Essential Oils for Grief: Do They Work?

Can you use essential oils for grief? Grief is often described as a feeling of deep sorrow, especially when related to the death of a loved one. It is also often an emotional roller coaster. During the initial stages of grief, you may experience shock, pain, anger, and depression.

The use of essential oils may help with some of the emotions that come with grief. The aromas from oils can stimulate receptor cells in your nasal passages, which then send signals to the areas of your brain responsible for memory, behaviour, and emotion.

In the following article, we take a closer look at essential oils and their effectiveness in dealing with the stages of grief.

What Are Essential Oils?

Essential oils are compounds extracted from plants. Manufacturers use several processes to extract compounds from the leaves, flowers, roots, seeds, bark, and twigs of specific plant species.

The compounds may be extracted using a mechanical process or distillation. The highly concentrated oils are used for a variety of applications, including enhancing the aroma or flavour of food, soaps, cosmetics, and perfumes.

Essential oils are also frequently used for aromatherapy, which is often considered a form of holistic medicine. Aromatherapists may recommend the use of essential oils combined with other activities, such as meditation, baths, or massages.

Commercially available essential oils are not regulated the same as pharmaceuticals. Manufacturers can sell oils that vary dramatically when it comes to potency, purity, and dosage. Some products may also include labelling that suggests that they are designed to relieve specific ailments, such as depression or anxiety.

Due to limited oversight, consumers may be led to believe that essential oils offer a ‘cure’ for grief. But the truth is that inhaling the aromas produced by the oils may positively influence your mood temporarily, but they are not necessarily a cure or fix for the painful emotions you can experience while going through the grieving process.

Sitting in a room without distractions as aromas permeate the room may help you relax, unwind, and temporarily let go of the stress. The effects are temporary, but the relief provided may reduce the severity of the symptoms related to grief.

What Are the Stages of Grief?

According to the Kübler-Ross model, grief consists of five stages:

  • Denial
  • Anger
  • Bargaining
  • Depression
  • Acceptance

During the denial stage, individuals tend to experience numbness and shock. You may fail to accept the loss, which may lead to anger. The anger often transitions to bargaining as individuals seek ways to turn back time.

As acceptance starts to sink in, feelings of depression may arise. This stage of grief is the one that often lasts the longest. However, everyone deals with grief differently. Some people may not experience every stage of grief while others may struggle to move past one of the stages.

How Can Essential Oils Help with Grief?

Research suggests that essential oils may help in the treatment of depression, which is one of several emotions that people tend to experience when dealing with grief. To understand how essential oils may help with grief, you should understand how your sense of smell (olfaction) works.

When you inhale an aroma, airborne substances stimulate receptor cells in the roof of the nasal cavities. The olfactory receptors carry signals to the olfactory bulb in the brain. The information is then sent to the amygdala, the orbitofrontal cortex, and the hippocampus.

Basically, you have a direct link between your sense of smell and the areas of the brain responsible for moderating your emotions and behaviours. Essential oils contain strong aromas that trigger the receptors in your nasal passages. By triggering specific memories or emotions, the aroma from an essential oil may help improve your mood and promote relaxation.

The use of aromatic plants for medicinal purposes is not new. Ancient Egyptians extracted oils to treat a variety of illnesses. However, modern aromatherapy started with the work of French chemist Rene-Maurice Gattefosse. Gattefosse doused his hand with lavender oil after burning it during an experiment. The wound healed quickly, which led the chemist to begin exploring the benefits of essential oils.

Best Essential Oils for Depression and Anger

Essential oils may not magically help you find acceptance or overcome denial. However, research does indicate that aromatherapy can improve your mood. The mood-enhancing benefits of essential oils are known to relax the mind, which may reduce feelings of anger and depression.

Essential oils are not meant as a substitute for other methods of dealing with grief. Many individuals still benefit from grief counselling and support groups. Yet, aromatherapy may offer a sense of relief and peace.
Studies on aromatherapy have mostly focused on the plants that people tend to associate with relaxation, including:

  • Lavender
  • Chamomile
  • Bergamot
  • Ginger
  • Rose

Anecdotal evidence also suggests that jasmine, frankincense, sandalwood, and grapefruit oils may help relieve symptoms of depression and stress. However, the following oils have more backing from existing research.

Five of the most commonly used essential oils for grief:

Lavender oil

Lavender is one of the most studied essential oils. The use of lavender is widely believed to help lower anxiety and stress, which is also backed by scientific studies. A study published in 2005 found that breathing the scent of lavender reduced anxiety and improved the mood of the majority of the 200 participants involved. Another study involving women suffering from postpartum syndrome experienced reduced depression after using lavender-based aromatherapy.

The lavender essential oil comes from the flowers of certain species of lavender plants. Most commercial lavender oils come from the Lavandula angustifolia plant, which is also often referred to as English lavender. It is a shrub that is native to the Mediterranean region and produces pinkish-purple flower spikes.

Lavender contains a high concentration of volatile oils. The oils produce a distinct, pleasant fragrance. The fragrance of lavender promotes relaxation, which may ease the symptoms of anxiety, depression, and stress.

Some individuals may suffer an allergic reaction to lavender, especially when applied topically or ingested. Lavender contains a small amount of linalool, which is potentially toxic. However, inhaling the aroma produced by lavender oils is generally considered safe.

Chamomile oil

Most people know that drinking chamomile tea is an age-old remedy for insomnia, agitation, and anxiety. The tea contains sedative properties and a pleasant aroma. It turns out that inhaling chamomile oil may help produce comparable results.

One study found that using chamomile extracts may reduce the symptoms of generalised anxiety disorder (GAD). Anxiety and depression are separate emotions but are often directly connected.

The oil is often used by applying it topically or adding it to a warm bath. The calming properties of chamomile oils may leave you feeling relaxed. Adding a few drops of chamomile oil to your bath before bed may help you get a good night’s rest if you have struggled to sleep due to your grief.

Chamomile oil comes from the daisy-like flowers of the chamomile plant. Most chamomile products are derived from Roman chamomile or German chamomile. Both varieties may help relieve depression and anxiety related to grief. However, research suggests that the German species may contain more of the active ingredient responsible for the benefits of chamomile oil.

Bergamot oil

Bergamot oil may reduce the severity of depression and anxiety when going through grief. One study found that bergamot essential oils helped significantly reduce anxiety and depression in patients waiting for outpatient surgery.

Bergamot has a citrus scent, as it is extracted from the peels of the bergamot orange. The citrus fruit is about the same size as an orange but has a yellow or green colour. It more closely resembles a large lime.
The bergamot orange is native to southern Italy and commercially produced throughout the Ivory Coast. It is mostly harvested to produce bergamot essential oils. About 100 bergamot oranges are needed to produce about three ounces of bergamot oil.

While citrus oils often produce an energising effect, bergamot oil is calming. Along with easing the symptoms of anxiety and depression, anecdotal evidence suggests that bergamot oil may help with insomnia and digestive distress.

As with chamomile oil, bergamot has a slightly sedative effect. Adding it to a bath or inhaling its aroma from a diffuser may help you get better rest instead of tossing and turning due to grief.

Ginger oil

Scientists have not thoroughly researched the effects of ginger on humans. However, several animal studies suggest that ginger oil may reduce the symptoms of depression, such as anxiety and stress. Another study found that ginger may also help protect the brain from stress.

Ginger oil is extracted from Zingiber officinale, which is commonly known as ginger. The herb is native to China and other parts of Asia. Ginger root has been used for thousands of years as a medicinal herb. Practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) frequently use ginger root to treat inflammation, nausea, upset stomachs, and fevers.

Inhaling ginger oil as part of an aromatherapy session may produce an energising effect. Aromatherapists often use ginger oil as a stimulant. However, the oil also contains compounds that are believed to have a soothing effect. People often report being able to concentrate better after inhaling ginger essential oils.

Ginger may also help reduce lethargy, anxiety, stress, fatigue, and sadness, which are all common issues for those dealing with grief. The emotional toll of grief may leave you feeling sluggish and fatigued. Adding ginger to your aromatherapy treatment may have an uplifting effect.

Rose oil

Rose oil may produce a calming effect when inhaled. Studies also indicate that the oil may slow your breathing rate and blood pressure, which can help increase your ability to cope with stress and anxiety.
Rose oil is typically extracted from the damask rose or the cabbage rose. The damask rose is native to Turkey and is now grown commercially in Turkey and Bulgaria. Cabbage rose was first cultivated in Europe.

Both plants are shrubs with bright, showy flowers. The oil comes from the flower petals of the plant and carries a strong floral aroma. Most people describe the scent of rose oil as slightly spicy and sweet.

As with many of the essential oils listed, rose oil has been used for centuries for its mood-boosting properties. It may help with depression, fatigue, and restlessness. It may be inhaled or used topically but should never be ingested.

How to Use Essential Oils for Aromatherapy

Using essential oils for medicinal purposes often requires topical application or inhalation. Applying oils topically involves massaging the oils into your skin or adding them to a bath.

The topical application of essential oils may bring increased risks, as some individuals experience allergic reactions to the compounds. The oils typically need to be diluted to reduce the potential risk of adverse reactions, such as skin irritation or burns.

Inhalation involves placing several drops of essential oils in a diffuser or steaming machine. Inhalation tends to offer a safer method for household use of essential oils. However, allergic reactions may still occur.

Whether you try applying essential oils topically or inhaling them, always start with a small amount of oil or consider diluting the oil to reduce its strength. Test your reaction using just one or two drops of oil.

Summary

The use of essential oils for grief may help with your grieving process. The aroma from the oils can trigger specific emotions and memories, leaving you in a calmer state. Studies have shown that lavender, chamomile, bergamot, ginger, and rose may reduce depression, stress, and anxiety.

Certain essential oils may help you relax and calm your mind, which can leave you in a better frame of mind for dealing with grief. However, the use of essential oils is not a replacement for counselling from a trained professional.

If you are struggling with grief, consider scheduling a grief counselling appointment. Working with a licensed professional can provide you with coping mechanisms and support to work through your grieving process.

A professional can help you focus on areas of your life where you find coping difficult. For example, visiting certain places or hearing a specific song may trigger memories that bring emotions flooding back. Counsellors and therapists provide strategies to help you cope so you can re-engage in daily activities and responsibilities while coming to accept your loss.

About the editor, Harshani Algiriya

About the editor, Harshani Algiriya

Harshani Algiriya, Masters in Counselling & Pyschosocial Support, is a senior counsellor at Counselling in Melbourne and with 15-years of experience as a mental health practitioner has treated clients who struggle with psychological and emotional trauma due to extraordinary stressful events in life.

Find out more about Harshani Algiriya

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