9 Best Essential Oils for Relieving Anxiety, Stress and Insomnia
Aromatherapy with specific calming essential oils is one of the most common natural remedies for anxiety. Stress-reducing essential oils may help on their own or be a great addition to any other anti-anxiety approaches you are using. Research backs-up the use of aromatherapy for relieving stress, anxiety, PTSD, depression, and more.
Read on to learn which essential oils are best for reducing stress and anxiety, how they work, research results, and what to look for when buying essential oils.
What's in This Article
|What is Aromatherapy?|
|Aromatherapy and Stress: How it Works|
|9 Best Essential Oils for Relieving Anxiety, Stress, and Insomnia|
|Essential Oils for Anxiety Research|
|How to Use Essential Oils for Anxiety, Stress, and Depression Relief|
|What to Look For When Purchasing Essential Oils for Aromatherapy|
|More Essential Oils for Anxiety Research|
Notes: The information in this article should NOT be taken as medical advice. It is always advisable to consult with your personal medical professionals when considering natural remedies. I may receive commissions from purchases made through links in this post but they do not impact your cost or my choice to include the links. The links are placed for your convenience.
What is Aromatherapy?
Aromatherapy uses the smell and other properties of highly concentrated botanical essential oil extracts to make positive changes to your body and mind.
Essential oils exist in flower petals and under the surface of leaves, bark, or peel of some plants. The fragrance is released by crushing the source part of the plant or by other extraction processes.
Fragrances from the oils are released into the air and components of the oils are absorbable through your skin.
Valerie Gennari Cooksley, author of Aromatherapy: Soothing Remedies to Restore, Rejuvenate and Heal offers this definition of aromatherapy:
“Aromatherapy is more thoroughly defined as the skilled and controlled use of essential oils for physical and emotional health and well-being. Science is now confirming what has been known for centuries: essential oils have healing properties on both physical and emotional levels. Absorbed through the skin and via the olfactory-brain connection through inhalation, they have been considered among the most therapeutic and rejuvenating of all botanical extracts throughout the ages.”
Aromatherapy and Stress: How it Works
While researching how aromatherapy works, I was really excited to find out about the direct connection between smell and the part of your brain that responds to threats. This connection fast-forwarded my understanding of how effective aromatherapy can be for helping people deal with stress, anxiety, PTSD, anger, and other mood challenges.
It appears that aromas from concentrated essential oils send messages to the limbic system in your brain. The pathway is:
olfactory bulbs in your nose
the limbic part of your brain.
The limbic system includes the amygdala and is the center of instinctive behavioral responses, mood, and memory.
The limbic system gets involved in your emotional responses (fear, pleasure, anger) and behaviors that are stimulated by drives for survival (hunger, sex, aggression, care of your children).
It's the part of your brain that responds to stress with fight, flight, or freeze—so if we can relax the limbic system, we can potentially relax that response.
9 Best Essential Oils for Relieving Anxiety, Stress, and Insomnia
Which essential oil is best for you is a personal choice and will depend in large part on how much you enjoy the scent.
Some essential oils are more expensive than others to produce because they are rare, difficult to extract, or it takes a lot of the plant to create high-quality oils. For example, it takes 22 pounds of rose petals to create 5-ml (.17 ounces) of rose essential oil and 220 pounds of orange blossoms to produce 2.5 ounces of neroli oil.
A little goes a long way with essential oils. You use just a few drops at a time. Still, you may want to try less expensive options first.
I divided my best list into an A tier that are relatively inexpensive and a B tier that are effective for relieving anxiety but much more expensive to produce than those in the first list.
(Clicking on links on the anti-anxiety essential oils mentioned in the best lists will take you to that oil in the Edens Garden brand. I explain in the "What to Look For When Purchasing Essential Oils for Aromatherapy" section later why I like this brand.)
The relatively inexpensive ($10 to $15 per bottle of high-quality essence) essential oils that research tells us have calming effects include:
- Lavender (L. angustifolia),
- Lemongrass (Cymbopogon citratus),
- Sweet orange (Citrus sinensis),
- Geranium (Pelargonium graveolens),
- Bergamot (Citrus bergamia),and
- Ylang Ylang (Cananga odorata).
These next anti-anxiety essential oils are more expensive to produce in good quality forms ($45 or more per bottle) than the ones in the first list:
- Lemon balm (Melissa officinalis)
- Bitter orange, AKA neroli (Citrus aurantium)
- Rose (Rose centifolia, Rose damascene)
Essential Oils for Anxiety Research
Essential oils have been used traditionally around the world for centuries to alter mood, but scientific research into their effectiveness is relatively new and limited. (There tends to be less research on natural remedies since there aren't the big financial gains to be made like there are with pharmaceutical medications.)
Still, there are some impressive research results that back up using essential oils for anxiety and stress relief as well as other mental health improvements.
Researcher Cassandra Moshfegh had this to say about her research results at George Washington University:
"Relative to pharmaceuticals, essential oils are much more economical and do not have adverse side effects. The orange essential plant oil showed a significant effect on the behavioral response in our study mice. This is promising, because it shows that passively inhaling this essential oil could potentially assuage PTSD symptoms in humans."
While most of the research that I'll refer to below has focused on the oil's anti-anxiety qualities, interventions that reduce stress and anxiety have the potential of improving sleep for anyone who has difficulty relaxing for sleep or is kept awake by an anxious spinning mind.
I'll tell you about a few research projects in some detail here and then point you toward studies related to each of the essential oils that made my best lists.
Study: Lavender Inhalation Reduced Anxiety, Stress, and Depression in Women Post-Partum
In a 2016 study testing the impact of lavender essential oil, 140 Iranian women were divided into two groups after childbirth: an aromatherapy group and a non-aromatherapy control group.
The aromatherapy group was instructed to inhale from 3 drops of lavender essential oil every 8 hours for 4 weeks.
All the women were assessed for stress, anxiety, and depression using standardized tests at 2 weeks, 1 month, and 3 months post-partum.
The results showed that stress, anxiety, and depression were all lower in the aromatherapy group compared to the control group each time the tests were done.
I find it particularly striking that the positive effect went on beyond the period of time that they were instructed to use the essential oil.
Study: Aromatherapy Reduced Pain and Anxiety in Burn Patients
This lavender and rose aromatherapy study is a good example of the proof of essential oil's anti-anxiety benefits.
90 burn patients were divided into three groups:
- aromatherapy massage with oil that included lavender essential oil
- inhalation aromatherapy using a blend of lavender and rose oils
- control group that was given neither of the above
The researchers' conclusions:
"The study results showed the positive effect of aromatherapy massage and inhalation aromatherapy compared with the control group in reducing both anxiety and pain of burn patients. Therefore, both interventions, which are inexpensive, and noninvasive nursing tasks can be proposed for alleviating anxiety and pain of burn patients."
Aromatherapy Studies Using a Stress-Inducing Test
An interesting Brazilian study examined the impact of lemongrass aroma on men at three times: (1) after initial exposure to the scent, (2) during a stress-inducing "test", and (3) after the "test."
- Forty men were divided into groups. The men inhaled lemongrass essential oil from a tissue for three deep breaths and then the scent was immediately removed. The lemongrass group experienced a drop in anxiety markers compared to groups exposed to either tea tree oil or water. All the participants were then put through an anxiety-provoking scenario known as the Stroop Color-Word Test (SCWT).
- The SCWT: While being videotaped and believing that they are being observed and evaluated by “professionals” in another room, study participants have to name as quickly as possible (with a two-minute maximum) colors presented to them. The trick is that they have to name the color of ink used to print the color name, and it is different than the color name (e.g., BLUE printed with pink ink has to be named as “pink”). To add to the stress, if they hesitate or make an error, a bell rings.
- The quick exposure to lemongrass aroma prior to the SCWT did not reduce the anxiety of the participants compared to the control groups during the color word test, but within five minutes after the tricky color-naming test, anxiety levels in the lemongrass group returned to their baseline while the other groups’ anxiety remained elevated.
To recap: The lemongrass scent immediately reduced anxiety. While it didn't impact anxiety during the stress-test, it did help the subjects' stress-resilience in that they recouped from the stressful event faster than people not exposed to the scent.
The Stroop Color-Word Test (SCWT) was similarly used to test the effectiveness of sweet orange essential oil. In the sweet orange aromatherapy study, the subjects exposed to the essential oil scent had less anxiety and tension during and after the SCWT than the control group.
|Scroll down to the end of this article for more information on essential oil aromatherapy for anxiety and stress research.|
How to Use Essential Oils for Anxiety, Stress, and Depression Relief
Pharmaceutical-grade essential oils are sometimes ingested, but that should only be done with the guidance of your personal medical professionals as most readily available essential oils are NOT meant to be taken internally and those that are made for ingestion can be dangerous if you take too much.
More commonly, essential oils are:
- inhaled directly from the bottle or absorbent material (such as porous stones placed into bracelets or necklaces with absorbent felt pads) or diffused into the air using misting diffusers so that you smell them
- added to a bath or applied to your skin with a carrier oil so they can be both absorbed and smelled
What to Look For When Purchasing Essential Oils for Aromatherapy
If you are new to essential oils—don’t be scared away by the tiny bottles they typically come in. With essential oils, a little goes a long way. They are used a few drops at a time.
Look for assurance of purity and quality, third-party testing (ie GC/MS testing), and presence of the botanical name (not just the common name).
Avoid supper cheap and synthetic brands.
“100% pure” is NOT always indicative of high quality. Labels can say “100% pure” but only have 5% pure essential oil.
Read reviews of oils to see comments about the quality of the smell they emit.
I noticed that Edens Garden oils have the high-quality indicators and also high reviews on Amazon. And I have purchased this brand myself with positive results. (Click on the graphic or title to go to the Amazon listing for the oil.)
I included links for Edens Garden brand oils in the "9 Best Essential Oils for Relieving Anxiety, Stress, and Insomnia" section earlier.
Essential Oil Blends for Anxiety and Stress
Essential oils are often blended together. It is thought that the blending may increase results because of positive interactions between their chemical components.
Some brands produce mixtures of essential oils for anxiety and stress relief.
Edens Garden has a set of 3 such mixtures for anxiety, stress, and insomnia.
Edens Garden also makes diluted essential oils in small roll-on bottles that are great for having with you whenever you need some stress relief.
One example is their "Stress Relief" roll-on essential oil: includes Sweet Orange, Bergamot, Patchouli, Grapefruit and Ylang Ylang.
More Essential Oils for Anxiety Research
These research projects are a sample of those available.
Study in Mice Demonstrated Positive Results with Lavender Essential Oil for Social Anxiety
Caputo, L., Reguilon, M. D., Mińarro, J., De Feo, V., & Rodriguez-Arias, M. (2018). Lavandula angustifolia Essential Oil and Linalool Counteract Social Aversion Induced by Social Defeat. Molecules (Basel, Switzerland), 23(10), 2694. https://www.mdpi.com/1420-3049/23/10/2694
Lavender Inhalation Reduced Anxiety, Stress, and Depression in Women Post-Partum
Kianpour, M., Mansouri, A., Mehrabi, T., & Asghari, G. (2016). Effect of lavender scent inhalation on prevention of stress, anxiety and depression in the postpartum period. Iranian Journal of Nursing and Midwifery Research, 21(2), 197. doi: 10.4103/1735-9066.178248
Lemongrass Scent Helps Relieve Anxiety and Increase Stress Resilience
Tiago C. Goes et al., “Effect of Lemongrass Aroma on Experimental Anxiety in Humans,” Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine 21, no. 12 (2015): 766–773, https://doi.org/10.1089/acm.2015.0099.
Lemonbalm Applied to Skin in Carrier Oil Reduced Agitation in Dementia Patients
Ballard, C. G., Obrien, J. T., Reichelt, K., & Perry, E. K. (2002). Aromatherapy as a Safe and Effective Treatment for the Management of Agitation in Severe Dementia. The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 63(7), 553–558. doi: 10.4088/jcp.v63n0703
Bitter Orange (Neroli) and Geranium Aroma Reduced Anxiety During Labor
Namazi, M., Amir Ali Akbari, S., Mojab, F., Talebi, A., Alavi Majd, H., & Jannesari, S. (2014). Aromatherapy with citrus aurantium oil and anxiety during the first stage of labor. Iranian Red Crescent medical journal, 16(6), e18371. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4102991/
Rashidi Fakari, F., Tabatabaeichehr, M., Kamali, H., Rashidi Fakari, F., & Naseri, M. (2015). Effect of Inhalation of Aroma of Geranium Essence on Anxiety and Physiological Parameters during First Stage of Labor in Nulliparous Women: a Randomized Clinical Trial. Journal of caring sciences, 4(2), 135–141. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4484988/
Rose Scent Reduced Anxiety in Dialysis Patients and PMS Symptoms in Young Women
Barati, F., Nasiri, A., Akbari, N., & Sharifzadeh, G. (2016). The Effect of Aromatherapy on Anxiety in Patients. Nephro-urology monthly, 8(5), e38347. https://doi.org/10.5812/numonthly.38347
Heydari, N., Abootalebi, M., Tayebi, N., Hassanzadeh, F., Kasraeian, M., Emamghoreishi, M., & Akbarzadeh, M. (2019). The effect of aromatherapy on mental, physical symptoms, and social functions of females with premenstrual syndrome: A randomized clinical trial. Journal of family medicine and primary care, 8(9), 2990–2996. https://doi.org/10.4103/jfmpc.jfmpc_452_19
Bergamot Aromatherapy (using an ultrasonic aroma diffuser) Reduced Pre-Surgery Anxiety
Ni, C. H., Hou, W. H., Kao, C. C., Chang, M. L., Yu, L. F., Wu, C. C., & Chen, C. (2013). The anxiolytic effect of aromatherapy on patients awaiting ambulatory surgery: a randomized controlled trial. Evidence-based complementary and alternative medicine : eCAM, 2013, 927419. https://doi.org/10.1155/2013/927419
Ylang Ylang Inhalation Improved Serotonin and Cortisol Levels Post-Stressor in Mice
(Serotonin is a feel-good neurotransmitter and cortisol levels elevate in anxiety reactions. The improvements for both seen in these study results suggest that aromatherapy with Ylang Ylang can help with both depression and anxiety.)
Zhang, N., Zhang, L., Feng, L., & Yao, L. (2018). Cananga odorata essential oil reverses the anxiety induced by 1-(3-chlorophenyl) piperazine through regulating the MAPK pathway and serotonin system in mice. Journal of Ethnopharmacology, 219, 23–30. doi: 10.1016/j.jep.2018.03.013
Large Review Articles on the Use of Aromatherapy for Anxiety
Lee, Y.-L., Wu, Y., Tsang, H. W., Leung, A. Y., & Cheung, W. (2011). A Systematic Review on the Anxiolytic Effects of Aromatherapy in People with Anxiety Symptoms. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 17(2), 101–108. https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/37962413.pdf
- Ann Silvers