Lessons in Scents

Aromatherapy. I’ve never liked this term. Too technical on one hand, too earnest on the other. In truth, I also never paid it much mind. Blessed (or cursed, it often seemed) with a hypersensitive nose, I was more focused on removing fragrances from my environment than on adding them. But even I had to admit that nothing quite works to erase a fragrance like another, more powerful smell. All’s well if it’s a bearable one, but when it’s outright wonderful, suddenly a whole world of awe is there for the taking. With time, it turns out, even the aroma-avoidant wind up experimenting with scents.

For years, pure essential oils of lavender and lemon were the mainstays. Cleaner and brighter than incense or sage, they were good at masking undesirable smells (especially harsh synthetics), light enough to seem neutral, and quick to dissipate. Things got more exciting when I discovered actual aromatherapy blends. At first a novelty, they seemed less about their contents and more about their clever branding, but soon their immense potential was clear. Now, several years into my impromptu practice, I can list more ways than one in which I benefit from aromatherapy on a daily basis.

A selection of aromatherapy blends by London-based company Tisserand.

One, it has inspired me to expand my collection of pure oils and get way more creative with my own fragrance-mixing.

Two, those roll-on blends have became a treat unto themselves, a kind of relaxing or uplifting sensory micro-journey I can take whenever I feel like it.

Three, there just has to be a placebo effect. I have no doubts whatsoever that a tendency to relax naturally follows that whiff of something labeled as relaxing.

Four, placebo notwithstanding, there’s a more than fair chance that lavender really is calming, rosemary really can aid concentration, lemon zest really does boost those endorphins. In other words, the effects of aromatherapy may well be physiological, too, even when you don’t count the powerful assist from the mind.

Five—this is where things get really interesting for me—aromatherapy seems to work in part by requiring increased self awareness, maybe especially when the scents, like the ones on my shelf, are labelled not with their contents but with their intended function on mood. Focus. Confident. Sweet Dreams. Happy. Energy. De-Stress. Think about it: every time I reach for one, I’ve already assessed which human capacity it is that I can most benefit from enhancing in that moment, and that of course motivates me to practice checking in with myself on a level I’m only beginning to navigate. Am I sad? Am I tired? Am I giddy with excitement? Am I determined to get stuff done, or do I need to wind down and just be? Of course one can always practice self-awareness without making it a means to an end, but for some of us aromatherapy turns out to be as good a place as any to begin. You know, follow your nose and all that.

Six (and I mean a very hesitant, whispered sort of six), gradually, as I discover new scents I love and interesting new ways to combine them, I find myself getting over some of my hangups about smells in general. Yes, I’m referring to a rising tolerance to the scents I don’t love or outright can’t tolerate. It is as if developing my vocabulary of what is safe and desirable, I have found a language that helps tame what isn’t, too.

Essential oils are like pigments that combine to form new colors, which in turn can be used to create works of art.

So there you have it. The benefits of aromatherapy in six imbalanced, idiosyncratic bullet points. I hope I’ve helped answered some questions you may or may not have had.