Making sense of scents
The sense of smell can have a strong link to the emotions—just think of how the aroma of baking bread might elicit a memory of your grandmother, or the pungent smell of earth after rain may make you think of a bittersweet time gone by. Aromatherapy—the use of essential oils from plants to influence mood and health—draws on that premise.
These days, essential oils are ubiquitous in products such as soaps, beauty products, and candles, and in their concentrated form they can be powerful substances. For the purposes of aromatherapy, essential oils are typically put into diffusers to be inhaled, or mixed with carrier oils such as coconut oil, almond oil, olive oil, or massage oil and applied to the skin. Depending on the type of essential oil used, the effect might be relaxing or stimulating, and some oils are thought to help treat physical conditions as well.
Aromatherapy is generally considered to be a subtle, benign practice, but it seems that ‘all bets are off’ when it comes to using essential oils during the course of psychiatric drug withdrawal. Some people find that certain essential oils will indeed reliably calm and promote sleep, while other people experiment with the same oils and discover that they cause their withdrawal symptoms to flare. Still others have such acute scent sensitivity during withdrawal that it overrides even the possibility of exploring any kind of potential benefits from aromatherapy. In addition, some people in the withdrawal community have reported severe skin reactions to the application of certain essential oils. Perhaps of most concern, while some report that essential oils like lavender or jasmine have helped ease stress and anxiety and enhance sleep during psychiatric drug withdrawal, others caution that some research suggests certain essential oils can affect some of the same neurotransmitters or hormones that some psychiatric drugs affect.
Because there’s no way to know in advance how you’ll respond to essential oils, some people suggest avoiding them until you’re feeling stable and your nervous system has recovered. Those who do find them useful suggest researching them first and/or consulting with a professional aromatherapist, starting very slowly with small amounts, and waiting to see how an essential oil affects you before continuing its use.
If you’re considering experimenting on yourself, be aware that essential oils are not regulated in any way, so its generally advisable to scout out unadulterated products, buy from a trusted company, read labels, instructions and warnings carefully, look at reviews online, and listen carefully to your body. Also note that pure essential oils may be toxic if swallowed, and some can also be toxic to domestic animals even when simply diffused in the air.
Where can I find more information?
- The National Institutes of Health PubMed has two summary pages about essential oils and aromatherapy.
- The National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy