The Power of Scent: An Introduction to the Use of Essential Oils in Mental Wellness Support
In this series I hope to introduce you to the world of essential oils and how they can influence the way we feel.
Have you ever walked into a bakery and been immediately transported to another time and place? Ever smelt a particular scent that immediately made you feel lived and better than you did before? If you have, you are not alone. Our ability to associate smells with experiences, and then recall them when triggered, is both amazing and at times a little shocking.
With that said it is therefore a little strange that our sense of smell is said to be the least understood of all of our senses, and yet many of us have experienced the power that comes with experiencing familiar scents. These scents have been known to trigger emotions and even vivid memories of times past, as well as to bring with them feelings of acceptance, relaxation and comfort.
It is not surprise then that most of the world’s most recognisable smells are linked to common experiences (past or future). Whether you like the scent or not, you would have to agree that you will be able to recognise the items immediately just from its scent.
What memories do these smells conjure up for you, and how do they make you feel?
In recent times the practice of pairing certain smells with relaxation techniques, such as diaphragmatic breathing, affirmations, visualisation, mindfulness based interventions, and talk therapy has been on the rise. Repeated experience of relaxation linked to a particular scent might result in the scent alone creating the behaviour or feeling, outside of the consulting room. This is commonly referred to as “associative learning” or “higher-order conditioning (Cognitive Behaviour Therapy). The end goal is for the conditioned stimulus (the particular scent) to trigger the same response each time in order to provide a way for the client to self-manage effectively.
It is therefore no surprise that there has been a rise in the curiosity around using this age old method to illicit positive mood in clients. The practice dates back thousands of years. Perhaps the most famous account of this can be seen in the bible upon the birth of Jesus, when the 3 wise men/kings presented the baby with a gift each. These gifts hold spiritual, and practical, meaning: gold as a symbol of his birth right of King, frankincense (known as the king of essential oils) which foretold his future as a priest, and myrrh (an embalming oil) as a symbol of the inevitable rite of passage that is death.
Fragrant oils are also used in many ritual and healing ceremonies in the Far East, as well as in ancient Egypt and Greece. Much of this knowledge was taken over the seas with the indentured labourers from countries e.g. India, to countries like South Africa. These scents are still used today in the form of incense and oils in diffusers in many South African homes.
So, can essential oils and the power they yield, play a role in healing? Harvard Health Publishing (2008) published an article about a study “conducted by researchers in behavioural medicine at Ohio State university, which examined the effects of the two most studied odours — lemon oil (promoted as a stimulant) and lavender oil (promoted as a relaxant) …” (Harvard Health Publishing, 2008). The study looked at the effects of essential oils on mood as well as in enhancing physical wellbeing. Findings revealed that Lemon definitely enhanced mood, but did not promote wound healing on the skin. Studies like these go a long way in raising awareness around the properties that the different essential oils have and how, with the correct dilution and application techniques they can be effectively incorporated into counselling practices.
Personally, as a counsellor and a Doula, I have effectively incorporated essential oils into my professional offering due largely to the many recent studies, and personal, amazing successes I have seen in my own family, children and yes, even my very temperamental German Shepard.
There is a whole new world out there that allows us to experience natural scents, alongside traditional modalities. I am very excited to be able to introduce you to them.
Yours in wellness,