Aromatherapy and Emotions

by Joie Power, PhD, Guest Editor of Aromatherapy on

Aromas effect mood and evoke memories. If the smell of baking cookies, a smoky campfire, or a lover’s favorite perfume have ever transported you back in time, calling up long-forgotten events and feelings, then you have experienced the powerful association between aromas, emotions, and memories.

Long before modern scientists began the study of the physiological processes that underlie this association, human beings were exploring and utilizing the power of fragrant substances in their daily lives. Many ancient cultures, including those of India, China, and Persia have left records that document their use of fragrance for its effect on mental states and feelings. The Egyptians, in particular, made extensive use of incense and fragrant oils in their religious rituals.

Kyphi, an incense containing at least 16 herbs and other fragrant plants such as Juniper, Cinnamon, and Myrrh, was used by Egyptian priests to facilitate the attainment of ecstatic states during religious rites. Virtually every culture has reported aphrodisiacal properties for various fragrances. In the harems, Sandalwood and Rose were prized for enhancing sexual desire and the essential oils of Vetiver, Patchouli, Ylang Ylang, Jasmine, Ginger, and Clary Sage have all been used for this purpose. Many ancient peoples, such as the Romans, became very skilled at utilizing certain fragrant plants for evoking specific mental states. Aromatherapy lore reports highly selective effects for specific essential oils; for example, Frankincense and Cypress have been said to aid in dispelling grief, while Ylang Ylang and Juniper are claimed to aid in coping with guilt.

Today, we continue to be aware of the impact of aromas on moods and other aspects of our states of mind, such as alertness, sexual drive, and aggressiveness. Retailers have even attempted to “cash in” on our innate responsiveness to scents by impregnating the air in their stores with fragrances which they believe will stimulate shoppers to make purchases. Their efforts often go awry, however, because those attempting to utilize aromas in this way frequently fail to distinguish between the beneficial effects of natural plant aromas and the deleterious effects of synthetic fragrances, which cause headaches and other unpleasant symptoms in many people.

Modern research supports our intuitive recognition of the impact of aromas on mood and other mental states. Different essential oils have been shown to produce consistently different brain wave patterns on EEG, even when experimental subjects have reported little perceived difference between the odors and have not noticed changes in mood or alertness. Findings such as these suggest that aromas can have subliminal, or unconscious, effects on our mental states and it is precisely this subliminal effect that aromatherapists hope to capitalize upon when they suggest diffusing specific essential oils into environments where people are likely to feel anxious or agitated. In her book, The Fragrant Mind, Valerie Ann Worwood, a well known aromatherapist, suggests diffusing essential oils such as Lavender in prisons and holding cells to help keep inmates calm and less aggressive. She suggests that in addition to having specific relaxing and calming effects, some essential oils may help to bring out the more positive aspects of peoples’ personalities and attitudes.

Aromas may also be utilized in a conscious, intentional way to effect mood and mental states. Citrus oils, for example, are described by aromatherapists as being uplifting, gently stimulating, and conducive to alertness and concentration, while the essential oils of Lavender, Clary Sage, and Roman Chamomile are described as relaxing and soothing. With this knowledge, you might choose to diffuse a small amount ( 3 or 4 drops) of Grapefruit oil in your work space in order to support your efforts on an important project, or, you might similarly use essential oil of Clary Sage when you want to relax and feel comforted after a stressful event.

Any odor may acquire the ability to elicit a memory of a specific event, and the feelings associated with that event, if the odor was present during the person’s original experience. This can have positive or negative consequences. One of my former aromatherapy instructors, Jane Buckle, author of the book Clinical Aromatherapy in Nursing (Arnold Press, London), reports that because essential oil of Lavender was used as a disinfectant in morgues and on injury wards in England during WWII, the smell of this oil can elicit very painful memories and feelings of grief in some British people. This example illustrates very well why a person’s individual experience with an aroma must be considered before one tries to utilize it for beneficial purposes. However, by taking individual experience into account, very effective use can be made of the strong associations that are formed between memories and aromas. Students can utilize this association in a very practical way by diffusing a small amount of any personally pleasing, uplifting essential oil into the room while they study and then later inhaling a little bit of the same aroma from a bottle while taking their test. There is a good chance that recall will be stimulated, at least to some extent, by inhaling the same aroma that was used while studying. Don’t assume that you can study less, however!

The bond between odor and memory also provides a potential tool in psychotherapeutic settings, where practitioners may be able to facilitate recall of events by presenting aromas that were linked with those events. In addition, therapists may utilize classical conditioning techniques to “pair” specific odors with desirable mental states (such as “relaxation”) so that the odor may later be used to elicit the state. It is even possible that some complex physiological reactions could be classically conditioned by pairing specific odors with the administration of certain drugs by a physician.

There are many ways to enjoy the subtle effects of aromas at home. First, use only aromatic substances that are completely natural, as synthetic fragrances do not have the beneficial actions of natural ones and can cause headaches, palpitations, and other unpleasant symptoms. Consider your personal experiences and try to determine from these experiences which odors may have beneficial associations and which may have been associated with distressing events. For personal use at home, stick with aromas that have pleasing associations and effects. Fresh or dried herbs, flowers, or even some foods (such as apple pie) may be placed about the home so that their scents disperse into the air. In the spring and summer, a trip to the garden can provide a magical aromatic experience that is enhanced by the sight and feel of the plants and the sounds of chirping birds, rustling foliage and flowing water. Weeding and working for thirty minutes in a patch of basil, lavender, mint, or other aromatic plant is a wonderful way to relax and lift the spirits. Or, plant something fragrant next to a window. Plants that release their fragrance at night, such as nicotiana, are wonderful planted outside a bedroom window.

Essential oils offer perhaps the most convenient and powerful way to experience the beneficial effects of aromas. Essential oils are highly concentrated, fragrant plant extracts that are obtained by distillation or cold pressing of plant material. Essential oils can be utilized by diffusing them into the air, applying them diluted in a massage oil, or by adding a few drops to a warm bath. Because essential oils are so concentrated, only a very small amount is needed – usually just one to four drops depending on the method of use. The practice of using essential oils, and other aromatic plant substances, is known as Aromatherapy. Many good reference books on Aromatherapy and essential oils are now available and should be consulted for guidelines on proper use.

This information is provided for educational interest and is not intended to diagnose, treat, or cure any disease.
Copyright © 2010 Joie Power, Ph.D. / The Aromatherapy School  |  All Rights Reserved
This article, “Aromatherapy and Emotions” was originally published in: World Health News – Vol. 2, No. 2, Spring 1998, Atlanta, GA.

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Sheri L.
Sheri l.3 years ago

thank you I love aromatherapy!!

Denise L.
Denise L.4 years ago

I do an inhalation most mornings while my morning tea is steeping

When I was living with a relative who was going through addiction and mental health issues I would always have healing essential oils throughout the house. They got better and I do believe essential oils played a role in it

Nicole G.
Nicole Gorman4 years ago

Love this! I usually have a lemon in my office which I smell when I get stressed out or hit the afternoon slump. It really works!

Diane S.
Diane S.4 years ago

Excellent article, I swear by the power of essentials oils !

Ida J.
Ida J.4 years ago


Tim Dillingham
Tim Dillingham4 years ago

If you have kids in school, make sure the teacher isn't using Glade Plug Ins, any Scentsy products, or other fake smelly things. Most of the schools in our district got new carpet, paint, and other floor coverings this summer. There was also some asbestos removal. Some of this is probably in the vents. So if your kid is coming home with a sore throat, is tired, or hyped up, you can probably be sure it is from the chemical soup. Speaking of soup, guess what's in their lunches - nothing too nutritious I'll bet.

irene fernandez
irene Fernandez4 years ago


sandra m.
Past Member 4 years ago


Prochi T.
Prochi T.4 years ago

Will try anything for my permanent back pain.would love to know more. thank you

Julie Humphrey
Julie H.4 years ago

I don't think I could get out of bed without citrus oils in my morning shower. I plug up the tub so it won't drain, add 3 to 4 drops each of lemon, orange, and grapefruit oils and as soon as the hot water starts to run the whole room smells heavenly and I start to wake up.