While aromatherapy has been a practiced healing modality in Egyptian and eastern cultures for centuries, it’s only in recent years that the practice has picked up steam in the States. Initially seen as merely an alternative to pleasure scenting for homes and workspaces, there has been a renewed interest in integrating time-honored holistic wisdom with conventional western therapies supporting mind and body wellness. As a result, more modes of psychotherapy are incorporating the power of scent into their patient interactions.
Smell, Memories, and Behavior
Smell has risen above the rest as our most powerful, and arguably most important, sense. Able to identify and differentiate between a trillion smells, our nose works primitively to keep us safe, seek nourishment, and hold our oldest memories. Seemingly complex, smell is considered a primitive sense because of its direct route to the limbic system.
Our limbic system, located in the frontal lobe of our brain, harbors memories and regulates our emotions. When we smell something that triggers a memory, the emotion paired with the memory is also triggered. That’s to say that if the smell of coffee reminds you of grandma’s house, smelling coffee will evoke feelings about your time at grandma’s house. Studies are showing that memory-triggering smells typically draw from the first decades of life. For most smells, the initial experience will remain the most relevant or powerful – and it is likely to have occurred in childhood. Smell’s strong associative power is attributed to the lack of cerebral processing center.
With vision, for example, your visual cortex filters out unneeded information to present your mind’s eye with a useful representation of your surroundings. The visual cortex assesses a data point’s relevance and seemingly irrelevant information is deleted from the visual field. Contrastingly, when you smell an aroma you are immediately ‘taken back’ to a time and place when that smell was relevant. There is no place for your brain to decide a smell is superfluous and delete it from detection.
In effect, your brain becomes a storage unit for all the different aromas and odors you’ve ever been exposed to. While much of this catalogue is for future recognition and identification, particularly relevant smells have emotional cues and behavioral directions attached.
For example, most can identify the smell of chocolate without a visual aid. Any emotional tags are likely positive, which increases your likelihood of experiencing chocolate again. If, however, you’re allergic to chocolate and suffered a reaction after eating some, the smell of chocolate may illicit dread, fear, and anxiety, while the behavioral direction will be to avoid the substance. Our reaction to smell is immediate, sometimes subconscious. You may find yourself walking in the other direction before you’ve consciously identified the smell.
Smell links memories and emotions together, creating individual behavioral footprints. The curious way in which humans utilize smell has been the subject of quandary and research. Aromatherapists have already identified essential oils such as bergamot, lavender, ylang ylang, frankincense, and chamomile as effective anti-depressants that also reduce anxiety. Now mental health professionals are creatively integrating scent as a component of their therapies.
Aromatherapy in Mental Health Therapies
As a mental health professional, you can utilize scent in your interventions with clients to creatively redirect thoughts, elevate mood, build on relaxation techniques, and even access difficult memories for trauma processing. Although a cultural shift is underway, the stigma surrounding mental health can make it difficult for some people to ask for help. Just coming into a therapist’s office can feel threatening and trigger anxiety. Start your scent therapy from the moment they enter your reception area with diffused essential oils that are welcoming and stress-reducing.
Relaxation exercises are particularly beneficial to those struggling with anxiety. Enhance techniques with essential oil diffusion by selecting a calming aroma to pair with the relaxation practice. With time, your patient should develop a Pavlovian response to the smell that starts the physiological process of calming down.
Sweeter essential oils, such as cinnamon and vanilla, have been linked to increased creativity and can also be used in psychotherapies to enhance your patient’s artistic expression. Art in therapy gives patients another avenue to access their thoughts and feelings. It’s also a grounding and calming activity that provides a safe place to explore or revisit experiences and the emotions paired with them.
Be sure to discuss scent associations with your patient before use. Not only to check for allergies, but to note aversions or atypical associations that may prove counterproductive to your goals. Yes, ylang ylang is calming and can redirect negative emotions, but if your client’s association is negative, (i.e. she’s reminded of her mother for whom she is grieving) the typical effect is unlikely.
That isn’t to say that you can’t use a scent that evokes negative emotions therapeutically. In fact, if you work with trauma, a relevant aroma that takes your client to that time and place may serve as an effective tool for processing. Research shows that incorporating scent as a memory cue produces richer recollections. This may be particularly helpful with clients who have a hard time remembering their trauma, or settling in and discussing the uncomfortable topics for which they are seeking help.
Revolutionize Your Practice with AromaTech
Remember that the nose is strong and doesn’t need much to benefit from the oil’s innate properties. While we produce premium-quality 100% pure essential oils and all-natural aroma oil blends that are hypoallergenic and pet, kid, and eco-friendly, precautions should be taken before utilizing scent with any patient. For instance, hypoallergenic is a general classification. If your patient is allergic to a plant, say lavender, they may react to its essential oil.
For the best results, you want a high-quality, unadulterated essential oil or blend. Look no further than AromaTech where we’re committed to clean, sustainable, no-gimmicks, cold-pressed extraction and have designed the world’s best cold-air diffusion systems for every sized space. Our systems work silently to dispatch a fine, residue-free mist throughout the space. Select between HVAC-installed Air Streams or the classic AromaPro for full-office diffusion and consider the AroMini or AromaCube for single room scenting. Contact us with questions and we’ll help you sort out the details of turning your mental health office into a total-immersion healing center.