PTSD and Aromatherapy: Understanding PTSD and Physical Symptoms

Jun 06, 2024


In June, we observe PTSD Awareness Month to shed light on post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), a complex condition that can develop after experiencing or witnessing a traumatic event. COVID-19 was a trigger for PTSD in many people. PTSD can even occur indirectly through an association with a friend or family member who has experienced a traumatic event.

The onset of PTSD can vary, with some people developing symptoms soon after the trauma, while others may experience a delayed onset, occurring more than six months after the event. Early onset PTSD often improves within about three months, but for some, the condition can persist for many years, becoming a chronic issue.

Historical Context of PTSD

PTSD is not a new condition; however, it has been known by different names throughout history, reflecting the evolving understanding of the condition. It was known as Shell Shock in WW1, Combat Fatigue or Battle Fatigue in WW2, and Post-Vietnam Syndrome during the Vietnam War era.

The term "post-traumatic stress disorder" (PTSD) was officially adopted in 1980. This marked a significant shift in recognizing PTSD as a distinct mental health disorder that could affect anyone who experienced a traumatic event, not just combat veterans. The criteria for diagnosis were expanded to include a range of traumatic experiences beyond warfare.

Prevalence and Risk Factors

According to the World Health Organization, it is estimated 3.9% of the world population has had post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) at some point in their lives.

Although the exact cause of PTSD is not fully understood, it is thought to result from a combination of psychological, genetic, physical, and social factors. Together, these components influence how the body responds to stress, mainly by affecting stress hormones and neurotransmitters, which are chemicals that transmit information between nerves. A history of previous trauma increases the risk of developing PTSD.

Symptoms of PTSD

Symptoms of PTSD can be categorized into four main groups:

1. Re-experiencing Symptoms: These symptoms involve reliving the traumatic event and can be triggered by thoughts, feelings, or external cues that remind the individual of the trauma. Common re-experiencing symptoms include:

  • flashbacks: reliving the trauma as if it were happening again.
  • nightmares: disturbing dreams related to the traumatic event.
  • intrusive thoughts: unwanted, distressing memories of the trauma.
  • emotional distress or physical reactions (e.g., sweating, heart racing) when reminded of the trauma.

2. Avoidance Symptoms: Avoidance symptoms involve efforts to avoid reminders of the trauma. These can significantly impact daily life and functioning. Common avoidance symptoms include:

  • avoidance of places, people, or activities that trigger memories of the trauma.
  • avoiding thoughts, feelings, or conversations about the traumatic event.
  • feeling detached or estranged from others.
  • loss of interest in once enjoyable activities.

3. Hyperarousal Symptoms: Hyperarousal symptoms are related to increased anxiety and a heightened state of alertness. These symptoms can cause significant stress and interfere with sleep and concentration. Common hyperarousal symptoms include:

  • being easily startled or frightened.
  • feeling tense or "on edge."
  • anxiety
  • difficulty sleeping or staying asleep.
  • difficulty concentrating.

4. Cognitive and Mood Changes: PTSD interferes with daily activities and behaviours and has a significant impact on emotional and cognitive functioning. Common cognitive and mood changes include:

  • trouble remembering the details of the traumatic event
  • intense feelings of blame or shame
  • negative self-image:
  • extreme sadness
  • irritability or angry outbursts.
  • difficulty concentrating
  • guilt
  • inability to feel positive emotions

Physical Symptoms of PTSD and Aromatherapy Solutions

These additional symptoms can also be part of the complex picture of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). They reflect the intense physical and emotional reactions individuals might experience when dealing with PTSD.

 a) Stomach Upset and Trouble Eating

PTSD can significantly affect the gastrointestinal system, leading to symptoms like nausea, stomach pain, and changes in appetite. This might be due to the body's heightened stress response, which affects digestion.

  • Aromatherapy Considerations: many essential oils can ease the symptoms of GI issues. The antispasmodic, carminative, and digestive stimulating properties of essential oils are well known, and many essential oils are being used pharmaceutically for this reason.
  • Examples of essential oils for GI issues include: 
    • black pepper (Piper nigrum),
    • chamomile R. (Chamaemelum nobile),
    • coriander (Coriander sativum),
    • fennel (sweet) (Foeniculum vulgare var. dulce),
    • ginger (zingiber officinale),
    • lemon (Citrus limon),
    • marjoram (sweet) (Origanum majorana),
    • myrrh (Commiphora myrrha),
    • peppermint (Mentha × piperita).

Suggested recipe for digestive issues

b) Trouble Sleeping and/or Feeling Very Tired

Sleep disturbances are common in PTSD. Nightmares and anxiety can make it difficult to fall asleep and stay asleep. This ongoing sleep disruption can lead to chronic fatigue.

  • Aromatherapy Considerations: sleep is important! Evidence suggests that long-term memories are consolidated during sleep, and that sleep may have an association with the proper functioning of the immune system. People who go without sleep for several days or more can suffer from various symptoms such as irritability, blurred vision, confusion, visual and/or tactile hallucinations, concentration, and a reduction in the number of immune cells in the body. For people suffering from PTSD, lack of sleep will only increase the symptoms or the severity of the symptoms.
  • Essential oils for sleep include:
    • bergamot (Citrus bergamia),
    • chamomile (Roman or German) (Chamaemelum nobile or Matricaria recutita),
    • clary sage (Salvia sclarea),
    • frankincense (carteri) (Boswellia carteri),
    • lavender (true) (Lavandula angustifolia),
    • sweet marjoram, (Origanum majorana),
    • orange (sweet) (Citrus sinensis),
    • nagarmotha (Cyperus rotundus),
    • neroli (Citrus aurantium var. amara),
    • petitgrain (bitter orange) (Citrus aurantium var. amara),
    • petitgrain (mandarin) (citrus reticulata),
    • rose (Rosa damascena or  Rosa centifolia),
    • vetiver (Vetiveria zizanioides),
    • ylang ylang (Cananga odorata).

Suggested recipe for sleep

c) Severe Headache or Migraine

Stress and anxiety can trigger severe headaches or migraines. For individuals with PTSD, thinking about the traumatic event can bring on intense psychological stress, leading to physical symptoms like headaches.

  • Aromatherapy Considerations: this can be a vicious cycle of stress causing the headache and the headache causing the stress.
  • Essential oils suggested for headache or migraine include:
    • Cajeput (Melaleuca cajeputi),
    • Eucalyptus citriodora,
    • Eucalyptus globulus,
    • helichrysum (Helichrysum angustifolia/ Helichrysum italicum),
    • lavender (true) (Lavandula angustifolia),
    • lavender, spike (Lavandula latifolia),
    • lavender, Spanish (Lavandula stoechas),
    • (sweet) marjoram, (Origanum majorana),
    • peppermint (Mentha × piperita),
    • plai (Zingiber cassumunar),
    • rosemary ct. 1,8-cineole, (Salvia rosmarinus),
    • vetiver (Vetiveria zizanioides)

Suggested recipe for headache or migraine

Moving Forward with PTSD Treatment

PTSD can profoundly impact an individual's quality of life, affecting their ability to function in daily activities, maintain relationships, and enjoy life.

We are not suggesting that aromatherapy take the place of other forms of treatment such as cognitive-behavioural therapy or anti-depressants. However, aromatherapy can help with the symptoms related to PTSD alongside conventional treatment options.

Early intervention and treatment are crucial for managing PTSD. Each person's experience with PTSD is unique, and a tailored approach to treatment is often necessary to address their specific needs and symptoms effectively. By addressing both the psychological and physical manifestations of PTSD, individuals can work towards improving their overall quality of life and reducing the impact of the disorder.

For more information on creating a healing environment with aromatherapy, check out our next article in the series: A Healing Sanctuary Using Essential Oils. This guide will provide practical tips and essential oil recommendations to help you create a calming and therapeutic space at home.


Elena Merkulova. (2021, May 19). iStock.Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Awareness Month concept. PTSD banner template with glowing low poly. Futuristic modern abstract. Isolated on dark background. [Vector illustration]. 

Marx, B. P., Hall‐Clark, B., Friedman, M. J., Holtzheimer, P., & Schnurr, P. P. (2024). The PTSD Criterion A debate: A brief history, current status, and recommendations for moving forward. Journal of Traumatic Stress37(1), 5-15.

World Health Organization


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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