PTSD and Essential Oils
PTSD, once referred to as “shell shock” or battle fatigue, was first brought to attention by war veterans, and is a result of a direct traumatic, tragic or a terrifying event that one has witnessed or experienced in their lives. This not only effects Veterans but also people that have experienced a tragic or traumatic event. Being frightened under these circumstances is normal. Fear triggers many split-second changes in the body to help defend against danger or to avoid it. This “fight-or-flight” response is a typical reaction meant to protect a person from harm. Nearly everyone will experience a range of responses after trauma, yet most people recover from initial symptoms naturally. Those who continue to experience problems may be diagnosed with PTSD. People who have PTSD may feel stressed or frightened whether danger is present or not. From my personal experience, this can occur at any given time, without notice. There is usually persistent frightening thoughts and memories of their ordeal and a feeling of being emotionally numb, especially with people they were once close to. (1)
Some people, unaware, will block the trauma and have their memory come back later in life, leaving them even further traumatized. Most people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) repeatedly re-live the trauma in the form of nightmares, panic attacks, anxiety and disturbing recollections during the day. The nightmares or recollections may come and go, and a person may be free of them for weeks at a time, and then experience them daily for no particular reason. This can occur whether the person remembers the trauma or not. It can sit idly by with no memory, yet the symptoms can still take place. As is my case, it also lead to nocturnal seizures and epilepsy. With my daughter, her memory slowly returned after years of being sick. We never suspected that her IBS was directly connected to the brain and trauma as a child hidden from us and unknown to her.
My child had endured such pain that she had forgotten it until her mid-twenties. The memories started returning and then through therapy, she was able to regain most of the memory and was diagnosed with PTSD. A childhood friend heard of this and confirmed the memory by telling her that she recalled as small children around 9 years of age, my daughter sharing the trauma with her; giving her details that Laura had not remembered.
My daughters’ trauma coming out was heartbreaking and triggered even further daymares and attacks for me. Through therapy, I was diagnosed with Severe Complex PTSD.
Other symptoms that may occur for those with PTSD include sleep problems, depression, substance abuse, feeling detached or numb, or being easily startled. As previously mentioned, there is the possibility of also loosing memory or cognition. They may lose interest in things they used to enjoy and have trouble feeling affectionate. They may feel irritable, aggressive, defensive, or even violent. Seeing things that remind them of the incident may be very distressing, which could lead them to avoiding certain places or situations that trigger memories. Anniversaries of the event are often very difficult. The disorder is also associated with impairment of the person’s ability to function in social or family life, including occupational instability, marital problems and divorces, family discord, and difficulties in parenting.
What is Fear?
Fear is a feeling induced by perceived danger or threat that occurs in certain types of organisms, which causes a change in metabolic and organ functions and ultimately a change in behavior, such as fleeing, hiding, or freezing from perceived traumatic events. Or, in simpler terms, it’s an unpleasant emotion caused by the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain, or that may feel like a threat. Fear in human beings may occur in response to a specific stimulus occurring in the present, or in anticipation or expectation of a future threat perceived as a risk to body or life. The fear response arises from the perception of danger leading to confrontation with or escape from/avoiding the threat (also known as the fight-or-flight response), which in extreme cases of fear (horror and terror) can be a freeze response or paralysis. During my own panic attacks, I become so frightened of the visions that I scurry from anyone coming near me during an attack.
In humans and animals, fear is modulated by the process of cognition and learning. Thus, fear is judged as rational or appropriate and irrational or inappropriate. An irrational fear is called a phobia.
Fear can cause a chain reaction in the brain that starts with a stressful stimulus, which can be any change or signal in the environment that can make an organism react in some way and end with the release of chemicals that cause a racing heart, fast breathing and energized muscles, among other things, also known as previously mentioned, the fight-or-flight response. When this occurs, it causes a change in metabolic and organ functions and ultimately a change in behavior such as fleeing, hiding, or freezing from perceived traumatic events. The stimulus could be a spider, a knife at your throat, trauma of many sorts from war to child abuse or an auditorium full of people waiting for you to speak or the sudden thud of your front door against the door frame.
More than 100 billion nerve cells comprise an intricate network of communications that is the starting point of everything we sense, think and do and this makes the brain a very complex and quite amazing organ. Some of these communications lead to conscious thought and action, while others produce autonomic responses. The fear response is almost entirely autonomic: We don't consciously trigger it or even know what's going on until it has run its course.
Cells in the brain (neurons) are constantly transferring information through a thread like extension of a neuron called a dendrite that carries nerve impulses toward the cell body and triggers responses. There are dozens of areas of the brain at least peripherally involved in fear. But research has discovered that certain parts of the brain play central roles in the process:
Thalamus - relays information to the cortex, processes and filters information and decides where to send incoming sensory data (from eyes, ears, mouth, skin)
Sensory cortex –located in the parietal lobe and interprets sensory data
Hippocampus - The hippocampus is a major component of the brains of humans and other vertebrates. Humans and other mammals have two hippocampuses, one in each side of the brain. The hippocampus belongs to the limbic system and plays important roles in the consolidation of information from short-term memory to long-term memory, and in spatial memory that enables navigation stores and retrieves conscious memories; processes sets of stimuli to establish context
Amygdala - Conditions such as anxiety, autism, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and phobias are suspected of being linked to abnormal functioning of the amygdala, owing to damage, developmental problems, or neurotransmitter imbalance. It’s been shown to play a key role in the processing of emotions. The amygdala forms part of the limbic system. It decodes emotions; determines possible threat; stores fear memories
Hypothalamus - Although this portion of the brain is small in size, it is involved in many necessary processes of the body including behavioral, autonomic (involuntary or unconscious), and endocrine functions, such as metabolism and growth and development. It also activates the "fight or flight" response
Creating fear begins with a scary stimulus and, as previously mentioned, ends with the fight-or-flight response. But there are at least two paths between the start and the end of the process. (2)
So how can we combat or deal with the responses of PTSD or fear?
Because the olfactory receptors are extremely sensitive, they can be easily stimulated by very subtle and sometimes subliminal scents.
Techniques were developed for exploiting the ability of scents to arouse potent emotional reactions. A person could learn to associate pleasant scents with a sense of security and self-control. You could subsequently use this newfound association to overcome phobias and prevent panic attacks. This may be especially effective for posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) with episodes of anxiety, flashbacks, and dissociation triggered by smells. (3)
Many combat veterans with post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) have an olfactory component to their traumatic memories that might be utilized by one technique. Thirty-six outpatients with chronic PTSD, featuring resistant olfactory-induced ﬂashbacks, were tested. 58% of the subjects responded to treatment by a reduction of 50% or more stress. Improvement was maintained at 6-month and 1-year follow-ups. Use of medication was curtailed. The technique showed potential for providing beneﬁt to individuals suffering from PTSD with olfactory components. (4)
Silexan, a lavender oil preparation for oral use, had been authorized in Germany for the treatment of states of restlessness during anxious mood. An open-label, exploratory trial was performed to assess the potential of the medicinal product in the treatment of restlessness caused by anxiety as related to several disorders. Patients suffering from neurasthenia suffer irritibility, difficulty relaxing or chronic fatigue . With Silexan, it showed comparable improvements with most outcomes. The results in this trial justify to further investigate Silexan in disorders with accompanying restlessness caused by sub-threshold anxiety. Adverse reactions, predominantly gastrointestinal complaints, were judged as mild or moderate. (5)
Considering that so many illnesses are stress related, Lavender holds a special place in both preventative health care and in the treatment of tension-related illnesses. It offers a soothing and antispasmodic effect. Many trauma patients also suffer from pain and discomfort. Lavender not only calms the stress but can bring relief to pain related to symptoms with its anti-inflammatory properties. It’s calming, tension relieving and sedative properties is a big benefit to PTSD and other stress related symptoms.
There is growing evidence suggesting that lavender oil may be an effective medicament in treatment of several neurological disorders. Several animal and human investigations suggest other therapeutic properties including as an analgesic, and anti-convulsive and neuroprotector. These studies raised the possibility of revival of lavender therapeutic efficacy in neurological disorders. In the article, a survey on current experimental and clinical state of knowledge about the effect of lavender on the nervous system is given. (6)
Lavendula angustifolia (lavender) inhalation was used in folk medicine ,although its mechanism of action is still not fully understood. The results of referenced article indicate an important role for the serotonergic system (denoting a nerve ending that releases and is stimulated by serotonin), in the anxiolytic-like effect of lavender essential oil (7)
The next oil that is showing promise in many research documents is Citrus bergamia, also known as "Bergamot," which is a plant belonging to the Rutaceae family and is defined as a hybrid of bitter orange and lemon. It is an endemic plant of the Calabria region of Italy. Bergamot fruit is primarily used for the extraction of its essential oil. The referenced article is aimed at collecting data from the literature on C. bergamia essential oil and, through a critical analysis, focus on safety and the beneficial effects on human health. Clinical studies on the therapeutic applications of bergamot essential oil exclusively focus on the field of aromatherapy, suggesting that its use can be useful for reducing anxiety and stress. (8) (13)
Bergamot essential oil (BEO) is used widely in aromatherapy to reduce stress and anxiety despite limited scientific evidence. A previous study showed that BEO significantly increased gamma-aminobutyric acid levels in rat hippocampus, suggesting potential anxiolytic properties. (9)
Basil plays another important role. Amongst other properties, Basil is anti-spasmodic and a cephalic (in Aromatherapy, pertaining to remedies for the head). It can clear our minds and help to relieve voluntary or involuntary muscle spasms.
Looking at a case study on a 37-year-old male with panic attacks and agoraphobia was taking venlafaxine 225 mg, alprazolam 2mg, and risperidone 2 mg daily, after 3 months of olfactory conditioning with Basil, he was able to go without his presently used drugs. At his 1-year follow-up, he was smelling Basil only once or twice a month and no longer suffered from panic attacks or agoraphobia. There were two cases studies mentioned with basil and with success in treating symptoms of PTSD. (10)
During a single-blind randomized clinical trial, a comparison was made of the effects of massage therapy utilizing aromatherapy for anxiety and pain on burn victims, it was found that the aromatherapy reduced the anxiety and pain quickly. Anxiety and pain are recognized as major problems of burn patients; because pharmaceutical treatments for controlling anxiety and pain symptoms lead to complications and an increase in health costs, nonpharmacological nursing interventions were considered for this group of patients. This led to the present study aimed at comparing the effect of aromatherapy massage with inhalation aromatherapy for anxiety and pain in burn patients. The study results showed the positive effect of aromatherapy massage and inhalation aromatherapy compared with the control group in reducing both anxiety and pain of burn patients. (11)
We’ve heard about the oils but what makes them so effective? The major chemical components that assist with the symptoms discussed is listed below. Linalool and Linalyl acetate are big contributors. (See chart below) (12)
Below is a chart of not only the oils discussed but other essential oils that play a huge part in controlling symptoms. A blend has been formulated for inhalers as a direct route to the olfactory system. This is available on my website. Charting the chemistry and therapeutic actions of the oils gives clarity to the therapeutic as well as emotional support of the oils. Note: CNS=central nervous system.
These oils also possess properties that are anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial, and much more than I can list. I wanted to highlight on properties most pertinent to PTSD, although all properties play a part in the overall healing process.
Essential oils also offer phenomenal emotional and mental support. Basil offers energetic support, supports self-confidence and motivation as well as clears the mind and is emotionally uplifting. Ho Wood is calming to the mind, Roman Chamomile calms, soothes, sedates, lessens anxiety and stress, and harmonizes thoughts. Clary Sage reduces anxiety, calms the mind and is emotionally uplifting. Sweet Marjoram calms obsessive thinking, supports self-care, comforts and warms and has a calming effect to the heart and is known to assist with high blood pressure. Bergamot is relaxing, restorative, calming, emotionally uplifting, supports the release of repressed emotion and helps to reduce insomnia and anxiety. Lavender is calming, soothing and nurtures. It encourages balance in all the body systems. It has a strong ability to reduce anxiety and fear. Lavender helps to calm and control panic attacks. They all assist with sleeping as well.
Essential oils alone may not be enough to control your symptoms, depending on the extent of them. If you are presently taking medication, I suggest integrating your oils into your routine. If later you feel you can cut back or even eliminate your medication, then is a great time to do so. Please consult with your physician as needed. Integrated medicine works best for many which is a balance of your pharmaceutical drugs (if you are presently taking them) as well as essential oils, herbs, nutrition, exercise (can include yoga, pilates, meditation) and therapy as needed.
If you choose to use essential oils, consider the following blends to assist with symptoms. Essential oils should always be diluted with a carrier if used topically to avoid possible skin irritation. It does not weaken the effect of the oils. Dilution not only protects the skin, it slows the evaporation of the oils, allowing more of the absorbable components of the oils to enter the dermis (skin) and into the blood stream. The absorbance works similar to the absorption of hormone patches or pain patches or over the counter pain creams by absorbing into the skin and entering the blood stream. The suggested dilution rate is 2-5 %. 9 drops per ounce of carrier is equal to 1%. A suggested carrier would be an unscented lotion or fatty oil such as olive oil. See our article on carrier oils for a choice of possible carrier oils to blend with and their therapeutic actions.
If you choose to use them through inhalation, the oils do not need to be diluted. This method can be done using inhalers (9 drops per inhaler) which can be purchased and drops added or you can use them through diffusion (15 drops). Diffusers are available online.
Blends- These blends may also include oils with similar actions. Blend oils together and use the amount needed per application.
· 5 drops Basil (Sweet) Ocimum basilicum ct linalool
· 4 drops Ho Wood Cinnamomun camphora ct linalol
· 3 drops R. Chamomile Chamaemelum nobile
· 2 drops Clary Sage Salvia sclarea
· 3 drops Sweet Marjoram Origanum marjorana
· 5 drops Bergamot Citrus bergamia
· 5 drops Lavender Lavendula angustifolia
· 10 drops Sweet Marjoram Origanum majorana
· 10 drops Frankincense Boswellia neglecta
· 10 drops Lavender Lavendula angustifolia
· 5 drops Vetiver Chrysopogon zizanioides or Ruh Khus Vetiveria zizanioides
· 1 drop Basil (Sweet) Ocimum basilicum ct linalool
· 4 drops Cypress Cypress Cupressaceae
· 2 drops Grapefruit Citrus paradisi
· 2 drops Vanilla Oleoresin
· 8 drops Ruh Khus Vetiveria zizaniodes
· 5 drops Myrrh Commiphora myrrha
· 4 drops Frankincense Boswellia carterii
· 3 drops Lemon Citrus limon
· 2 drops Helichrysum Helichrysum italicum
· 2 drops Clary Sage Salvia sclarea
Pain and Injury
· 6 drops Bergamot Citrus Bergamia
· 8 drops Black Pepper Piper nigrum
· 14 drops Helichrysum Helichrysum italicum
· 12 drops Copaiba balsam Copaifera officinalis
Please take a moment to visit Valerie Pallotta, a Mother of love and conviction who is actively working on a grant for Veterans facing PTSD. Learn more at http://joshpallottafund.org/.
This article is dedicated with deep love and affection to my daughter, Laura, who was diagnosed with PTSD in 2016.
Clinical Aromatherapy Essential Oils in Healthcare, Jane Buckle, PhD, RN; pg. 234
After further research, I'm adding additional references on PTSD and Aroma from Jane Buckles book, Clinical Aromatherapy Essential Oils in Healthcare; page 234:
Abramovitz & Litchenberg, 2009 case study on Hypnotherapy (3 participants)
Dileo et al, 2008 case study on War Veterans (31 participants)
Hinton et al, 2004 case study on Combodian refugees (100 participants)
Vasterling et al, 2000 case study on War Veterans (68 participants)
Vermetten et al, 2007 case study on War Veterans (16 particpants)