Aromatherapy for Moods in May

May 16, 2024

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Aromatherapy can be effective for many conditions related to physical and emotional issues such as stress, depression and anxiety. Evidence-based research and anecdotal evidence have firmly established the benefits of aromatherapy and specific essential oils on mood. 

A sub-classification of Aromatherapy is Aromachology. Aromachology relates to how odours influence human behavior and emotions. Our sense of smell has a profound connection to our memories and emotions, often evoking vivid recollections of places, people, or feelings. This phenomenon is rooted in the neural pathways in our brain, where aromas trigger specific memory codes associated with past experiences. Whether the memory involves a positive or negative situation usually determines whether we like the aroma. 

Beyond its personal and sensory roles, our sense of smell serves critical functions in ensuring our safety and understanding our environment. Smells act as warning signals, alerting us to potential dangers such as fire, toxic substances, or spoiled food. They also provide valuable information about our surroundings, helping us navigate and interact with the world around us.

The influence of smell on mood and behavior is not purely anecdotal; we know from scientific research that certain scents can elicit specific physiological and psychological responses. Evidence-based studies have demonstrated the effects of aromatherapy, where the chemistry of essential oils can influence the body and mind when inhaled or applied topically.

Animal studies have been instrumental in understanding the effects of essential oils on mood and behaviour. The anxiolytic effects of certain essential oils have been linked to an increase in serotonin (5-HT) or dopamine (DA) levels in the brain. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter associated with mood regulation, while dopamine plays a role in reward and pleasure. By influencing the levels of these neurotransmitters, essential oils can potentially alleviate anxiety symptoms. Additionally, the antidepressant effects of some essential oils have been linked with an increase in the expression level of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF); a protein that supports the survival and growth of neurons, as well as synaptic plasticity, which is essential for learning and memory. Increasing BDNF levels may promote neural regeneration and resilience, which could contribute to the antidepressant effects of certain essential oils.

In a pivotal study conducted in 2015, a rigorous randomized crossover design was employed to delve into the impact of inhaling bergamot (Citrus bergamia) essential oil, on the well-being of 41 healthy females. Each participant underwent 3 distinct scenarios:

  • Rest alone.
  • Rest with water-only diffusion.
  • Rest with bergamot essential oil in water diffusion.

 Each phase was precisely timed at 15 minutes, with saliva samples collected   immediately after, followed by a 10-minute rest before the next phase. During   this rest period, participants completed a comprehensive mood, anxiety, and   fatigue assessment, ensuring a thorough evaluation of the effects of the   essential oil.

 Upon completion of all three phases, the results were analyzed. The findings revealed significant disparities in salivary cortisol levels across the three scenarios. Notably, the diffusion of bergamot essential oil in water led to notably lower cortisol levels compared to rest alone. Moreover, during the subsequent 10-minute rest period, following the bergamot essential oil in the water diffusion phase, the high-frequency heart rate values (HRV) were significantly elevated in comparison to the other two phases. HRV, a measure of heart rate fluctuations in the high-frequency range, is often used as an indicator of parasympathetic nervous system activity, which promotes relaxation and recovery. Higher levels of high-frequency HRV are generally associated with better autonomic nervous system balance and cardiovascular function.

These findings strongly indicate that inhaling bergamot essential oil can have profound psychological and physiological effects, potentially leading to enhanced mood and reduced stress in a relatively short time (Watanabe et al, 2015). This aligns perfectly with the principles taught in the EOTCHS aromatherapy certification programs, reinforcing the credibility and validity of our research.

A 2020 Open Access study aimed to confirm previous indications that Litsea cubeba essential oil, also known as May Chang, could improve cognition-associated difficulties. Additionally, the study sought to determine if inhalation of the essential oil could affect mood state and the impact it would have on the salivary cortisol level in healthy people. The study employed the Profile of Mood States (POMS) Questionnaire for mood assessment. For cortisol level measurement, salivary samples were collected from the participants. This is a common method used in scientific research, where cortisol, a hormone associated with stress, can be detected in saliva. The participants, 15 healthy individuals, were seated comfortably during the study. The first saliva sample was collected, and blood pressure and heart rates were measured. Similarly to the previous study, the participants were initially exposed to distilled water vapour via a commercial aroma diffuser for 15 minutes. After this phase, they were instructed to clean their mouth with drinking water and then, continuing to be exposed to the distilled water vapour, were given 15 minutes to complete a Profile of Mood State Questionnaire (POMS); POMS is a psychological rating scale developed in 1971 by McNair, Droppleman, and Lorr. The simplicity of the assessment and the ability to generate rapid results make this assessment tool valuable for studies related to mood. 

The POMS measures six different dimensions of mood swings over a certain period, on a scale of one to five, ranging from “not at all” to “extremely”. These include Tension or Anxiety, Anger or Hostility, Vigor or Activity, Fatigue or Inertia, Depression or Dejection, Confusion or Bewilderment. A second saliva sample was then collected, and blood pressure and heart rates were measured. Participants were given a 10-minute rest period after which they were exposed to L. cubeba inhalation via the commercial aroma diffuser, following the same protocol as with the water vapour phase (15 minutes, rinse mouth and then completing the POMS assessment for 15 minutes while continuing to inhale the essential oil diffusion).

The study's findings are not only significant in a scientific context but also have practical implications. They indicate that inhalation of L. cubeba essential oil for 30 minutes led to a significant improvement in total mood disturbance and a reduction in confusion among healthy human subjects. This suggests that L. cubeba essential oil could be a potential natural remedy for improving mood and reducing confusion. Moreover, the inhalation of L. cubeba essential oil notably reduced the salivary cortisol level, which is a key indicator of stress. This finding suggests that L. cubeba essential oil could have a potential role in stress reduction, offering a natural and accessible solution for managing stress (Chaiyasut et. al. 2020)

According to the World Health Organization an estimated 5% of adults, worldwide, suffer from depression. This equates to approximately 280 million people.  Women tend to be more affected by depression than men and the rate of depression among people over 60 years of age increases to about 9%. Depression can deeply impact every aspect of a person’s life. from personal to professional relationships. Its pervasive nature can make even routine tasks seem overwhelming, and it can create significant challenges in maintaining social connections and fulfilling responsibilities.

A trial conducted in 2022, on individuals 65 years of age or older examined the effect of inhaling true lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) and Roman chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile) on depression, anxiety, and stress. This study was designed as a three-armed, parallel, randomized, and controlled trial, a research design that holds significant weight in clinical research. The 183 participants were assigned evenly and randomly to one of three groups: 61 to the lavender group, 61 to the chamomile group and, 61 to the control group. During the trial, one person from the lavender group and two participants each from the chamomile group and control group, discontinued, leaving 60 people in the lavender group and 59 each in the chamomile and control group.

The intervention involved inhaling lavender and chamomile essential oils for 30 nights while the control group inhaled distilled water. Participants in the chamomile and lavender groups inhaled 3 drops of the essential oil in a 1.5% dilution. The control group inhaled distilled water.

Results were collected using the Depression, Anxiety, and Stress Scale (DASS) at baseline, immediately after the intervention, and one month after the invention. There was a statistically significant improvement in depression, anxiety, and stress levels immediately after the intervention and one month after the intervention with the chamomile and lavender groups, compared to the control group (p < 0.01) (Ebrahimi et al., 2022).

Why was this successful? It is thought that the anxiolytic and antidepressant effects could be associated with the suppression of sympathetic nervous system activity. Furthermore, the inhalation of L. angustifolia is known to reduce blood pressure levels and respiratory rate during panic attacks (Karan 2019).

Studies have shown the connection between the length of time and the amount of essential oil used with the action it has on the mind. It is important to factor this in when making a blend, especially for emotional issues such as anxiety and stress. Typically, a lower dilution is used when dealing with emotional conditions such as stress, anxiety, and depression. This is true even when the condition may be considered “acute”.

Commonly used essential oils for anxiety, stress, and depression:


Citrus bergamia

chamomile (Roman)

Chamaemelum nobile

clary sage

Salvia sclarea

lavender (true)

Lavandula angustifolia


Citrus reticulata/Citrus nobilis

sweet marjoram

Origanum majorana

sweet orange

Citrus sinensis

rose otto

Rosa damascena


Vetiveria zizanioides

Any of these essential oils could be used on their own, but if you prefer to use a combination of essential oils, we have three recipes for you below. Remember less is more when using essential oils for emotional issues.

Article by: Colleen Thompson, Cert Ed, MIFPA, RA®, EOT®, CA

For over 25 years, Colleen Thompson has been a passionate and highly respected aromatherapy educator. She has owned 3 aromatherapy stores and a holistic spa, and she founded Essence of Thyme in 1995, where she mentors budding aromatherapists from all over the world, helping them create their own thriving aromatherapy businesses.

About Essence of Thyme College of Holistic Studies

Essence of Thyme College of Holistic Studies offers 300- and 630-hour professional aromatherapy certification programs that help you grow a successful, fulfilling career by specializing and creating your market niche. Professional Level Certification prepares graduates to become aromatherapy consultants, launch product lines or retail businesses, or provide services as an adjunct to existing holistic health specializations. Master Level Certification and electives are ideal for certified aromatherapists seeking higher education or a path to clinical aromatherapy practice.

All Essence of Thyme programs focus on aromatherapy product development and advanced formulation, evidence-based research, spa and business management, international industry regulatory guidelines, and sustainability and conservation of essential oil and carrier oil-bearing plants.

Our comprehensive, evidence-based programs meet or exceed the criteria set forth by 5 international professional aromatherapy associations. Learn more about our aromatherapy certification programs.


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