An Introduction to Aromatherapy & Self Care (or, Everything They Told You About Scent is Probably Wrong)

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Scent is one of our most powerful senses.

It can trigger unpleasant memories or physical symptoms, and it can calm and energize us when we need a boost.  That’s the basis of aromatherapy in self-care: we can each use our unique relationships with scents to improve our physical and psychological well-being.

A lot of people are turned off from aromatherapy because they think there are hard and fast rules about how scents ‘should’ make them feel.

I was one of them.

I spent years thinking aromatherapy was pointless because supposedly ‘calming’ scents always made me feel sick and grumpy. It turns out I’m allergic to lavender, which is commonly thought of as a calming scent. And – surprise! – traditionally “energizing” scents like citrus calm me down.

I didn’t start seeing the benefits of aromatherapy until I realized I didn’t need to learn aromatherapy rules from someone else. I just needed to pay attention to how my body and emotions reacted to different scents.

Now, I use scent as both a soothing and grounding tool. I’ve found scents that I associate with calm and happy memories; I know smelling them helps me relax physically and mentally. Other scents help me focus my brain and body during high-stress events.

For example: I have high-functioning PTSD from multiple life-threatening medical traumas, and there are certain hospital scents – the smell of bandage adhesive, the soap from the scrub-in station, the faint fragrance of iodine and commercial cleaners in the operating room -- that trigger full physical flashbacks and panic attacks.

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Having kids with medical special needs left me stuck between a rock and hard place: I was going to therapy and working on desensitization, but I needed a sensory tool to help me cope when I was near those scents. It needed to both cover them up and remind my senses that I was in the present, not laying on an operating table ten years ago while doctors fought to save my life.  Understanding how I personally react to different scents helped me find one that is, for me, the total opposite of a hospital smell. I carry bergamot oil with me every time I go to a hospital now. It isn’t the only tool that helps me manage my PTSD -- but it’s a powerful and versatile one.

If you want to use scent as a self care tool, here’s how to start :

  1. Recognize that your relationship with scent is unique. It’s affected by your personal history, culture, physiology, and even your diet.  The only thing that matters is how you actually feel when you smell a scent.
  2.  Each day, think about the places you’ll be, the people you’ll interact with, and how your body and emotions are doing.  If you know you’re going to be anxious about a presentation or meeting, choose a scent that you personally associate with being calm, brave, or safe. If you have anxiety and know you’re going to be somewhere that might trigger you, choose a grounding scent – one that is strong and distinct. Use it to remind your body and brain that you here and safe in the present, not in the past.
  3. Remember that you don’t have to limit yourself to essential oils or perfume – or even to an aromatherapy necklace!
  4. If you’re missing a loved one, get some of their favorite deodorant, lotion, or shampoo to smell. You can put some onto a felt pad and place it in your locket, or rub it onto a handkerchief or tissue to carry with you.  
  5. Stop and smell the flowers or produce at the grocery store. Stand in the bakery section, close your eyes, and breathe deep.
  6. Choose a dish soap with scent you enjoy to make that chore a tiny bit more bearable. 
  7. Cook something you know will fill your home with a lovely smell – cookies, garlic chicken, soup, or whatever says “comfort” to you. 
  8. Set a mindfulness bell or alarm on your phone. When it goes off, close your eyes and breath deeply a few times. Note what you smell and how it makes you feel.

Learning what works for you will add a truly powerful tool to your self care kit.

-Meredith Hutchison Hartley

This article originally appeared in Cultivate, Issue 1 (Fall 2017).



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