The Power of Scent: Aromatherapy and Psychotherapy

Woman on Balcony Watering PlantScents, Memories, and Emotions

The use of pleasant aromas to enhance well-being dates back thousands of years. Fragrant oils were ceremonially used in the Far East, as well as in ancient Egypt and Greece. Essential oils were extracted from herbs and flowers to create medicines and perfumes, to scent one’s home, and to anoint the ill and deceased.

Smell is considered to be the most poorly understood of our senses, yet most have experienced the powerful ability of familiar scents to trigger emotions and memories of times past, such as people in our lives, places we miss, or particular events, such as the holidays.

Who among us has not passed a restaurant or bakery and been immediately transported to another time when a similar dish or baked good was enjoyed, with all of its emotional accompaniments? Have we not all smelled a particular laundry detergent or perfume and thought of a loved family member or former flame? For some, even less-than-pleasant odors can call to mind a cherished memory. I have heard people say that walking into a faintly damp or musty house reminded them of the fun and friendships of summer camp, even 30 or more years later.

Today, the term aromatherapy refers to the deliberate use of plant-derived oils to enhance physical and emotional health. Although aromatherapy is still considered to lie outside the realm of medically accepted therapies and mainstream psychotherapy, interest in this area has grown substantially over the past few decades. Most of those who use aromas for healing tend to do so as part of a whole-person approach to healthcare, rather than as a stand-alone treatment. When applied thoughtfully, aromas may be incorporated into more “mainstream” healthcare practices with good results.

The Impact of Scents on Stress and Performance: What’s the Evidence?

Research related to the impact of scents, particularly essential oils, on mood has increased since the 1970s. Specifically, there have been several studies on the use of essential oils, such as lavender and rose, as well as other pleasant aromas to reduce stress. Lavender in particular has been shown to reduce self-reports of stress. In some preliminary research,  lavender was also linked to increased peripheral blood flow (an effect associated with relaxation) and a decrease in blood pressure, as well as positive changes in heart rate variability. In another trial, peppermint and lavender essential oils were associated with increased accuracy while proofreading.

The calming benefits of pleasant aromas many not be limited to essential oils, however. In at least two studies, the scent of coconut has been associated with decreased startle response, whereas an unpleasant scent (Limburger cheese) was associated with an increased startle response. A more recent study suggested that exposure to pleasant scent (also coconut) may blunt the body’s response to performing a stressful task and also enhance recovery after the stressor has stopped. It is important to note that most of these studies have had methodological challenges, including small numbers of people participating in the trials. Nonetheless, the results are thought-provoking and may make intuitive sense to those who have experienced subjective benefits from aromatherapy.

Aroma in Psychotherapy

How might this be relevant to the practice of psychotherapy? Pleasant aromas can be paired with relaxation training, such as diaphragmatic breathing, mindfulness practice, hypnotherapy, and biofeedback. Doing so may link the experience of relaxation with the scent sufficiently so that in the future, exposure to the scent alone may be enough to elicit the relaxation response.

In cognitive behavioral therapy, this pairing is referred to as “associative learning” or “higher-order conditioning,” and the goal is for the conditioned stimulus (the scent) to trigger the same response as the biofeedback, breathing, or meditation does.

I have frequently used scent as a therapeutic adjunct during all of the above types of treatments for both children and adults. Many have reported enjoying the use of this tool in session and on their own, eventually noticing that they can more quickly and effectively access a state of calm. Even something like at-home mindfulness practice involves “taking in” and being present with the scent of what one is consuming or doing. This includes experiencing fully the aromas associated with eating, drinking, or walking in nature. Thus, being mindfully present can be “aromatherapeutic” or at least “aroma-aware”—even without deliberately introducing a specific scent.

The at-home use of pleasant aroma can be as simple as adding a few drops of an essential oil to a hand or body lotion or hair conditioner, buying natural laundry or cleaning products that feature relaxing or invigorating essential oils, chewing a stick of peppermint gum while proofreading a term paper, or mindfully sipping a cup of fragrant tea.

Common Sense with Scents

When using scent in psychotherapy, it is important to take into account people’s individual preferences for and aversions to various aromas and be aware of the fact that some dislike using any scent at all. Similarly, it is important to inquire about emotional associations to scents that may be popular but could elicit unpleasant memories (“Ugh! My old boss always wore rose oil!”).

Finally, it goes without saying that one should:

  1. Ask about allergies to any scents
  2. Place undiluted oils on tissue or another object, rather than directly on the person, as many are harmful when applied to the skin at full strength
  3. Educate oneself about the properties associated with different oils before introducing them into the work.

Additional Aromatherapy Resources

  • For general information about aromatherapy, you can visit:
  • For information about training in clinical aromatherapy and the use of aromatherapy by health professionals, you can visit Dr. Jane Buckle’s website: or read her text, Clinical Aromatherapy: Essential Oils in Practice
  • For a recent scientific article describing some of the studies mentioned here, see the text (available to journal subscribers and at many medical or nursing school libraries): Mezzacappa, E.S., Arumugam, U., Yue, S.I., Stein, T.R., Buckle, J., & Oz, M.C. (2010). Coconut fragrance and cardiovascular response to laboratory stress: Results of pilot testing. Holistic Nursing Practice, 24(5).

© Copyright 2011 by Traci Stein. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Cheri

    March 17th, 2011 at 1:11 PM

    I am a massage therapist and I think that for too long most have discounted the healing power of scent and the moods that it can stimulate in people. All of my clients agree that sometimes the scent is the icing on the cake. It takes them to another place and helps them either associate with pleasant memories from the past or can help them to feel mentally stronger. I use this for every session that I do.

  • Leni

    March 17th, 2011 at 7:20 PM

    I have taken a few sessions of aroma therapy and it really made me feel better.I think it is only going to be developed more and more and is one of the futures of therapy ,really.With more and more people struggling it is going to be a major therapy technique in the coming years.

  • hans

    March 18th, 2011 at 12:45 PM

    many spas make use of aroma therapy and it has proven to be quite good enough. but using the same in the medical field is not easy and would require certain modifications. and aroma therapy seems like it has a great future.

  • Traci Stein

    March 23rd, 2011 at 7:58 AM

    Thanks to all for your comments and for reading my post. I’m interested in hearing about what aromas people find most enjoyable and beneficial for enhancing mood via posts here. (Personally, I like bergamot, peppermint, and lavender, but there are many really wonderful scents to try.)
    Be well!

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