Trauma 101: Aromatherapy

A keen sense of smell!

The smell of baked bread. The scent of fresh oranges. The aroma of roses. We don’t need to be passing a bakery, slicing citrus in the kitchen, or strolling in a garden to get an immediate and pleasurable sense and the mere mention of these. If you want, you may even take a moment, right now, to notice what is happening in your body that tells you, yes, deliciousness and peace.

One of the most effective, and well-researched, ways to shift our moods is by aromatherapy (check here, and also here). A lavender wash puts baby right to sleep, lemon piped into the workplace increases mental alertness. The right scent can give us ease, or make us sharper. It can ground us, or elevate us. 

Depending upon our needs, certain aromatic oils can specifically open our hearts (ylang ylang), soothe our nervous systems (frankincense), ease a troubled stomach (peppermint), or even enhance our oxygen levels (cedar). 

Be warned, however.

Our olfactory system is closely tied to that part of the brain that processes memory as well as mood. And each of us is unique. Lavender doesn’t always comfort, and if you hated your last job picking apples, it’s not going to give you comfort to walk by Macintoshes in the grocery store.

Certain oils are allergens. Others should be avoided by women who are pregnant. And many oils are not to be taken internally. Because it works both with the limbic system (mood and memory) and the temporal lobes in the neocortex (social engagement as one of many functions), aromatherapy is powerful and should be used with caution.

When a client first works with me,

I want to give them resources to off-set some of the more challenging moments we’ll be facing as we address trauma. I introduce them to one of my favorite interventions, the “nose-bath.” Long-standing clients have developed a short-hand, pun intended, as they hold out their hands for the essential oil that we’ve discovered works best for them. Rubbing the drops between their palms, they inhale from cupped hands to ground and center themselves for the session.

How do we determine the best aroma for them?

I have quite a selection: citruses, of course, and lavenders, but also woodsy oils such as sandalwood and cedar, grounding blends, florals, and resins. A pulse-oximeter is used, a simple gadget clamped on the right forefinger which tells us their pulse and oxygen levels. What we’re looking for is an aroma that reduces their pulse, and also which they find pleasing.

One of the impacts of trauma is that my clients often, initially, have a hard time tuning into their bodies. They’re trained to believe lavender should soothe, and they’ve been using lavender. When we put the pulse oximeter on, however, there’s not much improvement in their heart rate (pulse), and perhaps even an increase. 

Here’s a video I created a while back that details this:

I’m not dismissing aromas that you might like. Keep enjoying them! Also know, though, that you may be unintentionally overriding what your body is telling you it needs. 

How Can I Test My Best Aromas?

Here’s a lower-tech way of determining your pulse. First, take a reading by setting your timer for thirty seconds. Then place your fingers on the arteries in your neck, and count the beats. That’s your pulse. Then take a scent, place it near your nose. Do not change how you’re breathing! We know that deep breaths can often bring about a relaxation response. Just breath normally. Take a few breaths for that same thirty seconds, and notice if there are few beats. If there are, you’ve got a winner!

Aromatherapy doesn’t need to be expensive, and oils can now be found in all health food stores. So go in, sample a few, and find one or two that work for you. When you’re stressed or tired, aromatherapy is right at your fingertips. Peace.