January 16, 2018

Considerations for Using Essential Oils for PTSD

In this week's post, Lane explores PTSD and how essential oils can be used to treat the symptoms associated with PTSD.


If you read my previous article on this site, about how to choose an essential oil, you can guess what my answer would be if you were to ask me, "What's the best oil for PTSD?" It’s a frequently asked question, for which my standard answer, "it depends," is always followed by the deeply transformative question: "What is it about the PTSD that affects you most?"

This follow-up question is particularly powerful because PTSD describes a constellation of recurrent symptoms that can manifest differently for everyone. Your personal insight and desire for change holds the keys to the unaddressed aspects of your treatment plan. I have noticed no matter how significant and even debilitating the individual symptoms associated with PTSD may be, much of the frustration and discomfort of having PTSD stems from the all-too-often ineffective methods of treatment.

While the standard approach to treating PTSD with psychotherapy and medication may be effective some of the time, they don’t work for everyone. Psychotherapy and medications are the standard treatments for PTSD, but according to my professional patients and private clients, these approaches don’t always cover the myriad needs that arise in the context of PTSD.  

Psychotherapy usually involves recalling painful past memories that may retraumatize a person rather than help them release the memories and move forward with their lives. And, the available medications may not address the specific physiologic pathways that are out of balance for the individual. In other words, serotonin is not the only neurotransmitter that may be out of balance in PTSD, so SSRI medication will only work for some people or do part of the job. PTSD is complex and not yet fully understood by science.

Meanwhile, many people suffer from PTSD. According to the 5th Edition of the American Psychological Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM V), some 9% of adults in the United States will experience PTSD in their lifetime. While not everyone who experiences trauma develops full-blown PTSD, certain people are more prone to it than others, and it usually develops when there is a personal, deeply emotional, aspect to the trauma experience. Notably, PTSD is more common in women than men.

The best EOs for PTSD target your individual symptoms while supporting the areas in your treatment plan that may not be addressed by other methods. Remember EOs work best as an add-on to what you’re already doing, and are not recommended as a stand-alone treatment type.

This article explores a couple of innovative approaches for treating PTSD and provides examples of how EOs can fit in to an overall plan to create success stories.

To set the stage for discussion, it’s helpful to review. The Veterans Administration (VA), classifies the myriad symptoms associated with PTSD into 4 categories:

Repeatedly re-living the event – This collection of symptoms involves recurring and intrusive bad memories or nightmares, or reliving the event as if you are going through it all over again, aka “flashbacks.”

Avoidance of triggers – Avoidance symptoms involve withdrawing or isolating yourself because certain people or situations tend to trigger unpleasant memories of the traumatic event. You not only avoid those people or situations, you also avoid talking or thinking about the event.

Intensified negativity – These symptoms, while closely related to depression are distinct: The way you think about yourself, others, and the world changed for the worse after the trauma, characterized by depressive symptoms, shutting down or numbing out.

Hyperarousal – These symptoms are close cousins of anxiety: You feel always-on, jittery, or wound up and constantly alert for danger. You have trouble concentrating, focusing, or sleeping, may startle easily and get easily irritated, or have sudden angry outbursts.

As previously stated, not everyone who experiences trauma is diagnosed with PTSD. It's when these collective symptoms are ongoing for months and become disruptive to your daily life that the diagnosis of PTSD comes into play.

PTSD can be treated via a symptom-management approach, which our standard treatments are designed to do. We can also choose more novel, holistic, and integrative approaches to address the root cause(s) of the problem. It’s important to note that complex conditions like PTSD are likely to have more than one single cause. The best explanations I’ve heard for possible root causes of PTSD come from Stephen Porges, who developed polyvagal theory, and Peter Levine, who developed something called Somatic Experiencing Technique.

The Vagus Nerve and PTSD
Polyvagal theory, developed by Stephen Porges, offers interesting insight into the world of PTSD. While the theory itself is too complex to explain in this
article, it’s helpful to know that the vagus nerve, also known as cranial nerve number 10, is the longest nerve in the body, stretching literally from the brain stem to the intestines. It quite literally makes the body-mind connection possible, and it plays a key role in keeping us calm, relaxed, and balanced. Stimulating the vagus nerve (vagal stimulation) will produce a parasympathetic, or relaxation response in the body. The growing body of research in psychological neurology is showing that individuals suffering from PTSD can often benefit from vagal nerve stimulation techniques.

The Body Stores Trauma
Polyvagal theory, informs the practices developed by Peter Levine, called Somatic Experiencing Technique or somatic therapy. Dr. Levine basically explains PTSD as the energy of the trauma remaining trapped in the body because it was never properly discharged. 

Levine’s somatic technique is all about helping the client complete any incomplete parts of the fight or flight response by feeling the sensations any memory of the trauma creates in the body, and allowing for the discharge the trapped energy of the trauma.

Levine’s idea about energy being trapped…recognizing and releasing the physical tensions that may remain in the body in the aftermath of a traumatic event. 

What’s nice about somatic techniques is that they allow you to resolve the past by releasing stored emotions. These techniques empower people to be present in the moment, moderate the amount of sensory input they receive from the environment and feel emotions fully, reframing past negatives to build self-confidence, resilience, and hope.

If you are interested, in knowing more about Somatic Experiencing Technique, I highly recommend Dr. Levine’s books Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma and In An Unspoken Voice.

What does all of this have to do with choosing the best EOs for PTSD? EOs can serve as a vehicle for vagal stimulation, and they us back to ourselves, help us experience the body and our senses and our emotions in the present moment.

If you embrace the notion that your vagus nerve is involved in keeping you calm and relaxed, and your treatment outcome goal becomes, "increase vagal tone," or, "support my parasympathetic response," you’ll look for oils that are known to strengthen the nerves, support the nervous system or have a calming effect. 

Your search would likely turn up marjoram, basil, citrus oils like lime and bergamot, as well as frankincense and sandalwood.

If the idea of releasing the trapped energy becomes your treatment outcome goal, you’ll look for oils that are reported to facilitate emotional release and balance, and oils that create spiritual connections. Your research for these types of oils is likely to reveal frankincense, sandalwood, cedarwood, and rose as top picks.

Specific Oils and Success Stories: Tried and true for PTSD
There are many methods for vagal stimulation, and Somatic Experiencing technique is just one of many variations of somatic therapy. While these methods and techniques do not require EOs to be effective, in my experience, EOs can be extremely useful tools for facilitating the process of emotional release and parasympathetic response.

These following success stories are offered here shared as examples to show you how you might use your knowledge of PTSD treatment innovations along with EOs to enhance your treatment plan. Names have been changed to protect client privacy. If you have PTSD, and choose to add innovative approaches to your existing treatment plan, including EOs, I recommend that you do so under the care of a trained professional. Remember that EOs alone are not a substitute for professional medical treatment.

EO Success Story #1
Susan suffered from undiagnosed PTSD for decades years after a combat-related back injury in the Gulf War. She startled easily at loud noises and often had bad dreams that kept her from getting the rest she needed. She regularly attended group support sessions for injured veterans through the VA. She read that marjoram (Origanum majorana) could increase “nerve tone.” After performing a patch test with a drop of marjoram neat (undiluted) on her forearm, and observing no adverse skin reaction after 24 hours, she began placing a drop of marjoram behind each ear every evening before bed. She noticed a profound sense of relaxation, and deeper breathing, consistent with what one could expect from increasing vagal tone. She also decided to create a basil (Ocimum basilicum) and lemon (Citrus limon)  mixture (3:1 ratio, in distilled water) in a spray bottle to spritz her over her pillows before retiring each night. She found that these practices resulted in more restful sleep with fewer intrusive dreams. Loud noises ceased to startle her so easily, and although she still chooses not to attend fireworks shows on the 4th of July, she says she no longer dreads the summer holiday.

EO Success Story #2
Sandra was diagnosed with PTSD a year after being raped. Despite extensive psychotherapy and a number of different medications, the sight of a man with a beard consistently triggered her memories to the point where she became reluctant to go out in public beyond traveling to and from work. Sandra began applying a drop of rose (Rosa damascena) EO topically over her heart, over her throat and on the top of her head each morning before leaving the house. She topically applied a few drops of a mixture of rose and lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) over her heart, throat, on the top of her head and on the bottoms of feet before going to bed each evening. She applied the oils topically over her heart and throat prior to her regularly scheduled therapy and coaching sessions. After gaining further confidence, she substituted ylang ylang (Cananga odorata) for the rose, and continued the same topical application routine. After about 6 weeks, Sandra had the confidence to go shopping alone after work. She said she felt restored and balanced and could venture forth into the world without fear of being triggered. She carries her oils in her purse and inhales or applies them whenever she feels they are needed.

EO Success Story #3
After growing up in a childhood home filled with abuses of every type, Janet found herself in a pattern of self-sabotage and negativity. No job was good enough, no relationship was good enough, and she felt she, herself, wasn’t good enough. When any potential conflict arose in her professional or personal life, she would shut down rather than create an opportunity to criticize or be criticized. In addition to her regular therapy and coaching, Janet began to diffuse frankincense (Boswellia carterii) at bedtime and orange (Citrus sinensis) during the day. She began to inhale frankincense and apply it topically on specific tapping points during her EFT sessions. Soon Janet became interested in adding a daily meditation practice to her routine and she began to experiment with which essential oil would help deepen her meditative state.  She tried frankincense and sandalwood (Santalum album) both, and decided she liked sandalwood the best. She says she is happier and more confident in her relationships now and she applies frankincense topically to her throat area before she engages in any conversation that could potentially be confrontational.

What happens next?
If you decide to take action on any of the ideas presented in this article remember that EOs can be a powerful catalyst for healing and you need to be ready for them. You are likely to have a significant release. While the discharge of the trapped energy is often very intense, it can represent a significant breakthrough in your treatment journey – just be prepared—in a safe place and under the care and assistance of a trusted and trained professional.

You may find that your use of EOs allows you to break through a plateau in your recovery process. Remember that breakthroughs often are accompanied by massive outpourings of emotion, so be prepared for this! Just know and be comforted that you are choosing to have these types of releases and breakthroughs along your journey.

So much of recovering from trauma is about tuning in and becoming aware of yourself and how you interact with the rest of the world, so deciding if you’re ready, and taking ownership of your treatment plan is part of the process.
To get started, follow my 3-step process for choosing the right oil for you. Seek the help of someone who is experienced in your treatment technique of choice and knowledgeable about essential oils (they may not necessarily be the same person). Use only the highest quality therapeutic grade EOs, and follow the basic commonsense safety recommendations, which we’ll talk more about this in our final article. See you then.

Questions for comment: If you have been diagnosed with PTSD, what is it about the condition that affects you most? How have EOs helped you so far?


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

Hacking the Nervous System

How Somatic Therapy Can Help Patients Suffering from Psychological Trauma

Is There a Standardized Method for Measuring Vagal Tone

Neuroendocrine System

Phases of Trauma Recovery

Polyvagal Theory Helps Unlock the Symptoms of PTSD – Dr. Arielle Schwartz

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder

Recovering from Trauma

The Body is Key in Trauma: Tips from Somatic Experiencing

What is PTSD?

Here is a link to a really good YouTube video I found that showcases some recent scientific research on orange essential and PTSD/anxiety in animal models.

Orange essential oil may help alleviate PTSD and Anxiety

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