Come to Your Senses After Pet Loss 1: Smell can help heal you
The path through pet loss can be rocky with emotional stumbling blocks. Your mind and senses can get confused and chaotic.
One way to help yourself focus, relax, and perhaps heal a little during times of emotional upheaval is by appealing directly to those physical senses and, well, manipulating them.
It’s a scientific fact that sensory stimulus – smells, sights, sounds, touches, and tastes – can deeply affect our emotional moods.
But you don’t need science to tell you; just think of that song from years ago that makes you smile every time you hear it. Or the taste and tongue-chill of your favorite ice cream. Or the smell of baby powder or vanilla or…
Scents affect senses
Smells work on our emotions in a very primal way – going straight from our noses to the deepest recesses of our brains. The Social Issues Research Centre explains the biology:
“Our olfactory receptors are directly connected to the limbic system, the most ancient and primitive part of the brain, which is thought to be the seat of emotion. Smell sensations are relayed to the cortex, where ‘cognitive’ recognition occurs, only after the deepest parts of our brains have been stimulated. Thus, by the time we correctly name a particular scent as, for example, ‘vanilla,’ the scent has already activated the limbic system, triggering more deep-seated emotional responses.”
Sweet pain relief
Not only can smells trigger memories, associations and emotions, they can actually dull some of the physical symptoms of tension and pain. As Psychology Today reports:
“As a significant link in the mind-body connection, the sense of smell can be deployed to improve pain tolerance. Any pleasant smell can act as a distraction and lift mood, but recent studies suggest that sweet smells may work best. "Sweet tastes reduce pain by activating opioid systems in the brain, and the odor comes to activate the same systems," says Australian psychologist John Prescott, currently a visiting scholar at Oxford University.
In the PT article, another expert, Pamela Dalton, a sensory psychologist at Philadelphia’s Monell Chemical Senses Center, suggests a way that your sense of smell can deliver instant relaxation.
“Pick a distinctive odor, then pair that aroma with a calming meditation
session. After a few sessions, the odor itself will elicit a relaxed state, even when you don't have time to meditate.”
Scents for sadness and depression
It’s no surprise that particular smells connected to happy times in our past can stimulate instantaneous memories and feelings. So, you may have to experiment to find fragrances that zing your personal heart strings.
Some smells are almost universally evocative: baby powder, vanilla, rose, freshly cut grass, cinnamon. There are other scents that have extra superpowers.
Dr. Axe, an expert on the health benefits of natural essential oils used in aromatherapy, suggests four scents to help with the sadness and depression that sometimes accompanies grief.
Understand that what we generally call “aromatherapy” is more an art than a science. It is not medicine and not a miracle cure-all. But with a few exceptions, smart use of fragrances can offer a grieving person some degree of comfort and relief, with very few negative side-effects.
Bergamot sounds more exotic than it is. A bergamot is a citrus fruit originally from Southeast Asia that’s a cross between a lemon and an orange. If you’ve ever had Earl Gray tea, it’s the citrus flavor in this black tea blend.
Paradoxically, bergamot oil is a relaxant as well as a stimulant thanks to a component called flavonoids. “They soothe nerves and reduce nervous tension, anxiety, and stress, all of which can help cure or treat ailments associated with stress such as sleeplessness, high blood pressure, insomnia, and depression,” says Organicfacts.
Flavonoids can also stimulate the activity of certain feel-good hormones in the body, like dopamine and serotonin, for relaxation and sedation.
There are very few potential side effects to using bergamot oil. WebMD outlines them here.
Lavender: Herbal antidepressant
Lavender is a bushy herb native to northern Africa and the mountainous regions of the Mediterranean. In bloom, it washes the hills of France and Spain brilliant purple and spices the air with a smoothly sweet, slightly piney scent.
Prized for centuries as a health and beauty aid, both the scent and healing oil are commonly used in fragrances and shampoos to clean and purify skin and hair.
In fact, the word lavender derives from the Latin word lavare: "to wash".
But lavender’s benefits are much more than just skin-deep. According to Medical News Today:
“Research has revealed that the essential oil of lavender may be useful for treating anxiety, insomnia, depression, and restlessness.”
Lavender essential oil has a calming scent which makes it an excellent tonic for the nerves and anxiety issues.
Therefore it can also be helping treat migraines, headaches, depression, nervous tension and emotional stress. The refreshing aroma removes nervous exhaustion and restlessness while also increasing mental activity. It has a well-researched impact on the autonomic nervous system, which is why it is frequently used as a treatment for insomnia and also as a way to regulate heart-rate variability.
One study showed that people taking tests showed a significant decrease in mental stress and anxiety, as well as increased cognitive function when they inhaled lavender oil and rosemary oil before taking the exam!
Lavender oil should not be taken orally; used topically or breathed, it is generally safe. Details from Livestrong here.
Roman Chamomile: Tonic for calm
Chamomile is the common name for several daisy-like plants of the family Asteraceae that are commonly used to make herbal infusions to serve various medicinal purposes. But it’s not just as a tea that it’s useful.
When crushed, the plant gives off a fruity scent that smells like apples, inspiring its common name, 'chamaimelon' or 'ground apple'.
As detailed by Doctors Help Press:
“Widely used as a calming fragrance, this essential oil is said to promote relaxation and reduce anxiety. The scent reportedly triggers brain sensors to release a sense of calm and peacefulness.”
Research published by the National Institutes of Health traced the use of chamomile for relief of depressive and anxiety symptoms back to ancient Greece and Rome and throughout dozens of cultures, including regions in southern Italy, Sardinia, Morocco and Brazil.
And concluded: “Chamomile may have clinically meaningful antidepressant activity that occurs in addition to its previously observed anxiolytic activity.”
The Doctors Help Press article also reports that chamomile oil combined with lavender and neroli essential oils, has been used to successfully treat anxiety patients, as outlined in a 2013 study.
Note that there are two major types of chamomile – German and Roman. Both have their medicinal uses but Roman chamomile is favored for most aromatherapy uses.
Chamomile is generally considered safe for most people, including children. Safety details are here.
Ylang ylang: Chanel #5 for your mood
Cananga odorata, or cananga tree, is a tropical tree that originated in Indonesia and spread to Malaysia and the Philippines. It is valued for the heavenly smelling oil extracted from its flowers, called ylang ylang. The scent is an essential component of iconic Chanel #5 perfume and other famous “oriental” fragrances.
According to Dr. Axe: "Inhaling ylang ylang can have immediate, positive effects on your mood and act like a mild, remedy for depression. Research shows it can help release negative emotions such as anger, low self-esteem and even jealousy!"
Ylang ylang works, he says, because of its mild sedative effects, which can lower stress.
Ylang ylang is considered safe to be used internally and externally.
A real sage suggestion
Though not included in the top four by Dr. Axe, sage is another scent that has been revered for its healing ability, specifically to clear away bad vibes and bad moods.
Native-languages.org tells us: Sage is one of the most important Native American ceremonial plants, used by many tribes as an incense and purifying herb. ... Sage is burned as a spiritual cleanser before many traditional ceremonies, and is also one of the herbs frequently included in medicine bundles and amulets.
There are many types of sage in the world, the one most used in aromatherapy is clary sage. According to the American College of Healthcare Sciences:
The English name clary originates from the Latin sclarea, which was derived from clarus, meaning “clear.” I like to think of clary sage Salvia sclarea (L.) essential oil as “clearing” away the dark clouds of our mood, as it’s traditionally been known for its uplifting and euphoric actions.
"Clary sage oil is a great friend during times of loneliness. Clary sage oil is used to calm the nervous system, especially during times of stress, depression, and insomnia."
How to benefit from healing smells
Use of essential oils topically, or inhaled in steam or via a sonic diffuser, is the traditional way of getting their benefits.
Candles, scented with natural essences and fragrances, are a convenient way to surround yourself with uplifting aromas, and are useful in memorial and candle-lighting ceremonies to honor lost pets.
Use caution please
Aromaweb reminds us: Do not take any oils internally and do not apply undiluted essential oils onto the skin without advanced essential oil knowledge or consultation from a qualified aromatherapy practitioner. If you are pregnant, epileptic, have liver damage, have cancer, or have any other medical problem, use oils only under the proper guidance of a qualified aromatherapy practitioner. Use extreme caution when using oils with children. For in-depth information on oil safety issues, read Essential Oil Safety by Robert Tisserand and Rodney Young.