Stress Response & Essential Oils

Most people love essential oils. I know I do. In light of this, I want to chat about how you can use essential oils to heal your nervous system, regulate your stress response, and reduce anxiety.

Anyone can reap the benefits of diffusing essential oils, whether at home, work, or even in your car. Many of my clients have, repeatedly, told me that they absolutely love their essential oils. These oils reduce pain, improve sleep quality {1}, digestion, and enhance mood {2}.

While essential oils interact with our bodies in many ways, I really wanted to focus on their interaction with our nervous system. To be even more specific, I wanted to talk about my favourite (it’s true, I do have favourites) part of the brain - the limbic system.

Located dab-smack in the middle of the brain, the limbic system is comprised of the amygdala, hippocampus, thalamus, olfactory cortex, and hypothalamus. Your limbic system is largely responsible for both your physical and emotional response to any/all situations in life. The number of functions regulated by the limbic system is truly astounding - from learning and storing memories, to emotions, sensory perception, your stress response, and your sexual and motor functions, to name but a few.

Most importantly, the limbic system is closely connected to your autonomic nervous system (ANS) and plays an important role in regulating the fight-flight-freeze response. Faced with a threatening situation, whether emotional or physical in nature, the amygdala (often called your brain’s “panic alarm”) prepares your body to “fight”, “flight”, or “freeze” depending on the context. Once your body is in full-blown survival mode, it secretes all sorts of chemicals to increase your heart rate, raise your blood pressure, slow down your digestion and immune function, release extra glucose for energy, and produce more adrenaline and cortisol.

This healthy survival mechanism can wreak havoc on both your physiological and emotional health if not regulated properly. Being stuck in a fight-flight-freeze pattern often leads to fatigue, anxiety, panic attacks, dissociation disorders, emotional trauma, and other chronic health conditions

"In response to threat and injury, animals, including humans, execute biologically based, non-conscious action patterns that prepare them to meet the threat and defend themselves. The very structure of trauma, including activation, dissociation and freezing are based on the evolution of survival behaviours. When threatened or injured, all animals draw from a "library" of possible responses. We orient, dodge, duck, stiffen, brace, retract, fight, flee, freeze, collapse, etc. All of these coordinated responses are somatically based- they are things that the body does to protect and defend itself. It is when these orienting and defending responses are overwhelmed that we see trauma." - Peter Levine, PhD

So how do we regulate this process? There are many powerful tools to help you retrain your limbic system, such as mindfulness, body-oriented psychotherapy, and positive affirmations as well as diffusing or applying certain essential oils.

Essential oils have the ability to surpass the blood-brain barrier. This barrier is highly selective and only allows the passage of certain compounds necessary for your brain’s function. It also protects your central nervous system from all sorts of toxins and pathogens. One of the ways used by the amygdala to assess the potential threat is through your sense of smell. Since the olfactory cortex has direct access to the amygdala, the effects of essential oils on your brain’s physiological, chemical, and emotional response to stress are instant!

Here are some amazing, potent essential oils that you can use to regulate your stress response:

  • Frankincense - reduces anxiety, calms the mind, and has strong anti-inflammatory properties
  • Bergamot - improves sleep, elevates mood, and reduces anxiety {3}
  • Vetiver - has a calming, grounding and stabilizing effect
  • Patchouli - grounding, uplifting, triggers the release of serotonin and dopamine, and reduces stress {5}
  • Melissa - reduces stress and promotes emotional well-being;
  • Chamomile - decreases anxiety, overthinking, irritability, reduces inflammation, and decreases depression {6}
  • Lavender - improves sleep {4}, decreases depression {4}, decreases nervous tension, and relieves pain

Personally, I’m a huge fan of diffusing bergamot oil before bed and/or adding a couple of drops of frankincense into my evening Epsom salts bath. Those two seem to do wonders for regulating my nervous system and preparing me for a deep and sound sleep.


1. Karadag, E., Samancioglu, S., Ozden, D. and Bakir, E. (2017), Effects of aromatherapy on sleep quality and anxiety of patients. Nurs Crit Care, 22: 105-112. doi:10.1111/nicc.12198

2. Sánchez-Vidaña, D. I., Ngai, S. P.-C., He, W., Chow, J. K.-W., Lau, B. W.-M., & Tsang, H. W.-H. (2017). The Effectiveness of Aromatherapy for Depressive Symptoms: A Systematic Review. Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine : eCAM, 2017, 5869315.

3. Saiyudthong, S. and Marsden, C. A. (2011), Acute effects of bergamot oil on anxiety‐related behaviour and corticosterone level in rats. Phytother. Res., 25: 858-862. doi:10.1002/ptr.3325

4. B. Uehleke, S. Schaper, A. Dienel, S. Schlaefke, R. Stange, Phase II trial on the effects of Silexan in patients with neurasthenia, post-traumatic stress disorder or somatization disorder, Phytomedicine, Volume 19, Issues 8–9, 2012, Pages 665-671, ISSN 0944-7113,

5. Swamy, M.K.; Sinniah, U.R. A Comprehensive Review on the Phytochemical Constituents and Pharmacological Activities of Pogostemon cablin Benth.: An Aromatic Medicinal Plant of Industrial Importance. Molecules 2015, 20, 8521-8547.

6. Amsterdam, J. D., Shults, J., Soeller, I., Mao, J. J., Rockwell, K., & Newberg, A. B. (2012). Chamomile (Matricaria recutita) May Have Antidepressant Activity in Anxious Depressed Humans - An Exploratory Study. Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine, 18(5), 44–49.

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