top of page

The Psychology of Essential Oils

I’m sure you have heard of them by now: essential oils. Scented oils that are basically guaranteed to help with things like anxiety, stress, depression, balance, even arthritis, by putting oils in a diffuser or rolling them right on your body. Ever since essential oils started to become popular in the recent years, I was skeptical. My initial response, before even trying them, was that this must be a placebo effect: people think and believe they work, and so they do (ah, the power of the mind).

However, the more I heard people swearing by them, the more tempted I was to try them out myself (ah, the power of persuasion).

My Experience

My thoughts going in: excited, but skeptical.

I work with another Ph.D. student who has been using essential oils for years. I had asked her for recommendations for concentration and attention, with my plan being to use them at work and my home office. She suggested a citrus bliss blend and peppermint. I walked into work on Tuesday morning and the oils (from doTERRA) I ordered were sitting at my desk. I was totally ready to jump in! Conscious of those around me, I asked her if I could use one of them now without bothering my nearby colleagues. She recommended putting a drop of peppermint on the back of neck.

Immediate reaction: I smell like peppermint bon-bon ice cream; everyone, come see how good I smell!

1 hour later: Feeling energized and focused.

5 hours later: Is that a tension headache I feel coming on?

1 hour later: Nope, false alarm.

End of the day: Well, that was a productive day.

A few days later, it was time for a study session. My weekend study sessions are usually 5-6 hours, with a mid-time break, usually for snacks (guilty). I decided to use some Citrus Blend oil (which contains orange, lemon, grapefruit, mandarin, bergamot, tangerine, clementine, and vanilla) to get me going.

Immediate reaction: I don’t even like oranges and this is waking me up.

2 hours later: Snack break? I don’t need a snack break. At this point, I am feeling really good about my work and progress on my assessment.

2 hours later: Ok, maybe I need a quick snack break. A few strawberries later, I was right back to work.

1 hour later: Wow, I finished a lot of work today. Self-high five! I felt productive, successful, and not terribly exhausted like I usually am after half a day of straight research and paper writing.

Now, were these reactions due to the oil, a placebo effect, or just my natural self? I don’t know. Let’s look at some more scientific findings to these questions.

The Research

We know that senses impact our brain functioning and nervous systems, especially scent. There are hundreds of thousands of published research articles on the topic of essential oils and various topics from headaches and pain, to bowl issues and STD’s. In general, I found some solid methodological research that shows essential oils work just this way, and for a variety of functions. Here are just a fraction of examples:

  • Reduce Mental fatigue (peppermint, basil, and helichrysum)

  • Reduce Anxiety (lemongrass)

  • Reduce Situational tensionor stress (lemongrass)

  • Increase attention and concentration (peppermint, rosemary, and cinnamon)

  • Increase visual awareness and alertness (lemon,peppermint,rosemary, grapefruit, black pepper, and basil)

  • Reduce nicotine cravings in those who regularly use nicotine (black pepper and/or angelica)

  • Better quality of sleep and feeling refreshed when waking (lavender)

  • Improve neck pain (marjoram, black pepper, lavender, and peppermint)

  • And here is a really interesting one: We know that caring for a loved one when they are ill can be stressful.One study in a trauma ICU in Texas, found that family members who were anxious about helping an ill family member, actually felt better when they helped massage their hands with essential oils.Something that can help both the ill and the caregiver is a big deal!

The studies that reported the above results were pretty sound in my experience, however, they also all reported that further research and studies are needed to know the true effect of essential oils.

Interview with a Pro

I have only just started to get to know my wonderful colleague, Savana, over the last year. She is the one who helped me find these oils. In a nutshell, I would describe her as positive, open, and a catalyst for change and discussion. She has always been open and honest in her experiences and feelings – which anyone who studies psychology can appreciate! She just recently began her own journey towards a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology, so now we have even more in common. We had a wonderful lunch where we exchanged thoughts and ideas. Here is just a brief summary of our conversations:

Me: So, how did you get started with essential oils?

Savana: Through my chiropractor, but how I ended up there was a different story. I was going through a really hard time personally and professionally, I didn’t know what to do or where to go. One day, my sister recommended that I visit her chiropractor. I was obviously hesitant because it wasn’t my back that was causing me any trouble, but she explained that the office did a lot of holistic treatments, and it might be worth looking into. I have always been into alternative and holistic approaches so I decided to check it out. I had a great experience and started looking into other services like acupuncture, etcetera, and found essential oils! I was hooked right away! After buying multiple, the clinic’s receptionist suggested I start my own account with doTERRA so I can get whole sale prices and help others as well. So here I am!

Me: Awesome, it certainly seems to be helping me so far! I’m already looking forward to my diffuser I just ordered. So what do you get out of using essential oils?

Savana: Honestly, it’s just another tool in my tool box. I have always struggled with some kind of anxiety. I have a lot of other tools I use, and this is just another one a really enjoy! I get that essential oils are kind of a “thing” right now, but they have been used for hundreds of thousands of years. Not only do I see it as a holistic tool, but what a cool way to connect with the earth and our resources. These are pure oils from resources and plants that generations have used. Not just that, but they are sourced across the world, and the money goes straight back to those communities, which I also love!

Me: Absolutely! There are a lot of advantages to not just us who use them, but others as well. That’s so awesome to hear.

Also, check out Savana on Instagram here.

Real Life Takeaway

If you’re open to it, try it! Another tool in your toolbox can’t hurt.

My latest update: after raving to my dad about how productive my study sessions have been, he wants to try essential oils well.


Cordell, B., & Buckle, J. (2013). The effects of aromatherapy on nicotine craving on a U.S. campus: A small comparison study. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 19(8), 79-713. doi:10.1089/acm.2012.0537

Goes, T. C., Ursulino, F. R. C., Almeida-Souza, T. H., Alves, P. B., & Teixeira-Silva, F. (2015). Effect of lemongrass aroma on experimental anxiety in humans. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 21(12), 766-773. doi:10.1089/acm.2015.0099

Lillehei, A. S., Halcón, L. L., Savik, K., & Reis, R. (2015). Effect of inhaled lavender and sleep hygiene on self-reported sleep issues: A randomized controlled trial. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 21(7), 43-438. doi:10.1089/acm.2014.0327

Ou, M., Lee, Y., Li, C., & Wu, S. (2014). The effectiveness of essential oils for patients with neck pain: A randomized controlled study. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 20(10), 771-779. doi:10.1089/acm.2013.0453

Prichard, C., & Newcomb, P. (2015). Benefit to family members of delivering hand massage with essential oils to critically ill patients. American Journal of Critical Care : An Official Publication, American Association of Critical-Care Nurses, 24(5), 446-449. doi:10.4037/ajcc2015767

Schneider, R. (2016). Direct application of specially formulated scent compositions (AromaStick®) prolongs attention and enhances visual scanning speed. Applied Cognitive Psychology, 30(4), 650-654. doi:10.1002/acp.3237

Varney, E., & Buckle, J. (2013). Effect of inhaled essential oils on mental exhaustion and moderate burnout: A small pilot study. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 19(1), 69-71. doi:10.1089/acm.2012.0089

bottom of page