January 2, 2018

Anatomy, Aromatherapy and Anchoring - How Essential Oils Can Enhance Trauma Recovery

This is a 4-part series written by Lane Therrell, who is a nurse practitioner, health coach, and trauma survivor. She has used essential oils personally and with her private health-coaching clients for more than 10 years, and she loves to educate others about them. This series explores how essential oils work, how they combine with other treatments, and which oils may work best for trauma recovery and why. We’ll also take a rational look at how best to choose and use essential oils.


I learned early-on in my own trauma-recovery journey that the more treatment tools I had in my toolbox, the better. Without a doubt, the most delightful tools in the box have always been, and still are, essential oils (EOs). When was the last time you thought of a treatment method as delightful?!? EOs have always been fascinating to me, and they remain one of my favorite subjects. Enthusiasm aside, I’m honored to share what I know about EOs with you in these posts.

This article is for you if you’re interested, curious, and ready to add something new to your treatment plan. In this article, you’ll learn:
  • How human anatomy sets the stage for aromatherapy to work powerfully on multiple body systems
  • Why essential oils are an ideal aromatherapy tool
  • The simplest way to integrate EOs into existing plans and strategies
  • A simple tip to try
My goal is to help you discover whether and how EOs might work for you.

Human anatomy allows aromatherapy to work
Have you ever wondered why the smell of baking bread reminds you of Sunday afternoons at grandma’s house? Or maybe you have some other (hopefully positive) smell-related memory from childhood you can recall.

The reason we have these powerful olfactory memories is because—get ready for the science lesson—aroma-producing molecules have direct access to the part of your brain responsible for memories and emotions.

Our anatomy makes this possible. The olfactory nerve (in your nose) is connected directly into the limbic system (in your brain). Here are a couple of pictures to help explain the complex relationships.

This picture shows the olfactory nerve (in yellow). Notice how it sits at the top of the nasal cavity, ready to intercept aroma-producing molecules as you breathe them

This picture shows the complexity of the olfactory-limbic system. The endpoints of the olfactory nerve are called the olfactory bulbs, labeled OB in this diagram.

The limbic system is a complex network of brain structures, including the amygdala, the hypothalamus and the thalamus, among others. These structures have powerful roles in the functioning of multiple body systems. In other words, the limbic system does way more than control our memories and emotions.  The amygdala affects the fight or flight response of the nervous system and the hypothalamus and thalamus affect hormone creation and flow via endocrine system. And this is just the tip of the iceberg.

So, if the limbic system is responsible for all of that, in addition to our memories and emotions, it’s a powerful system indeed. And since the olfactory nerve provides direct access to all of that complexity, can you see how scents and aromas hold incredible, almost super-hero-like, potential for influencing our bodies in multiple, powerful ways?

But wait, there’s more: When scents activate the limbic system, the process bypasses the cerebral cortex, where most of our higher thought processes—like logic and analysis— take place. This means you don’t have to think about aromas for them to affect you. Of course, you can choose to think about and analyze fragrances if you want—that’s what perfumery and wine-tasting are all about…but that’s another article, not in this series. The point for trauma survivors is, sometimes you want to stop thinking, but you still need to do some inner work, and aromatherapy allows for that kind of thing.

If anyone has ever admonished you to “get out of your head,” or “get out of your own way,” aromatherapy can be an ideal tool because of that direct-access pathway to the brain’s emotion and memory centers it provides. This makes aromatherapy an effective treatment in its own right for the myriad symptoms that can accompany trauma and trauma recovery. It also expands the possibilities for effective integration with other modalities. 

Essential oils as vehicles of aroma
We just talked about anatomy, so now we need to talk a little about chemistry. You didn’t know this was going to be a science lesson, did you, but what do you expect from a nurse? The types of chemical compounds present in EOs matters immensely when exploring which oils work best – but that’s another article.

Many people equate aromatherapy and essential oils. They often go together, and are sometimes used synonymously, but I prefer to think of EOs as a primary tool of aromatherapy, because aromatherapy is a larger, more encompassing concept. There are other ways to deliver aromas, but EOs are the most potent and arguably the most effective, so they get top billing.

While some sources will use the terms “aromatherapy” and “essential oils” synonymously, I prefer to differentiate the two.  Aromatherapy is about treating a symptom through inhalation of an aromatic compound. Essential oils are ideal aromatherapy tools because they are so highly aromatic.

The aromatic chemical compounds from plants are classed chemically as “volatile” compounds. It doesn’t mean they explode into fiery flames, it means they quickly dissipate into the air at room temperature. This volatility, or quick airborne dissipation is what allows them to be so effectively inhaled and therefore accessed by the olfactory nerve.

As specific tools for aromatherapy, EOs are unparalleled. They are pleasant, portable, and when used correctly, can be a very effective enhancement for your trauma therapy practices or any aspect of your balanced, healthy lifestyle. I have also noticed when using them for myself and with my clients that using EOs can be particularly empowering. Learning about them, experiencing the different oils and how they make you feel can help to put you in touch with your own preferences and needs, and allows you to make small, pleasant choices that put you back in the driver’s seat. This was certainly an added bonus in my own personal recovery journey, and I’ve seen this happen with my coaching clients in numerous cases over the years.

EOs and anchoring
Many of our olfactory memories are formed in childhood. We are still forming them all the time. Whether the olfactory memories we have stored away over our lifetimes are positive or negative, the fact that scent is linked to memory is significant, especially if you experience recurring symptoms that are triggered by memories and associated emotions. You can use EOs and the concept of anchoring to literally reprogram your emotional responses.

The same way that the aromas trigger the memories, aromas can be harnessed or reprogrammed by association to affiliate with new, more pleasant memories and emotions. This is where EOs come in because they are pure and consistent markers of the association. This is very similar to a process called anchoring, which you might already be familiar with, especially if you’ve ever experienced neurolinguistic programming (NLP). The object of anchoring is to establish associations between certain gestures or behaviors and certain emotions. The way it works is to think of something that evokes a positive emotion, and then link that feeling with a specific “anchoring” behavior. You can then perform that behavior in the course of daily activities whenever the positive emotion is needed.

Anchoring can be an effective method for controlling the intense emotions which can give rise to the rollercoaster effect post-trauma. While anchoring is effective, there are numerous occasions when it might be helpful to strengthen the anchor. EOs can be harnessed to strengthen anchors for emotional control.

Most of the decisions we make on a daily basis are motivated by emotions, not by facts. Since EOs speak directly to the emotional center in the brain, it means they can provide a strong and effective way to strengthen an established anchored association and prevent you from short-circuiting it with analytical thoughts.

Now Try This...
If anchoring has been part of your treatment plan, try inhaling an EO along with your established anchor, and see if it helps you strengthen your anchor. (This is sometimes referred to as “stacking” anchors, because your established anchor behavior and inhaling the EO could be considered as independent anchors.)

  • Next time you are in a treatment session, or otherwise achieve a truly relaxed state, inhale a specific EO that you already know supports and induces relaxation for you. 
  • Put a few drops of this EO on a cotton ball and carry it with you throughout the day. 
  • Take the cotton ball out and inhale it whenever you feel the need to recall your relaxed state.

Cotton balls or disposable makeup removal pads work well, or you could try an old fashioned handkerchief or a small piece of cloth. Keep your EO saturated material in a covered container to both save the aromatic experience for anchor-time when it’s needed and to prevent the oils from volatizing off the cloth.

Summary and sneak preview:
I hope you enjoyed this brief exploration of how EOs work, and how they can enhance anchoring. In upcoming articles, we’ll talk more about how oils can be integrated with other treatment types and which oils work best and why.

Questions for comment:
Have you tried EOs before? How have they helped you on your journey? What did you learn from this article? What else would you like to know?


Lane Therrell is a family nurse practitioner, health empowerment coach, trauma survivor, and self-described EO aficionado. She uses EOs as tools in her health coaching programs whenever appropriate and leads an EO study group (starting in February 2018) for those who want to learn more details about how EOs work. Lane is a distributor for a popular EO brand, and is dedicated to sharing basic EO use and safety knowledge with anyone. Connect with Lane at www.BestHealthInterest.com

Disclaimer: *These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure or prevent any disease. The information provided here is for information purposes only.


Body Maps: Olfactory Nerves


Anchoring to Control Your Emotions – How to Make it Actually Work

Aromatherapy for Survivors of Trauma

How Smell Works

PTSD – Can Essential Oils Help Heal The Trauma?

The Olfactory Limbic System: Sex, Emotion, Pheromones, Learning, Memory

Understanding Essential Oils

What Are Essential Oils?


  1. This is fascinating! I love the science. Now I get it. I would love to have more tools in my therapist-toolbox -- and this would really be appropriate. Thank you so much.


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