Harmonious Self Care: Using Essential Oils in a Psychotherapy Setting


Throughout the 30+ years of my practice as a psychotherapist, I have always sought effective ways to empower my clients, helping them feel better and make the changes they want with the least amount of struggle or pain.

Essential oils are volatile liquids that are pressed and distilled from plants. Like our blood, volatile oils contain thousands of chemical constituents that a plant uses to fight infection, seal wounds, oxygenate and nourish cells, and destroy microbe and pathogen invaders.

According to ancient Egyptian and Chinese texts, physicians and priests were using essential oils more than three thousand years ago. And, according to Dr. David Stewart’s Healing Oils of the Bible, there are over a thousand references to aromatic oils in the Bible alone. A well-known example can be found in the story of the birth of Jesus and the three wise men who brought him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, three of the most valuable commodities in the ancient world.  The essential oils of frankincense and myrrh were considered the most powerful healing substances in the Middle East.

Dr. Gary Young, one of the foremost North American authorities on the production and use of therapeutic essential oils, explained at a 2001 conference that the most powerful link to the subconscious is through the sense of smell.  The comforting aroma of a favourite food can bring back memories of childhood or other moments when the smell was present, and it is easy to understand on a visceral, commonsense level the impact that a smell can have on our perceptions. Science likewise supports this observation of the connection between scents and emotions.


In order for any airborne molecule to stimulate the olfactory receptors inside the nose, the chemical must be matched to the precise receptor that fits its size and chemical structure.  Whether a fragrance is noticed consciously or not, it is accepted by the matching receptor like a key in a lock, and triggers electrochemical signals down neurons to the limbic system of the brain.

These neurons connect directly to the amygdala, the emotional memory centre and part of the limbic system. According to Candace Pert’s Molecules of Emotion, the limbic system in the mid-brain houses the emotions, with the amygdala acting as the storehouse of traumas and the densest concentration of neuropeptides (neurotransmitters that act in emotional signals). The amygdala receives incoming scent information before the higher brain centres, and activates the autonomic nervous system in response to either pleasant or traumatic memories before any information reaches the decision-making cortex.  This suggests that smell is the primary sense that activates and affects traumatic memories stored in the amygdala.

Essential oils are, by their nature, beautiful tools for working with the amygdala – the very name “volatile oil” means that, like any volatile chemical, they readily “flash off” to vapor at normal room temperatures, bringing the oil to a form that can be taken up by the olfactory receptors in the air we breathe.

Only therapeutic-grade, organic essential oils will achieve the desired results. Fillers or adulterants (including pesticides, solvents, and deformed molecules created accidentally during speedy extraction of essential oils) can create side effects or negate the inherent benefit of the pure oil.

Examples and Case Histories

I have found that when clients inhale and/or apply a particular essential oil or blend of essential oils in combination with Energy Psychology protocols and tools, trauma may be released and core beliefs changed.  Frequently, the length of therapy is shortened.

In one case, Jo-Anne, a fifty-year-old patient who attended a psychotherapy group for six months, continued to experience a pattern of extremely toxic self-talk. To resolve this problem, I suggested she apply an essential oil blend called ‘Hope’ (1) to the middle of her forehead and under her nose before each session. Using this strategy, Jo-Anne found that she felt happier and was able to release most of her negative thoughts.  Her self-critical thought patterns did not return with any severity. Jo-Anne left the group two months later, and she continues to feel positively about herself.

In another case, Jonas and Michelle were a couple in their thirties who chose therapy to bridge the distance that had developed between them.  They had been married for ten years and wanted to feel close again, but anger from both sides had created a communication breakdown.  Michelle was anxious and distracted – she seemed on the verge of panic as she complained about Jonas’s faults.  Jonas rejected her opinions and feelings on the grounds that she was being “hysterical.”  After forty-five minutes had elapsed without progress, I brought out the essential oils.

Michelle applied the oil blend known as ‘Grounding’ (2) to the back of her neck, while Jonas inhaled Lavender from cupped hands held over his nose.  Both immediately became more relaxed and the session concluded on a positive note, with Michelle more focused and able to discuss concrete issues.  Jonas was less angry and was able to be silent and listen.  Subsequently, they continued couples therapy with me for six months, quite successfully.  We used essential oils at every session.

As a third example, twenty-one-year-old Nora contacts me every month or so with what seems like a crisis to her, overwhelmed by her university studies, family, and social relationships.  I have used a combination of therapies with Nora, particularly energy psychology, the oil blends ‘Highest Potential’ (3) and ‘Believe’ (4), and ‘Vetiver’ – a single oil.  These essential oils have enabled her to shift her emotional crises quickly and effectively.  After the first few sessions, there were fewer blocks to get through and the distress with respect to earlier problems has not reoccurred. Nora tells me that she feels  more content and rarely feels as depressed as she was two years ago.

The preceding examples illustrate how the appropriate use of essential oils in a therapy session can synergistically accomplish more than oils or psychotherapy might independently.  These same two tools are also helpful for our self care, in avoiding vicarious trauma, compassion fatigue, and burnout.


(1) Hope is composed of the essential oils of Melissa, Juniper, Myrrh, and Spruce in Almond oil

(2) Grounding is a blend of Spruce, Fir, Ylang Ylang, Pine, Cedarwood, Angelica and Juniper

(3) Highest Potential contains Blue Cypress, Ylang Ylang, Cedarwood, Blue Tansy, White Fir, Lavender, Galbanum, Frankincense, Geranium, Sandalwood,  Spruce, Cinnamon, Rose, and Jasmine

(4) Believe contains Idaho Balsam Fir, Frankincense and Rosewood

*All blends created by Young Living Essential Oils

Mein, C.  (1998)  Releasing Emotional Patterns with Essential Oils.  Rancho Santa Fe, CA. Vision Ware Press

Pert, C. PhD. (1997)  Molecules of Emotion.  New York, N.Y. Simon & Schuster

Stewart, D. PhD. (2002) Healing Oils of the Bible.  Marble Hill, Missouri. Centre for Aromatherapy Research and Education

Young, D.G. N.D.  (Oct. 2001)  Presentation: Essential Oils Integrated Aromatic Conference, Level II.  Coeur D’Alene, Idaho.

Young, D.G. N.D.  (2003) Essential Oils Integrated Medical Guide.  U.S.A., Essential Science Publishing


Arlene Anisman is a Registered Psychotherapist in Toronto, practising for over 40 years. She has been combining essential oils in her practice for over 20 years. Arlene’s experience includes working in a hospital-based, sexual assault and domestic violence care centre, as well as providing conflict resolution/mediation processes for individuals, couples, families and agencies. Arlene has also trained as a Clinical Aromatherapist, a Diplomate in Comprehensive Energy Psychology, and is a certified EMDR therapist as well as a Certified Trainer and Practitioner in Advanced Energy Psychology. Arlene has taught at numerous conferences on treating trauma, sexual assault, and self-care combining Energy Psychology with essential oils. Contact Arlene at: (416) 766-8261 or arlene@ontn.ca. Visit her website for more info: www.arleneanisman.com .

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