How can aromatherapy be used to combat stress?

The term stress was originally coined by the Endocrinologist Hans Sayle in 1936 during his research for the publication ‘A Syndrome Produced by Diverse Nocuous Agents’.
He defined stress as follows:

“Stress is the non-specific response of the body to any demand, whether it is caused by, or results in, pleasant or unpleasant conditions”

His experiments on mice and their reaction to various physical and emotional stimuli lead him to conclude that all the different stimuli produced the same reaction and he named this ‘General Adaptation Syndrome’ (GAS). Within this syndrome he identified three stages of adaptation the body goes through when reacting to stress.

  1. Alarm
  2. Resistance
  3. Exhaustion

In the first stage of GAS, alarm, the body recognises a threat (this can be real or imagined) and releases the hormone adrenaline. Along with this there are several physical responses, the muscles tense, the heart rate, breathing and perspiration increases, the pupils dilate and the stomach muscles clench.

These are all symptoms of the fight or flight response (a term first used by the physiologist and neurologist Walter Cannon) and are performed by the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) which operates below the level of consciousness. If the stressor (the stimulus causing the stress reaction) is removed then the body returns to normal by means of the relaxation response. This response is controlled by the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS) and it reverses what has been instigated by the SNS so the muscles begin to relax and the heart rate decreases and so on.

If the stressor is not removed then the body enters the second stage of GAS, resistance.

During this stage of adaptation the body attempts to cope with the stressor by secreting hormones that will sustain energy by increasing blood sugar levels. Blood pressure is raised and the adrenal cortex releases corticosteroids, hormones that will enable the body to sustain this heightened state of resistance. If the stressor is not removed and the body is not able to rest and relax then it enters the third stage of adaptation, exhaustion.

In this stage the body has depleted its reserves and becomes worn out. Blood sugar levels drop and the body can no longer cope physically or mentally. The immune system becomes impaired and severe illness can strike. If stress continues then total collapse is likely.

Everyone gets stressed at some points in their lives and if it is short lived and we only enter stage one of GAS it can be helpful, giving the much needed boost to get the job done, finish the assignment or deal with the dangerous situation. It is when the stress reaction continues that we head for trouble and this can be manifested physically, mentally and emotionally.

Using the previously mentioned SNS and PNS the body has an innate ability to regulate its internal environment in order to keep physical stability and balance, any deviation from the norm is corrected using a process called negative feedback. This is the constant monitoring of all bodily systems by receptors and the use of effectors to correct any divergence from the most favourable conditions for equilibrium. This whole process is known as homeostasis and it allows us to survive when external and internal conditions change to our detriment.

However impressive this process is it can only work effectively when conditions permit. When a person becomes very stressed it can adversely affect the negative feedback system to the point where it no longer can accurately maintain homeostasis. During the stress response the body has diverted the blood supply from many of the bodily functions deemed unnecessary and increased the functions of other parts of the body. This, along with the constant high production of stress hormones adrenaline, noradrenalin and cortisol, can have a massive physical effect in the body.

We may develop problems with our digestive system as the stress response brings on diarrhoea or constipation, this often progresses to stomach cramps and irritable bowel syndrome. Our musculoskeletal system is greatly affected and the constant tension in our muscles can cause muscle cramps and chronic pain throughout the body. Our immune system is compromised and we lose the ability to fight off infections and illnesses. This added to the lack of blood flow to our skin can lead to skin conditions such as spots, acne, psoriasis and eczema. The changes to our breathing patterns due to stress can be the cause of asthma and other breathing difficulties. One of the most dangerous side effects of chronic stress is the effect it can have on our cardiovascular system. Hypertension or the high blood pressure that is synonymous with chronic stress can lead to coronary artery disease, strokes and heart attacks.

Mentally stress can take its toll too. Memory problems and the loss of ability to concentrate are common symptoms of chronic stress. Our judgement can suffer and we are no longer able to solve problems. Exactly the opposite of what the stress reaction is intended for.

The emotional impact of stress can be soul destroying for the sufferer. Anxiety can take over and lead to panic attacks. They may also experience overwhelming feelings of sadness and vulnerability, culminating in low self esteem and perhaps depression.

There are also many behavioural issues that might arise. Insomnia or over sleeping may occur, the person may become irritable or aggressive or maybe withdrawn and isolated from others. Addictive behaviour could result in alcoholism, drug dependency and obesity.

Many of the above symptoms perpetuate the stress response. Physical pain, discontent over appearance, inability to achieve goals and lack of sleep are all themselves stressors. Without a resolution to these problems the stress will continue until there’s nothing left to give. Stress can be and is a killer.

Taking all of these problems into consideration, aromatherapy is an excellent way to combat the symptoms of stress and to promote the relaxation response needed for our bodies to return to homeostasis. There are several ways in which the therapy can assist in dealing with the physical, mental, emotional and behavioural symptoms.

Initially there is the response activated by the olfactory-limbic system. Whenever we smell anything the olfactory receptors send a message directly to the limbic system, the most ancient and primitive part of our brain. The limbic system includes the olfactory bulb, the hypothalamus and the hippocampus amongst other structures and is responsible for emotion, instinct and memory. Most importantly the limbic system, in particular the hypothalamus, controls the autonomic nervous system of which the SNS and PNS are components. As we know the PNS is responsible for initiating the relaxation response and therefore it is clear to see how the mere scent of a calming and soothing aroma can automatically relax us without any conscious intent.

The pharmalogical effect of the essential oils used is paramount to the use of this therapy for stress relief. Although the term aromatherapy can lead to the conclusion that it’s all about smell and the olfactory-limbic system mentioned above, the chemical constituents of the oils and the biological effects those chemicals have on certain areas of the body are essential in bringing the state of homeostasis back.

When the treatment includes a massage this allows for a combination of three key aspects of aromatherapy: the pharmalogical effect as the oil and its chemical constituents are absorbed through the skin, the olfactory-limbic response as we smell the oils as they are applied and the soothing and relaxing massage. It is almost impossible to not fall into a state of relaxation when on the receiving end of a highly trained professional masseuses massage technique. Added to this there is the physical effect of manipulation of the soft tissue which could relieve any muscular symptoms that may be present. Finally, the fact that through the consultation process the client will have spoken about the reasons for seeking the assistance of an aromatherapist. This is equally important in the fight against stress as talking about the causes of stress can be seen as therapy in itself.

There are many essential oils that are renowned for their stress relieving actions. These include:

  • Bergamot (Citrus bergamia)
  • Chamomile (Anthemis nobilis)
  • Clary Sage (Salvia sclarea)
  • Frankincense (Boswellia carteri)
  • Jasmine (Jasmine officinalis)
  • Lavender (Lavendula angustifolia)
  • Sweet Marjoram (Origanum marjorana)
  • Neroli (Citrus aurantium)
  • Rose (Rosa damascena)
  • Vetivert (Vetiveria zizanioides)

Although this list is extensive it is not exhaustive, there are plenty of other oils that will help with stress. Although aromatherapists are convinced of the benefits of essential oils when treating stress as they can look back at their own experiences of using the oils to great effect on stressed out clients. There is a need for clinical research to confirm this so that the therapy may move forward into more mainstream, conventional settings such as hospitals and hospices.

Such a study was undertaken at the Royal Berkshire Hospital NHS Trust to ascertain the benefits of using either massage without essential oil, Lavender oil (L. Angustifolia) applied by a massage or simple rest to alleviate the anxiety and stress caused by confinement to an intensive care unit. One hundred and twenty two patients were selected at random to receive either the massage, the aromatherapy treatment or plain bed rest. Before the sessions the patients were tested for psychological stress indicators and they gave subjective evaluations of their levels of anxiety, their mood and their ability to cope. After the massage/therapy/bed rest was completed although there was only a very small difference in the psychological stress indicators the group that had received the full aromatherapy treatment reported much lowered levels of stress and anxiety.

The term ‘stressed out’ is frequently used in our society to describe feelings of slight anxiety. Some examples are getting stuck in a traffic jam, the kids not doing as they’re told or the dinner gets burnt. Now it’s true these feelings may be the initial feelings of the stress response but chronic stress is a much more serious issue. It can affect every aspect of a person’s life, dismantling any feelings of wellbeing, disturbing the patterns of the daily routine and creating problems in coping with life’s demands. There are invariably physical conditions that can cause pain and discomfort, some of which are life threatening.

On the bright side, stress can be effectively dealt with. With the correct information and support a person dealing with chronic stress can take the steps necessary to kick in the relaxation response. Stress management is all about taking charge of your life, American Sociologist and Psychologist Dr Jeanne Segal says:

“The simple realisation that you are in control of your life is the foundation of stress management”

If you can identify the cause of the stress reaction, the stressor, then you can begin to deal with it. Often the source is not apparent at first glance. A person may think the source to be their massive workload, causing them stress as they miss the deadline for completing tasks but on closer inspection it may be their procrastination that is the root of the problem. Keeping a stress diary is a good way of discovering what is really going on.

Dr Segal suggests once the situation has become more clear it is time to either change the situation or change the reaction. To help with this decision she suggests thinking of the four A’s:

Avoid (the stressor)

  • Say no when you know saying yes would lead to stress.
  • Limit time spent with people who cause you stress.
  • Don’t strike up conversations about politics with your polar opposite if you don’t like hearing their point of view.

Alter (the stressor)

  • Manage your time more effectively.
  • Explain your feelings to someone who causes you stress, they may not realise and will be willing to change the offending behaviour.

Adapt (to the stressor)

  • Turn a negative into a positive, missing the bus and having to walk gives you some much needed exercise.
  • Does it really matter? Think about how you will feel in a week/month/year from now. Is it really a problem?

Accept (the stressor)

  • See the situation as a challenge that will make you stronger if you manage to overcome it.
  • If it’s not within your power to change it then it’s within your power to change how you react to it.
  • Talk to somebody about it.  Sharing the problem whether with a friend or a counsellor can be cathartic even if the situation itself doesn’t change.

Aside from using the four A’s the person who suffers from stress can take additional steps towards living a stress free life. We’ve already looked at the many benefits of aromatherapy massage and ensuring this is a regular occurrence in their lives will go a long way towards reducing both stress levels and the symptoms of stress.

A healthy work life balance is essential. Taking some time out, however small, to concentrate on something as simple as a relaxing bath, a good book, a relaxing massage, a spot of gardening or whatever activity is enjoyable to the person will boost resilience to stressors.

Physical health is paramount to resisting the pressures of a stressful life. Eating healthily, avoiding alcohol or other addictive substances, sleeping well and exercising regularly are all equally important.
Learning to induce the relaxation response through deep breathing, meditation, yoga, tai chi or other relaxation techniques is a simple but effective way of protecting oneself against the body’s natural reaction to stressors. These are all things that can be learnt from books, the internet or specialised classes, whatever suits the person’s lifestyle the most.

Stress can affect every one of us and we all have to face it at some point in our lives. We can use it to our advantage during its initial stages and utilise the boost it gives us to keep control of any situation we find ourselves in. We can also see that despite the potential dangers of chronic stress it is possible to manage the symptoms and eliminate, adjust or accept the cause through the use of aromatherapy and stress management techniques.