A New Study Revealed The Anxiety-Relieving Powers Behind This One Scent

by Julia Guerra

If anxious is your autopilot, you might feel as though a single, ashy gray rain cloud is forever trailing overhead, and you’re just trying to find an umbrella to keep dry before the next storm. But whether your anxiety comes in spurts, or you’re chronically experiencing that jittery onset of nerves, it’s helpful to find little ways to relax your mind, so that your body can follow suit. Personally, I’d love to treat myself to a deep tissue massage every time stress gets the best of me, but lavender is good for anxiety, too, according to a new study, so if you can’t afford to dip into your savings for a back rub, at least you can experience a different slice of that soothing spa ambiance, and feel confident that it's doing some good for your mental well-being.

I'll be honest: I never really bought into the idea that breathing in lavender could have a soothing effect on an uneasy mind. But that’s mostly because I have a lot of anxiety, and an unfortunately poor sense of smell. In other words, smelling the stuff doesn't do anything for me, personally, no matter how deeply I inhale the sweet scent. My husband, on the other hand, swears by it: Long before diffusers were trendy, he’d dilute lavender essential oil in water and rub it on his temples to ease a splitting tension headache, and it seemed to work like a charm.

While I've had my doubts about the anxiety-relieving benefits of lavender, new research published in the journal Frontiers in Behavioral Neuroscience shows that, apparently, my husband's been on to something all this time.

Researchers from Kagoshima University in Japan had a hunch that the sweet-smelling violet herb has the power to soothe the mind in more ways than one. So, to show lavender can help to ease anxiety, lecturer, physiologist, and neuroscientist Hideki Kashiwadani and his colleagues looked into the effects that linalool — aka an alcohol component found in lavender — can have on the brain when someone inhales the scent. As per The New York Times, Kashiwadani compared inhaling linalool to taking Valium, a sedative used to treat anxiety, and as part of their experiment, the researchers exposed a group of mice to lavender vapor to see if the rodents felt relaxed by the fragrance.

According to The New York Times, the results showed that the mice that were exposed to linalool appeared to be more adventurous than the control group of mice that didn’t inhale the fragrance. In other words, the mice that came in contact with the lavender extract didn't appear to experience any of the same anxieties that might typically hold them back from being a little more curious in a lab setting. They also didn’t experience the same loopy side effects as mice that were given benzodiazepines to treat their anxiety, the study showed.

Of course, it’s important to note that this study was obviously not carried out on humans. However, Kashiwandani told The New York Times that he suspects the linalool in lavender has a similar effect on humans, due to the fact that humans and other mammals share the same emotional circuit as mice. Still, this kind of study is preliminary, and more research needs to be done before doctors can definitively suggests doses of lavender over prescription medications.

So why does lavender seem to have this anxiety-relieving effect in the first place? In an interview with Elite Daily, Linette Carriere, a product and culture trainer for Saje Natural Wellness, explains that, physiologically, the scents of essential oils connect your olfactory system, aka your sense of smell, to your limbic system, aka the non-thinking part of your brain that “holds your unconscious, emotions, behaviors, and long term memories,” she tells Elite Daily. Lavender, specifically, Carriere adds, is one of the most versatile essential oils because of its ability to calm your mind and your muscles.

“Lavender helps calm our mental/emotional state and also works directly on muscles to naturally relax them,” she explains, “both helping an overstimulated mind, or bodily restlessness.” And because lavender oil often comes in small vials, you don't necessarily have to drop everything you're doing and run home to your diffuser for relief. For example, Saje offers a Stress Release Nasal Inhaler made with lavender, chamomile, and orange, so you can excuse yourself from your work desk, or virtually any social situation, to ease your mind with just one deep breath in. But, if you'd prefer to calm down in the comfort of your own home, Lush's Twilight lavender bath bomb is the perfect addition to any warm, sudsy soak you draw for bedtime relaxation.

It's important to note, however, that according to statistics from the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, anxiety is one of the most common mental illnesses in the U.S., affecting 18.1 percent of the population every year. If you or someone you know is currently struggling, it's important to seek help from a professional if your anxiety feels overwhelming, and especially if your anxiety starts to interfere with how you function day to day. Holistic remedies, like lavender, are great for in-the-moment fixes, but it should not replace any medication prescribed to you by a doctor.