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Trauma, The Brain, and Essential Oils

When we begin working with clients with significant trauma histories, they generally present for therapy with a significant lack of resources. Trauma is sometimes described as a person's resources being overwhelmed in the face of a threatening and stressful situation or experience(s). The process of healing from trauma, necessarily needs to begin with helping our clients develop resources for coping, which will include both internal and external resources. Certainly, there is a wide array of skills, activities, and relationships that can be resourcing to our clients. An additional resource that I have discovered in helping traumatized clients achieve a state of calm and relaxation has been the use of essential oils.

For thousands of years people have used the natural healing powers of essential oils. As far back as the Egyptian Pharaohs, people used essential oils as a method to promoting healing and maintain health. That tradition continued until more recent history when many, primarily Western medicine, decided that this “alternative” medicine was not a scientifically based treatment and therefore should be pushed to the fringes. With a resurgence of alternative medicine, holistic healing, and a push back against large pharmaceutical companies, more people are turning back to the powers of essential oils.

So why essential oils? What is the big deal? Aren’t they just something to make you smell “good”? How can essential oils be helpful to traumatized clients? While it is true that there are many inferior oils out there that one may use simply as a perfume of sorts, the therapeutic grade oils that are truly pure offer something more. And because of the way that some essential oils interact with the brain, they may provide very therapeutic benefits to the chronically dysregulated clients working hard to recover and heal from past trauma.

Therapeutic grade essential oils can be used in the treatment of psychiatric disorders with topical application. Because of the consistency of the oil, it is able to be absorbed into the skin and thus is able to cross the blood brain barrier. This allows the oil to then have an impact at a cellular level. Essential oils constituents such as s-limone (found in Lemon, Orange, and other citrus) have been shown to have an anti-stress response when introduced to the GABA receptors. GABA is a chemical messenger that is widely distributed in the brain. GABA’s natural function is to reduce the activity of the neurons to which it binds. Some researchers believe that one of the purposes that GABA serves is to control the fear or anxiety experienced when neurons are overexcited. GABA is the chemical in your brain that “locks” to the GABA receptor and “keeps out” the positively charged ions that cause excitability.

Research has shown that inhalation of the essential oil of l.angustifolia (Lavender) produces sedative effects similar to those of the pharmaceutical drug diazepam, or brand name Valium.

There are many anecdotal stories of the impact of essential oils being used in conjunction with psychotherapy where patients have experienced a decrease in symptoms such as nightmares, hypervigilance, physiological tension, and excitability.

There is evidence that the inhalation [through direct inhalation or diffusing in the air] of essential oils, increases neurogenesis in the adult mouse brain (Perry & Perry 2006). Neurogenesis is the process of generating new neurons in the brain, which normally occurs during fetal development. If new neurons can be aided in generation via essential oil inhalation, the brain may have a greater possibility of healing from abnormal functioning.

Researchers have shown how aromas cause the brain to react activating the hypothalamus gland, the pituitary gland, the body’s hormones and the limbic system. The limbic system links the left and right brain and the voluntary and involuntary nervous system centers and is frequently dysregulated in the aftermath of trauma.

Smell is processed in the limbic system, the oldest part of the brain in evolutionary terms. The limbic system houses our emotions, sexual feelings, memory and learning. Aromatic essential oil molecules are absorbed in the cilia of the nose, where one end of the olfactory receptors reside, then travel to the olfactory epithelium at the top portion of the nose. The cribriform plate of the ethmoid bone delivers the aroma message to the olfactory bulb located above and behind the nose at the base of the brain. From here the message is amplified and then transmitted to the limbic system and the hypothalamus.

“85 percent of the neuropeptide receptors for emotion are located in the limbic structures. This means that the sense of smell can bypass other cognitive structures in the brain facilitating a more direct and strong association of memory and smell." Molecules of Emotion, Candice Pert, PhD

Essential oils can be used in practices such as meditation and mindfulness skills as well. If we consider the calming impacts of oils such as Lavender, Peace and Calming (a blend specific to the Young Living brand), Bergamot, Frankincense, and many others we can see how the use of these oils can promote a state of higher regulation. This is done through the person’s increased ability to restore breathing, reduce heart rate, and reduce overall activation. This then allows the person to obtain a deeper sense of calm by allowing them to practice mindfulness skills, starting from a slightly more regulated state. This can then increase the efficacy of the said skills, and in turn allow the individual to feel more calm and more in control of their body; a goal that we all have for our trauma patients.

So we can see that while there are psychotropic medications that perform the same functions, we can use a plant derived, naturally occurring element to do some of the same work. This is not to say that essential oils are a replacement for psychotropic interventions, just another tool in the tool box that we can offer to our clients who are desperate for relief.

My hope is that therapists and clients alike are able to benefit from the information provided in this post, and that we all continue to identify and utilize a variety of ways to improve our clients' abilities to reach calm, centered states that provide the environment necessary for the treatment and healing of psychological trauma.

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