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Using Essential Oils to Boost My Mental Health

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When you know you’re not feeling right, and you want to feel better, you do the things you think you’re supposed to. You think happy thoughts and tell yourself you don’t have it that bad. When that doesn’t work – because, of course, that doesn’t work – you go to therapy. You take antidepressants if your doctor tells you to. You wait. You feel better. Or you don’t.

That was me, a while back. I had been doing the work, and though I was feeling better(ish), I still wasn’t feeling good, except when I was on a yoga mat. The mental space, the quiet, the way I could connect with myself without thinking… it felt so refreshing. What felt especially good was that I was doing work on myself that didn’t require doctors or prescriptions. I wanted more of that. At that time, I didn’t know anything about natural wellness. (Seriously, I still thought protein bars were healthy food choices.) So I met with a holistic health expert.

During our first meeting, we were talking about natural beauty, and I was telling her about a face wash I love that’s made only with witch hazel and lavender and geranium essential oils. “Washing my face, that 30 seconds every morning, it’s the best part of my day,” I said to her.

“What you’re talking about is aromatherapy,” she replied. “I want you to have more of those moments every day. We can create them with essential oils.”

So, she took out all of her little bottles of those mysterious potions, and my journey with essential oils began.

Finding the Right Essential Oil

Today, I use essential oils for everything, from fighting off a cold to helping reduce breakouts. What I mostly use them for, though, is fighting my worst moments of depression and anxiety. It took a little while to figure out what worked for me and what didn’t – and what works for me won’t be exactly the same as what works for any other person – but once I did, it was a game changer.

When I talk about “what works,” I mean which oils work the best for me, and in which applications. Picking them for the first time meant letting go of everything I expected to like. I pulled out 10 or so bottles of what I thought I would like, and then, the holistic health expert had me smell them blind.

“It’s not about what you think you like,” she said to me. “It’s about finding which resonates with you. You’ll know it when you smell it.”

So, we tried my favorite scent, rose, and I hated it. The same with geranium. Lavender, meh. Some were ok, nothing was amazing until she waved a bottle under my nose and fireworks went off in my brain — that’s what she meant by “resonate.” It was a total surge of joy, and it was from… lemongrass? I don’t like or eat lemongrass, ever. But apparently, I love its essential oil, which has energizing properties and especially helps with headaches. She gave me a little bottle, and I left it on my desk that day. Any time I felt like I was flagging, I took 10 seconds to wave the open bottle under my nose and take a few deep breaths. I skipped all of my afternoon coffee and sugar fixes that day, and I was hooked.

When finding the right essential oils for you, it’s really important to let go of your assumptions – and, you can only do that by smelling them in person, which is why I don’t recommend just ordering a few online based on what you think you like. Any natural food or wellness store will have a display out for you to smell test. Doing in-person research also means you’re likely going to find good, organic brands. There’s a lot of synthetic junk out there (For the record, I prefer Doterra and Aura Cacia, but those are just personal preferences).

Mood-Boosting Essential Oils

There are a few different groups of oils that I find especially helpful to boost my mood and my mental state. During the day, when I’m feeling down, I always go for citrus: lemon, sweet orange, grapefruit. These are uplifting, energizing mood-boosters that will instantly make you feel happy. Think about how pleasant a lemon-scented hand soap can be, or the scent of a freshly juiced orange.

The catch with citrus oils is that they’re photosensitive, which means if you put them directly on your skin and then are exposed to sunlight, you can get a chemical burn. Because of this, I prefer to smell them right out of the bottle: open, inhale citrusy joy, exhale sadness, repeat. If you’re more herbal than citrusy, bergamot, rosemary and peppermint have similar happy-making properties. Those are great for a diffuser, especially if you need to concentrate on a project, and especially with a citrus mixer. I love sweet orange and bergamot together.

When I need help with anxiety, I need calm, and that’s when it’s time for lavender and sage, which both have strong anti-anxiety properties. I know, lavender is totally overdone, but it’s overdone for a reason: it works!

Diffuse the two, together or separately; smell them from the bottle; mix them with a carrier oil like olive or coconut and apply them straight to your skin. Anything works with these gentle oils. The general rule is one tablespoon of carrier oil to a few drops of essential oil, and then put them behind your ears, on the back of your neck, your wrists, the bottom of your feet. (But remember, not all oils are safe for topical application, so check first.) I especially love this combination for when I’m feeling really bad at night, and I know I’m going to wake up in the middle of the night with a panic attack or have terrible dreams. Lavender and sage have saved me more than once.

Learning More

A lot of what’s on the internet about essential oils is delivered by the companies selling them – which is not to say they’re not credible, but just remember what you’re reading and from whom. A really great primer is Just the Essentials by Adina Grigore, which breaks down the oils that are more affordable and how to use them in your daily life in everything from household cleaner to skincare.

I’m not fixed. But what I’ve been able to do on my wellness journey is let go of the idea of feeling “fixed.” Every day is different: some, I feel terrible; but some, I feel genuinely good. I’m still getting used to trusting the good feelings. On the days that don’t feel good, I’ve got my little emergency kit of essential oils and the knowledge that, at least for a few minutes, I can help myself feel better.


Julie Tremaine is a freelance writer who’s passionate about travel, food and natural wellness. A New Englander who’s living on the West Coast, Julie will road trip anywhere, as long as she ends up back at the beach. Her work has appeared in Grok Nation, Providence Monthly, The Improper Bostonian, The Village Voice and more. Read about her adventures on her website, Travel. Sip. Repeat. Follow her on Twitter and IG: @JulieTremaine

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