Addressing Trauma with Aromatics - A Powerful Connection

As the light continues to shine on the ever-growing problem of human trafficking and child exploitation so should our understanding of trauma continue to grow.  I felt now would be a good time to address trauma since this is the largest hurdle victims will face after they are rescued from slavery.  

Many of my colleagues would disagree with me on this topic.  There exists an argument that as aromatherapists, we should not tread into the world assisting people with PTSD.  I vehemently disagree.  For there is no other sense more closely linked to the emotional center of the brain than the sense of smell.  And, there is no one who better understands the spiritual and medicinal value of aroma more than she or he who works with plants. 

"On a scientific level, aromatherapy works by stimulating the olfactory nerve when one smells an oil. This nerve is directly connected to the limbic system, that part of the brain associated with emotions and memory."

There is a concern that aromatherapy could trigger trauma and is therefore not something even a therapist trained in aroma should tap into with their client.  I find this concern to be misplaced. I am not suggesting aromatherapy is the panacea for trauma (although for some, it is) nor am I suggesting an aromatherapist is qualified to treat PTSD.  However, I feel it would be a huge disservice to avoid offering a victim such a gentle yet effective and safe option to support their emotions.  

The benefit aromatherapy can bring a victim and the very realistic possibility that it is what they need (and could avoid strong pharmaceutics such as benzodiazapenes which are highly addictive) far outweighs the very small chance of creating a trigger.  In fact, avoiding triggers does not help the victim grow and the brain does not learn to make new and better connections.  Since anything can be a trigger, one needs to learn to cope and work through them.  Triggers are a valuable opportunity to work through and aromatherapy can be the calming catalyst to get through hard times.

On a scientific level, aromatherapy works by stimulating the olfactory nerve when one smells an oil. This nerve is directly connected to the limbic system, that part of the brain associated with emotions and memory.  The chemistry of certain aromas serves to calm emotions by directly impacting the brain.  Essential oils can help one safely process painful memories and can be a great healing tool.  I’ve suggested it to many clients struggling with trauma and have always received good feedback.

Aromatherapy is a simple solution, too.  It's pleasurable as most people enjoy good smells.  It is fast-acting as inhalation results are often immediate.  Very little is needed to achieve a good result and administration is simple.  Diffusion, a quick massage or simply placing a few drops on a cotton ball near a victim can create peace and calming in no time at all.

Essential Oils for Trauma

When I think of a blend for trauma the aroma of wood/roots, florals and citrus come to mind.  The earthy wood provides security and safety and help the brain find equilibrium.  I think roots that ground and branches that reach which instills a calm confidence.  Florals have a way of tapping into the emotions, helping one to process.  Their softness is comforting and they calm in real time when things are tough, taking the “edge off”.  Citruses come to mind because they brighten up the mood and refresh the mind after working through something tough.

Supportive Woods and Roots

Among my favorite aromatic woods is Cedarwood which has a way of centering the mind and also aids in healthier sleep. High in sequiterpenes, it is also chemically more available to the brain as these molecules are known to easily pass the blood-brain barrier.  Spruce is also a powerful go to for anxiety and trauma for it’s restorative properties and research suggests it is a powerful adrenal tonic. The adrenal glands are directly connected to our response to stress and thus can be quickly depleted in those with PTSD.  Finally, Vetiver which is actually a grass with very strong roots used to prevent erosion in Indea is an absolute because just as it behaves in nature – it holds us together and provides strength and stability to body and mind.  Vetiver is a staple in one of our most popular blends: Tranquility.

Soothing Florals

The elegant and enchanting Bulgarian Rose is by far one of the best oils for healing the heart-space.  Although I’ve never measured it myself, it is claimed among the more spiritual practitioners to raise one’s vibration more than any other natural substance.  Trauma programs our cells to stay in a lower state of vibration and our reactions become repetitive and destructive. A deep inhale of rose can quickly assist one in "snapping out of it".  Ylang ylang is great for sexual trauma which can influence one’s love life for years to come.  This intense floral is incredibly relaxing, reduces frigidity and even reduces blood pressure.  Some find it to be among the most relaxing of oils.  And  of course, everyone can benefit from the balance that Lavender imparts as it is well known to both lift the spirit and calm the mind.

Bright Citruses

All citrus is known to be great for the mood.  I have an affinity toward Bergamot because it truly is an anti anxiety with a unique floral-citrus-herbacious note imparting almost a bridge to carry one from the watery world of  emotion to the other side of releasing and renewing. Studies even link it to lower cortisol, the stress hormone. Lemon and Lime are more stimulating, Orange is harmonizing and Mandarin more relaxing.

The Power of Blends

Aromatic blends are important because they prevent aromatic entrainment – that is the concern that the brain will associate an aroma with a particular memory.  Entrainment is not a guarantee but it can happen.  A great example is using Ginger for nausea during chemotherapy.  Some patients reported struggling with Ginger long after their treatments were over because it reminded them of undergoing the treatments.  Blends trick the brain so it is less likely one will develop an aversion to the individual aromas in the blend in the future.

One can create their own blend for trauma and stress management by combining the oils of wood, floral and citrus. Among our offerings there are two I would reach for in the case of trauma.  Mountain Breeze combines all three elements perfectly for a blend that is quite supportive yet liberating.  Think of the soul revival one gets standing on a mountaintop overlooking a sunny valley below.  Imagine feet on solid ground, taking deep sustaining breaths and the feeling of freedom. Tranquility is more sedative and combines the power of floral and wood to calm and center, promoting better focus for the highly anxious during the day and deeper sleep at night.

Remember, trauma isn’t always the result of extreme situations like war and abuse, but can also happen on a smaller scale or slowly over time.  Our brains are constantly bombarded, especially presently, with trauma-creating circumstances. Losing a job, going through a divorce, or even current events can cause trauma if we don't know how to deal with stress in a healthy way. 

Anyone can benefit from tapping into these anti-stress aromatics in today’s world.  From the average person struggling to cope during trying times to victims of abuse, aromatherapy is a gentle and easy way to develop better responses to stress and support the healing process.  Regular use especially with other forms of support such as a therapist, meditation, breathing techniques and/or yoga – can make a huge impact on our body, mind and spirit.

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