Staring at a blank Word document on deadline, my neck and shoulders tense. OK, relax. Focus. You've got this. I'm always looking for little ways to relax. I wonder, Would aromatherapy help? The premise: Scent triggers an emotional reaction that sets off a positive physiological response—relaxing muscles, slowing a racing heart—that can calm, energize, or improve focus.
"Odors are a potent link to our emotional memory, and our emotions can affect our physiology as profoundly as medication can," explains Pamela Dalton, Ph.D., a psychologist who works at the Monell Chemical Senses Center. "The key is finding out which scents you connect to."
That's what I set out to do at the New York Institute of Aromatherapy, where I meet with aromatherapist and NYIOA founder, Amy Galper, surrounded by shelves lined with glass jars full of bright yellow chamomile buds, purple lavender stems, and golden turmeric powder.
"Through aromatherapy, we help people be more aware of the mind-body connection and listen to what their bodies are telling them," Amy says.
Well, I don't need much help in that area. If anything, my body might be too quick to send up alarm signals. After I told Amy how I was feeling—physically (intermittent shoulder and neck pain) and emotionally (pretty good, sometimes stressed)—and I took a test-whiff of several essential oils, Amy mixed a concoction of three: lavender (anti-inflammatory, muscle relaxing), sandalwood (soothing), and atlas cedarwood (also calming).
"This is meant to ground and center you so you can focus and be productive," Amy says while giving me a bottle with a roller-ball applicator. Smells lovely! But will it work?
First test: After hurrying back to the office for a meeting, I need to finish editing a story. At my computer, I roll the oil onto my wrists and inhale. I feel my shoulders drop. I open the file and resist the temptation to check e-mail. Score one for aromatherapy. As the week goes on, I reach for my essential-oil dispenser on the crowded subway, on hold with cable customer service, after a phone call with my mom (love you, Mom!). Whether the scent was calming me or stopping to breathe was giving me a time-out, aromatherapy was working. Next time my body calls in a panic, I'm sending it to voicemail.
Common Essential Oils & Their Benefits
Lavender: This friendly herb helps eliminate nervous tension and relieve pain.
Pine & Rosemary: Both have antibacterial properties and help you energize and focus.
Chamomile: Extracted from chamomile flowers, the oil has a relaxing and calming effect.
Bergamot: Taken from the fruit's peel, this citrusy oil boosts your mood and energy.