. 

My experience:

I believe that being grateful for what you have is a key factor in healing post traumatic stress. I believe it is important to savor life every day, even if your life is not the perfect one you expected it to be.  I once asked some friends to share the small but significant pleasures that they were grateful to have in their lives. I was amazed that so many of their contributions involved scents – freshly mown grass, coffee brewing, chocolate chip cookies baking. You can read the list here. Scent matters!

Doing my research for this article, I discovered that my favorite scent, my first choice for incense and the one I often choose to add to an evening bath is sandalwood.  This scent is used to relieve stress and calm fears. Perfect. In the mornings, I prefer citrus scents, which are uplifting and energizing.  It seems with no training, I  instinctively chose scents that give me what I need. Imagine what a licensed aromatherapist, who actually knows what they are doing, could create to battle your demons!

I took a yoga aromatherapy class. After a warm up and centering,  an essential oil was placed on our palms, we were instructed to inhale the scent and bring to mind an issue or area of our life we wanted to deal with or release. After a few moments we were guided through a series of movements, sometimes accompanied by yells or grunts. The pattern was repeated with several different scents, issues, and movements.  We swept our arms up from the floor, over our head and yelled “ha!”  There was laughter and there were tears. Both are healing for PTSD.

How you can use it:

Perfumes and bath products such as orange or grapefruit are uplifting. Chamomile and lavender are relaxing. These are not aromatherapy in its truest from, but surrounding yourself with things that bring you pleasure is important.

Use essential oils. Purchased from a reputable dealer, their purity enhances their effectiveness.   You can add a few drops in your bath or buy a diffuser that spreads it through the air. With these oils, you get the exact scent you desire.

Meditate using aromatherapy. This will enhance your meditation experience. You will create a link between that smell and the calmness you feel inside. Wear a little of that scent on your inner wrist and when you get stressed, take a moment to sniff your wrist, letting the smell remind your brain of that calm place inside you. You could also dab some oil on a tissue or piece of cloth and carry it with you for the same purpose, or tuck it into your pillowcase at night.

A massage therapist can add aromatherapy to your treatment either with oils on your body, scented lotions, or diffused into the air.

A licensed aromatherapist can help you by creating a specific blend of oils for you, based on your unique constellation of  symptoms. He or she will teach you the best ways and times to use those oils.

Find a licensed aromatherapist  here

Should you try it?

Whatever touches us  deeply can be used to relieve or to relive our pain. Tapping into the primal brain via scent gets directly to our fears and our joys. Aromatherapy can be healing. As a part of your overall treatment plan, it might even speed your recovery. 

As long as you continue your other treatments and avoid any flashback triggers, it won’t hurt. It might help.  It could be fun.  Fun treatments are rare. If nothing else, your house and maybe even you, will smell better.  

Are you struggling to just to get through each day?

If you have ever felt like a prisoner of your circumstances, this book is for you.

It starts with the story of Admiral James Stockdale. He spent 7 horrific years in a POW camp, yet his spirit was unbroken. 

In this book you will learn the wisdom that helped him not merely survive, but triumph. You will read the stories of others who have faced and conquered overwhelming odds. You will learn to apply those lessons to your own life.

You will find your inner strength and your own Quiet Courage.

Choose Your Treatment

Recover from a Flashback

Learn about Aromatherapy

Become an Aromatherapist

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Suzanne Grosser