Essential Oils for Anxiety and Depression

Known for their soothing scents, essential oils have become a cornerstone of holistic healing. Whether used for a relaxing bath or massage therapy, can the aromatic qualities of essential oils provide relief for chronic conditions like anxiety and depression?

Despite the variety of medicines available, a significant proportion of people living with depression or anxiety do not reach full symptom relief. According to one study, more than half of individuals living with depression said that they used alternative therapies like aromatherapy in addition to antidepressants.

“Essential oils offer an effective home remedy for influencing emotional states, but should not be considered a substitute for medical treatments for anxiety and depression,” says Dr. Anisha Durve, doctor of oriental medicine and co-director of acupuncture at Osher Center for Integrative Health at the University of Miami.

With a 25% increase in depression and anxiety throughout the world during the COVID-19 crisis, according to the World Health Organization, it’s no wonder people are looking for alternative treatment options.

“During the pandemic, I have seen an increase in the number of people looking for more tools like essential oils to help them manage life on a daily basis,” says certified aromatherapist Sharon Falsetto, founder of Sedona Aromatics in Arizona and author of the book “Authentic Aromatherapy.”

[READ: What Not to Say to Someone With Depression.]

What Are Essential Oils?

Used since ancient times for spiritual and therapeutic purposes, essential oils are natural, scented liquids derived from the roots, leaves, seeds, blossoms, bark and stems of plants. By steaming or pressing plants, active ingredients are extracted to make fragrant oils. To make a single bottle of essential oil can often require several pounds of plants. Some oils are used to treat skin rashes, inflammation or infections, while others have calming and relaxing effects.

“The basic action of aromatherapy is that smell triggers receptors in the nose and the olfactory nerves communicate with the limbic system in the brain that governs emotions,” Durve says. “Essential oils alter the body’s neurochemistry and thus have widespread benefits for body and mind.”

There are several ways to use essential oils. The quickest way in which aroma reaches the brain is through inhalation. This can be done through a room diffuser or portable inhaler like a Vicks inhaler.

Diluted forms of essential oils can also be absorbed through the skin and applied directly through a roll-on applicator or lotion. Massage therapy is also another way to use essential oils. “The combination of essential oil blend through a carrier oil, like coconut oil, and massaging the skin can help someone feel calmer, relaxed and cared for,” explains Falsetto, chief editor of “Aromatherapy Journal” and an executive board member of the National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy.

[READ: A Beginner’s Guide to Meditation]

Do Essential Oils Work?

Within the past decade, there’s been a resurgence in new clinical studies examining the benefits of essential oils for multiple ailments. However, current research is limited by small-scale studies and lack of comparators or placebo-controlled study designs. “There continues to be strong interest in researching the effects of essential oils, and growing interest among health systems to incorporate them into medical care,” says Nancy Rodgers, an instructor of medicine for integrative medicine at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota.

When evaluating the effectiveness of essential oils, research is promising but the results are mixed, with some showing an improvement and other studies showing no significant benefits. Highlights of key research studies include:

— A review article of more than 12 studies that examined aromatherapy and massage therapy in patients with depressive symptoms, including pregnant women, postpartum women, healthy participants and those diagnosed with cancer. Of the dozen studies, seven of them showed an improvement in symptoms. Researchers recommended that people be exposed to more sessions with inhalation aromatherapy to maximize benefits.

— One British study separated 32 individuals with anxiety and depression into two groups — one group received massages with aromatherapy using essential oils diluted with carrier oil compared with a second group who received massages using carrier oil alone. Individuals in both groups were examined during regular sessions with the study team and completed an anxiety-depression questionnaire. After three months of therapy, the researchers found a significant difference in results from the responses of study participants receiving massages with essential oils.

— A 2020 research paper looked at 25 studies evaluating the use of aromatherapy in those with a varying anxiety producing situations. The overall results showed that inhalation and massage aromatherapy resulted in a significant improvement in reducing anxiety levels no matter the reason for anxiety.

[READ: 6 Surprising Signs You May Have Anxiety.]

The Best Essential Oils for Anxiety and Depression

There are dozens of essential oils, all with different fragrances and chemical makeups. Which essential oils are best depends on what symptoms you’re looking to ease or fragrances you prefer. By far, lavender is the most commonly used and studied essential oil for combatting the effects of depression and anxiety. At the Mayo Clinic, lavender is one of the essential oils offered to patients who seek treatment for depressive symptoms.

Some of the more common essential oils for anxiety and depression include:

Bergamot: Derived from the skin of this citrus fruit, bergamot has calming and relaxing effects, and alleviates moodiness and helps reduce sleeplessness.

Chamomile: A favorite among tea drinkers, chamomile is one of the most commonly used medicinal herbs to relieve stress and battle depression and anxiety because of its soothing scents.

Clary sage: Once considered a sacred plant and used for magical potions, this essential oil has a nutty and herb-like scent and is often used to combat depression.

Frankincense: The earthy smell of frankincense comes from trees in the Arabian Peninsula and northeastern Africa. This essential oil helps people when meditating and has calming effects in stressful situations.

Lavender: The mother of all essential oils, lavender is a popular floral scent found in soaps, lotions, perfumes and essential oils. Known for easing anxiety, lavender has also been shown to lower stress, promote relaxation and induce a calming effect for a good night’s sleep. Lavender works well for nearly all people, including adults and children.

Lemon: Often used in household cleaning products, the citrusy smell of lemon can help soothe social anxiety and has general mood-boosting qualities.

Neroli: The fragrance of neroli oil, which comes from the flower of bitter oranges, helps reduce stress and may stabilize mood.

Rose: Not only is the rose the national flower of the United States, rose oil — especially when derived from Rosa centifoliaL. and Rosa damascena Mill — is known for promoting relaxation, inducing calmness and improving sleep.

Sandalwood: Extracted from evergreen trees native to India and Indonesia, sandalwood is commonly used in meditation to bring individuals a sense of calm and harmony.

Sweet marjoram: Known for relieving fatigue and depression, sweet marjoram has a calming and soothing effect on the mind.

Ylang ylang: This yellow star-shaped flower that grows in tropical climates is used for its calming effects and mood-boosting qualities, and even to release negative feelings.

Safe Use of Essential Oils

In most cases, essential oils are safe to use with low risk of harm when used properly. “There is still a lot of research to be reviewed on the use of essential oils for depression and anxiety,” Rodgers says. “Essential oils should be used responsibly with correct knowledge of the oil and its intended use.”

With the use of any herbal medicines, there are certain cautions to maintain safe use. Experts recommend following these tips:

Use essential oil diffusers safely. Always diffuse essential oils in well-ventilated areas and avoid diffusing for several hours. It’s best to diffuse for 30 to 60 minutes and take a 30-minute break

Never ingest oils. Essential oils are meant to be inhaled, but never ingested unless they come in capsule form, which are only available outside of the United States.

Watch for reactions. Essential oils should never be applied directly to the skin without being diluted with a carrier oil like coconut or olive oil. Dilute essential oils with 1 ounce of carrier oil to every three to six drops of essential oil. Some people may develop a skin reaction or irritation to certain essential oils, particularly if the individual suffers from atopic dermatitis. Reach out to your doctor if you develop an itchy rash or hives after using essential oils.

Read the label. Not all essential oils are created equal so it’s important to check the ingredients and understand where it came from. The bottle should say “100% essential oil.” If the bottle says “therapeutic grade” that doesn’t necessarily mean top quality — it could mean it’s half essential oil and half synthetic oil.

Essential oils aren’t safe for use in all groups. These populations should also exercise extra precautions:

Pediatric use. Because infants and children are more sensitive to all medicines, the same goes for essential oils. Children may react to certain types of aromatherapy that are deemed safe for adults, but not diluted enough for children.

Pregnancy. Women who are pregnant should not use essential oils unless under the supervision of a doctor or trained aromatherapist.

More from U.S. News

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Essential Oils for Anxiety and Depression originally appeared on

Update 07/25/22: This story was published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.

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