Sunday, May 27, 2012

Relaxation Through Aromatherapy ...

"The sense of smell can be extraordinarily evocative, bringing back pictures, as sharp as photographs, of scenes that had left the conscious mind." 
                                                              Thalassa Cruso      


This morning, as I started my walk at the lake, I was met by a heady waft of clove-scented air, a breeze from the botanical gardens nearby. I knew, at once, that the row of salmon-pink azaleas behind "our bench" by the waterfall must be in bloom.

As had so often been the case in the springs since my husband's death, the fragrance of those azaleas transported me back to the last spring day that we sat on the bench together listening to the sound of the water and relaxing in the warmth of the sun. Immediately, my breathing deepened and slowed, my body relaxed and my mind returned to the peace of that lovely day. I stood still for several moments, breathing in the scented air, lost in a far-away time.

Our sense of smell, or olfactory sense, - with us from the time of birth, inextricably wound in our memory mechanisms, and particularly strong in people who are anxious - is powerfully evocative, both of good times and bad. (eg Soldiers' war memories can be triggered by the smell of diesel oil or gun powder, caregivers' trauma memories may be triggered by the antiseptic smells of clinics and hospital emergency rooms, those who've lost a loved one may find funeral memories activated by the scent of lilies or lilacs.)  This knowledge that humans can be strongly affected, emotionally and physiologically, by certain scents has been used by healers since ancient times and, today, forms the basis of aromatherapy practice.

While not widely accepted in North American medicine, aromatherapy is taught in French medical schools, prescribed by European physicians, reimbursed by many European health insurers and used in Japanese factories to enhance worker productivity. In the US, it is used increasingly among clinical aromatherapists and nursing practitioners. (Butje et al, 2008)

Research findings regarding the effectiveness of aromatherapy on its own, when separated from other practices such as massage therapy, are scant and the results are mixed due, in part, to methodological issues in the studies themselves. Despite this, most evaluators have urged continuing evaluation with improved methodology. The best treatment results have been found in cases where aromatherapy was tailored to the individual client by an experienced and holistically trained aromatherapist.

Inhaled scents have been shown to cause immediate changes in blood pressure, muscle tension, skin temperature, heart rate, and brain wave patterns and they also activate the release of neurotransmitters such as serotonin, endorphins and norepinephrine in the brain and to modulate neuroreceptors in the immune system, altering mood, reducing anxiety, and interrupting the stress response. (d'Angelo, 2002)

Another study has demonstrated a significant reduction in the use of both injectable and oral medications, and the need for restraints, when adolescents in a residential mental health facility were given a choice between these measures and aromatherapy when they were agitated (Fowler, 2006). Yet other studies showed a reduction in anxiety through the use of orange or lavender scents in dental patients awaiting treatment (Lehrner et al, 2005) and in anxiety in hemodialysis patients when lavender was used (Itai et al, 2000).

Interestingly, in a small study of 17 terminally-ill cancer patients who improved psychologically and physiologically through aromatherapy, though not significantly, the patients' caregivers reported increases in their own relaxation and sense of well-being during the lavender treatments (Louis and Kowalski, 2002).

Aromatherapists use specific combinations of aromatic oils delivered in specific ways for different types of emotional distress. (eg sandalwood, lavender and bergamot inhalations for anxiety, fear and panic attacks; sandalwood, lavender and lemon inhalations for chronic worry and overthinking; clary sage, geranium and lemon spray for depression; bergamot, lavender and roman chamomile lotion for insomnia; and jasmine, bergamot and clary sage bath salts for stress and tension, among others).

Though more research needs to be done, it is clear that the potential of aromatherapy as an accessible, low cost, low side-effect alternative to (some) psychopharmacology is promising.

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