The fragrance captures the attention: the sweet smell of a rose, the enticing aroma of a freshly baked cinnamon apple cake, the appealing scent of a cup of warm peppermint tea, the pleasing fragrance of your favorite perfume. Just the word “aromatherapy” conjures up intriguing images, and with good reason. As much as we take our sense of smell for granted, fragrance affects us in a way that is both primal and provocative.
When I first began giving tours through my herb garden in the early 2000’s, I couldn’t help but notice how each fragrant herb produced its own unique effect. I also observed that each group of visitors responded the same way to particular fragrances. The lavender inevitably produced smiles and everyone who sniffed it noticeably relaxed. Chamomile soothed the group even more – so much, in fact, that everyone began speaking much more softly. That is until they reached the peppermint bed, which sent them chattering a mile a minute!
As a masseuse, I wondered how I could capture such mood-altering properties in a massage oil. I wanted to help send my clients into deeper relaxation and use fragrance to relieve their stress or to perk them up, depending on what they needed. Lavender has always been one of my favorite scents, so I selected it for my first experiment. It produced such relaxation in the first client I tried it on that she fell asleep – that was all the encouragement I needed! I designed a set of massage oils, each with a different effect: calming or energizing, coping with emotional conflicts and providing mental clarity.
The results from these oils were exciting, but little did I realize how popular aromatherapy would become a few years later. In the 2000’s, aromatherapy stepped into the world of modern science and marketing.
The term “aromatherapy” was first coined in the early part of the twentieth century by the French chemist Rene-Maurice Gattefosse, who used this word to describe the medicinal use of essential oils. In actuality, however, aromatherapy was not a new practice even then; it had always been a part of herbalism. Many traditional remedies had multiple purposes – a single potion often served as cosmetic, perfume and medicine. This is no surprise since many aromatic herbs that are used as cosmetics are also medicinal.
What makes aromatherapy different from herbalism is that it uses only the herbs that contain essential oils. These herbs are easy to identify because they are all fragrant. When you read a herb book, keep in mind that all the medicinal properties found in a herb are not necessarily contained in its essential oil. Most herbs are filled with other compounds in addition to essential oils. However, the essential oils are often responsible for a herb’s antiseptic properties, and many of them perform other medicinal duties as well.
Not all aromatherapy deals with the effects of fragrance on the emotions. For example, fragrant herbs and essential oils are used in massage oils to loosen tight muscles.
As mysterious as it might seem, aromatherapy is easy to use. It is also highly individual, built on the concept of finding the fragrances that are appropriate to each person’s emotional needs. The simplest way to determine the best healing fragrance for you is to determine which scents you find most appealing. After all, aromatherapy should be enjoyable. The best way to find the scents that are right for you is to try different scents one by one. If you don’t like a particular scent, pass it up and go to one that you find more attractive.
Most people prefer familiar fragrances. If a particular odor has a negative or positive association, it may evoke the same emotion the next time you smell it. When students participating in a study at the Olfaction Research Group at the University of Warwick in Coventry, England, were told that they performed poorly after taking a test in a scented room, they became depressed every time they smelled that odor. Students told that they were successful had the opposite reaction: Their self-confidence was boosted whenever they sniffed that aroma.
I know of children who have disliked the smell of strawberries ever since they experienced strawberry scented masks to help relax them during surgery. Many of us have known people we found romantically attractive, except for something vaguely unsettling. Then you realize that the person’s cologne or perfume is the same one that was worn by someone who broke your heart years before.
I once observed a similar phenomenon while giving an aromatherapy lecture. As a sample of lavender was passed around, each student who inhaled its fragrance relaxed and smiled, until it reached one man who immediately stiffened up with the most painful look on his face. When I asked if he had any past association with lavender, he remembered that it was used in his hometown funeral home. Many people he had been close to had died when he was a child and the scent of lavender produced a flood of painful feelings. I am sure that no matter how much he learns about the positive qualities of lavender, that man will never be able to truly enjoy its fragrance.
Many times I am asked if a person can overcome his or her dislike for a particular fragrance. It is not easy, but you can try to recondition yourself – providing your original negative experience with that scent was not too dramatic. When you are in an enjoyable place and mood, sniff a faint amount of the problematic scent combined with another scent that you like. After trying this a few times, you may find yourself experiencing the once-disliked fragrance more pleasantly.