PTSD and Aromatherapy: Creating a Sanctuary or Safe Place for PTSD

Jun 15, 2024


Aroma is strongly linked to memories. A person may catch a whiff of perfume and be immediately transported back to memories of their grandmother, who used to wear the fragrance. The memory can be a positive or negative one based on their relationship with their grandmother. This is called an odour-linked memory. In other words, there is a link between aroma and experiences, especially emotional experiences.

This is the second article in a series of three blog posts about PTSD and aromatherapy. In this post, we will discuss creating a sanctuary or a safe place for those suffering from PTSD.

Olfactory Conditioning in PTSD Treatment

Olfactory conditioning is a technique used by therapists in the treatment of PTSD. This was first introduced in a study conducted by Vermetten and Bremner (2003), who proposed that specific odours could trigger extremely emotional flashback memories in PTSD patients. A great deal of research has been conducted since 2003 confirming the strong relationship between aroma and emotional memories.

We are not advocating that a smell that directly links to the source of PTSD be used - it should be eliminated from the equation. Colleen had a client who was sexually abused as a child. For her, the smell of roses was a trigger; therefore, she needed to avoid roses and rose fragrances.

The Brain's Role in Aroma and Memory

Two structures in the brain are primarily responsible for the link between memory and emotion. The amygdala is critical for processing emotions, and the hippocampus is essential for memory formation. This close relationship explains why odours can evoke strong emotional and memory responses.

We are suggesting that a person with PTSD could establish/anchor a pleasant memory with a specific aroma, which could be used as a tool in the treatment of PTSD. For example, lavender essential oil could be introduced during a relaxation exercise, such as meditation or listening to relaxing music. This will create a positive association with lavender essential oil. Aroma is highly personal, and not everyone enjoys the aroma of lavender; this was used as an example. A person may need to experiment with different scents to find one he/she finds pleasant and calming. The aroma must be associated with positive feelings and safety. Therefore, the person must be calm and safe when the aroma is chosen.

Anchoring with Smell: A Therapeutic Technique

Anchoring with smell is a therapeutic technique designed to help people with PTSD ground themselves when they experience intrusive memories, flashbacks, or other dissociative reactions. This method leverages the strong connection between the olfactory system and the amygdala. The repeated association of a calming smell with a state of relaxation can lead to neuroplastic changes in the brain. This means that the brain's neural pathways can be altered to create a new, positive response to the scent.

Regularly being exposed to the calming scent in non-stressful situations helps reinforce the positive association. This might involve carrying a small vial or nasal inhaler of the essential oil and using it during daily relaxation practices.

Creating a Safe Space

A sanctuary or safe space does not need to be elaborate, but it should be comfortable, and it should reflect what brings you comfort and joy. It could be a small corner of a room, an entire room, or an outdoor space. The important thing is that it feels safe and soothing to you.

Tips for setting up your safe space:

  • organization: keep the space organized and free of clutter to evoke a sense of calm.
  • comfort: include pillows, a blanket, and soft lighting.
  • aromatherapy: use a diffuser with your chosen scent nearby.
  • personal boundaries: ensure you feel secure and uninterrupted by establishing personal boundaries.
  • routine: create a routine for using your safe space to foster a sense of predictability and control.
  • mindfulness: incorporate practices like breathing techniques, meditation, or yoga.
  • activities: engage in calming activities like journaling or knitting if you have difficulty quieting your mind.

"A place of solitude offers a retreat from the opposing forces and diverse demands of living, an entry into a state of peace and unity. Mind and body can retire from a place of confusion and conflict to a sanctuary of clarity and harmony."

Anthony Lawlor, Home for the Soul (1997)

Integrating Smell Anchoring into Therapy

Smell anchoring can be integrated into broader therapeutic practices such as cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT), mindfulness, or relaxation techniques. Therapists might instruct clients to use their calming scent during therapy sessions to help manage anxiety and enhance the therapeutic experience.

When experiencing PTSD symptoms such as flashbacks or intrusive thoughts, the person can use their chosen aroma to help ground themselves. The familiar, positive smell can trigger the brain to shift from a state of anxiety to one of calmness, thereby reducing the intensity of the PTSD symptoms.

The Simplicity of Aromatherapy

People with PTSD can become overwhelmed when given too many choices. The benefit of creating a sanctuary and using an anchoring-essential oil is its simplicity. Likely the most difficult decision will be choosing the essential oil. The anchoring technique is simple and non-invasive and can easily be incorporated into everyday life. The effect of the aroma can be felt almost immediately due to the direct pathway between the olfactory system and the amygdala. And, the technique can be tailored according to the person’s preferences and needs, increasing in effectiveness. Smell anchoring does not have side effects or the risk of habituation.

Anchoring with smell is a therapeutic technique designed to help people with PTSD ground themselves when they experience intrusive memories, flashbacks, or other dissociative reactions. This method leverages the strong connection between the olfactory system and the amygdala. The repeated association of a calming smell with a state of relaxation can lead to neuroplastic changes in the brain. This means the brain's neural pathways can be altered to create a new, positive response to the scent.

Suggestions for essential oils:

  • Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia): Known for its calming and relaxing properties, lavender essential oil can reduce anxiety and improve sleep quality. It can help ease anger, grief, low mood, and headaches.
  • Bergamot (Citrus bergamia): Bergamot essential oil can help reduce feelings of depression, fear, and anger and improve mood. When applied to the skin, bergamot essential oil can increase the risk of phototoxicity. We recommend using it for inhalation only unless a certified aromatherapist is making a dermal blend for you.
  • Ylang Ylang (Cananga odorata (flos.)): Ylang ylang is useful for significantly promoting relaxation and calmness and reducing stress and anxiety. Ylang ylang has a very potent aroma; therefore, we suggest only 2 drops in a nasal inhaler or 5 drops in 10ml of carrier oil for topical application.
  • Chamomile, Roman (Chamaemelum nobile): Helps in calming the mind, soothes irritability, eases headaches, and promotes better sleep. Roman chamomile is contraindicated if a person is allergic to ragweed.
  • Frankincense (Boswellia carteri): This can help in deepening breathing and promoting a sense of peace. Frankincense is used for trauma, low mood, and the immune system.

When using essential oils for emotional concerns, research has demonstrated that less works better than more.

Methods of Use:

  • Diffusion: Using an essential oil diffuser can disperse the oils into the air, providing continuous exposure. Follow manufacturers' suggestion for essential oil amount – using the least amount recommended.
  • Topical Application: Diluting essential oils with a carrier oil (like coconut or jojoba oil) and applying them to the skin, such as on the wrists or behind the ears. In 10ml of carrier oil, add 2 – 4 drops of essential oil.
  • Inhalation: use a nasal inhaler designed for essential oils. Add 10 drops to the cotton wick.


It’s important to note that while smell anchoring can be a powerful tool, it should not be used in place of a treatment plan for PTSD. Professional guidance from a mental health provider is essential to ensure the technique is applied effectively and to address the complex needs of individuals with PTSD. Essential oils are a tool to use alongside other treatment methods.

Explore the impact of PTSD on physical symptoms in Part 1 of our series, PTSD and Aromatherapy: Understanding PTSD and Physical Symptoms.


Chu, S. Olfactory Conditioning of Positive Performance in Humans, Chemical Senses, Volume 33, Issue 1, January 2008, Pages 65–71.

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]. 

Vermetten, E., & Bremner, J. D. (2003). Olfaction as a traumatic reminder in posttraumatic stress disorder: case reports and review. Journal of Clinical Psychiatry64(2), 202-207.

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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