A variety of non-therapeutic details may enhance a course of therapy. While it’s true that very successful therapy can and does occur in “clinical-looking” spaces, therapists tend to put their own personal aesthetic stamp on their treatment spaces. (I myself keep my office very neutral and “office-like”–no art, no photos, no color!–but that’s because I generally only see patients at various times during their course of therapy or treatment with the counselors I supervise, and my role is a bit different.) Whether or not the details have rigorous research backing them up, most therapists instinctively believe that comfortable, attractive waiting and therapy rooms, perhaps with some very soft instrumental music in the waiting room and neutral or even some compelling visual art, is conducive to therapy.
Some therapists believe that the environment shouldn’t be limited to the visual or auditory experience. I agree. Although my current office is almost spartan in design, I believe that the use of sensory-based environmental experiences is meaningful, and this for me includes the sense of smell. I am not sure I call what I use aromatherapy, but I do know that at times I use an aromatherapy diffuser with lavender oil (and occasionally myrtle) for a calming effect; grapefruit, lemon, mint and orange for a more invigorating and even joyful fragrance; and cinnamon for a homey, comforting effect.
I can’t say even that I notice any effect on individuals with mood disorders, even anecdotally, but with some individuals who have anxiety, there appears to be a relaxing effect when using essential oils. I haven’t conducted any studies, and who’s to say that the talk therapy, the breathing exercises I encourage, and the active listening aren’t the modalities that are actually helping. Or, perhaps the enhanced calming effects are because I myself enjoy the fragrance and my mood is signaling calm and joy to a receptive individual–I don’t know. But there does appear to be some real evidence that aromatherapy can be used to help situational anxiety, if not anxiety disorders.
Some research seems to show that aromatherapy can reduce anxiety: in preoperative patients (before surgery) , in students during test-taking, in patients with myocardial infarction (heart attack), and various other studies. Of course, you can Google many more.
Aromas to Use
Some common essential oils used in aromatherapy include:
Lavender: Lavender is said to be calming and soothing, and may even promote restful sleep. You can put a few drops of pure lavender oil on a dry cloth and slip it between your pillow case and pillow to help you calm down and sleep.
Citrus: Various citrus oils are stimulating, uplifting, and even joyful. Try orange and tangerine for children and adults, grapefruit to help focus, and lemon for joy and alertness. A study even seemed to show that bergamot, a very invigorating citrus, may relieve anxiety.
Basil: A fairly recent study said this essential oil can reduce anxiety in some cases.
Cinnamon: Use the oil from the leaf, rather than the bark. I can’t find evidence that it reduces anxiety, but it is a warm and homey smell with positive associations for most people–I’ve never met anyone yet who didn’t smile when smelling cinnamon oil.
There are many, many other oils you might want to try.
If using these or other essential oils, remember that a little goes a long way, and the safest ways to use essential oils is by a diffuser. Whether or not to use these oils on the skin or even internally requires expertise beyond the scope of this post, but since they are very concentrated, I suggest that if you are a therapist and like the idea of using aromas in your repertoire of therapy-enhancement start slow. Some clients may like some aromas and dislike others; some clients may not enjoy the experience at all. My personal feeling is that if a patient enjoys the smell-it’s the right one to use. If they dislike it-no matter what the experts say-then it is best not to use it.
More reading: An interesting survey on aromatherapy.
Essential oil information: Aromaweb