Everyone experiences stress sometimes—it’s our bodies’ natural reaction to threats. However, some people’s stress levels become chronic, meaning they live in constant fight-or-flight mode, increasing adrenaline and cortisol levels in their bodies.
According to the Mayo Clinic, stress can lead to fatigue, headache, anxiety and depression, sleep problems, heart disease and other problems.
These negative effects are especially noticeable when stress is chronic or happens often. The good news is that stress can be relieved by using a variety of techniques, and one popular way to battle the draining culprit is by using essential oils.
What Are Essential Oils, and Do They Reduce Stress?
Essential oils are super-concentrated volatile chemicals extracted from plants. They lend plants their unique scents and flavors while offering qualities to keep plants safe from predators. For thousands of years, people have been harnessing the powers of plants to treat common ailments—one of them being stress.
Studies suggest that the use of essential oils through aromatherapy may alleviate stress. Aromatherapy involves the inhalation of essential oil vapors through sniffing or diffusion, topical application to the skin or as an addition to baths.
Essential oils should always be diluted in a carrier oil, like almond, coconut or olive oil, rather than being used in their concentrated forms. They can be irritating or harmful to the body in their concentrated form.
Essential oils shouldn’t be used as a substitute for clinical care with your physician, who you should also check with before beginning use.
7 Best Essential Oils for Stress
Here’s a rundown on some of the most popular essential oils used for stress. This list is not all-inclusive, as many more essential oils are also recommended for stress relief.
1. Lavender Essential Oil
There are more than 40 species lavender (lavandula), which is native to areas near the Mediterranean sea, locations in southern Europe and even Africa. It’s been used by humans since ancient times to treat a variety of ailments, such as headaches, sleep problems, stress and wound care.
Some of today’s studies also back up lavender as a stress-relieving plant. A 2013 study on lavender and its effects on the nervous system suggested that lavender works on GABA receptors in the nervous system to combat stress.
Other human studies have suggested that lavender elevates moods, too. Lavender’s stress relief properties are thought to come from linalool, one of the main chemicals present in the plant.
Lavender essential oil can be taken orally, applied by skin or inhaled. But how safe is it? The 2013 study found that short-term therapy with lavender is relatively safe.
However, clinical studies in humans are limited and often fall short when it comes to proving the safety of lavender. It’s been found to cause skin irritation and allergic reactions.
Taking lavender orally is hard to quantify, so it’s recommended to avoid this method. Lavender should always be diluted because of its irritant properties.
2. Lemon Essential Oil
Commonly used in aromatherapy, lemon essential oil is extracted from the peels of lemon (Citrus limonum) through a cold-pressing process. It’s used for stress, depression, fatigue and insomnia, acne and pain relief among other health issues.
Lemon essential oil has anecdotally been found to enhance mood, especially when inhaled. Some of the chemicals within the oil, such as D-limonene and L-limonene, give lemon its signature scent and are thought to aid in stress-relief.
This is an oil which is best used in an inhalable format due to safety concerns. It shouldn’t be applied to the skin because it’s too hard to measure and amount that would reach toxicity. For this reason, it also shouldn’t be taken orally.
3. Orange Essential Oil
Another essential oil hailing from the citrus family, orange essential oil is derived from the sweet orange (Citrus sinensis) peel. It’s often used as a food and beverage additive and added to items such as soaps and lotions.
Like lemon essential oil, orange essential oil is also extracted from the peels of the fruit through cold compression. The most common chemical components found in this oil are alpha-pinene, citronellol, geraniol, limonene and neral. These are the components thought to induce health benefits with orange essential oil use.
Many people believe orange essential oil has stress-relieving and relaxing properties as well as other healing benefits. Research on orange essential oil’s role in stress relief, however, is very limited.
A 2015 study published in the Iranian Journal of Nursing and Midwifery Research found that orange essential oil reduced stress and anxiety levels of women in labor.
4. Ylang Ylang Essential Oil
Native to Madagascar, the Philippines and Indonesia, the ylang ylang (Cananga odorata) plant produces essential oil. Like lavender, this plant is high in the chemical linalool, which is thought to offer stress-relieving properties.
Recent studies on ylang ylang’s stress-relief qualities are sparse, and many of them measure its benefits when combined with other essential oils, not when used alone.
A study in Phytotherapy Research found that ylang ylang seemed to slow heartbeat and breathing speed in test subjects when applied topically to the skin. The subjects also reported a feeling of calmness and relaxation after receiving treatment with ylang ylang.
This essential oil is often absorbed through the skin or inhaled in aromatherapy. It can be added to baths, too.
5. Cedarwood Essential Oil
Derived from Cedar tree bark, leaves or wood, this essential oil has some evidence backing it’s use as a stress-relieving essential oil. Various distillation methods and cold pressing extraction methods are used to collect the essential oil.
A study was performed in 2018 by Chinese researchers, which found that one chemical present in cedarwood oil, called cedrol, showed sedative, stress-relieving potential effects in mice.
Generally, cedarwood essential oil is diffused in the air, used in lotions and baths or inhaled from a cloth. Some people use cedarwood essential oil as a cologne by applying it topically.
Cedarwood essential oil is viewed as a generally safe aromatherapy essential oil, when used correctly. Like other essential oils, it’s difficult to measure toxicity and dosage, so this one shouldn’t be consumed orally.
6. Lemongrass Essential Oil
Named for its citrus scent, lemongrass essential oil comes from a grassy, tropical plant found on islands in Southeast Asia.
Traditionally, lemongrass (Cymbopogon citratus) has been used as a flavor in cooking and used to treat digestive problems and high blood pressure. Other benefits of lemongrass essential oil are its antifungal, antimicrobial and antioxidant properties.
The main chemical components thought to aid with health issues are citral and limonene. It’s believed by some that chemical components in lemongrass essential oil interact with the limbic system of the brain, which then affects the body’s nervous system.
The scent of cedarwood can be inhaled, or the oil can be diluted and used topically, such as in massage. These are both beneficial ways to use lemongrass essential oil to relieve stress. A 2015 study in Thailand concluded that when used during massage, it’s been found to lower blood pressure and reduce stress levels.
7. Clary Sage
The clary sage (Salvia sclarea) plant is native to the Mediterranean area and notable for its beautiful delicate purple flowers. Essential oil may be collected from many different parts of the plant, such as its leaves, flowers, stems and seeds.
It was used traditionally in Mediterranean cooking, but it’s also used widely for its supposed medicinal benefits. Clary sage could potentially hold antidepressant, anti-inflammatory and digestive effects, among others. It’s also been attributed to stress relief.
A 2019 study published in The Journal of Alternative and Complimentary Medicine found that patients who inhaled clary sage essential oil before a stressful procedure showed reductions in blood pressure and breathing rates. This suggests that their stress levels lowered due to clary sage essential oil.
Clary sage essential oil can be added to baths, applied topically to the skin (usually to relieve inflammation) or breathed. It’s also safe to use in the mouth via tincture or food. Research hasn’t found many confirmed side effects from using clary sage oil, and most reports them are anecdotal.
Choose the Best Essential Oil for Your Stress
With nearly 100 popular essential oils floating around out there, it can feel complicated to choose the right one. There are many more essential oils that are used to relieve stress, and many aromatherapy enthusiasts believe the combination of multiple oils produces unique effects.
Because essential oils aren’t regulated by the FDA, it’s important to research the company from which you purchase them. Most reputable companies will provide the results of third-party testing, which verifies the content and cleanliness of their products. Doing your research is the only way to ensure the product you receive is pure and safe.
Aromatherapy when using essential oils works best when paired with other stress-relief methods, such as exercise, therapy and meditation. It’s often helpful to use a holistic approach to solving your stress problems. The more methods you use to work out stress, the easier it will be to leave it behind.