Aromatherapy: The Science Behind Psychological Triggers and our Sense of Smell

“I walked into the room and the smell hit me like a ton of bricks! I have not smelled that fragrance in years, it triggered vivid memories of being at my grandmother’s house when I was a kid. It was a comforting scent, but it made me miss my grandma.” Have you ever wondered why certain smells can trigger vivid memories and emotions from our past? Our sense of smell is quite the twisted psychological process.

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A scent is a particle that floats through the air and enters our body through the nose. Once a scent enters the nose, it travels to the olfactory bulbs where cells in the nasal cavity detect and process neutral information about the scent. Next, our brain cells carry this information to the amygdala (the area of the brain where emotions are processed), and then to the hippocampus (the area of the brain where learning and memory formation take place). The hippocampus is where memories are triggered once the brain recognizes the scent.


In 2004, a scientific study led by Dr. Rachel Herz at Brown University found that a group of five women showed more brain activity when they smelled a perfume with which they associated a positive memory than when they smelled a perfume they had never smelled before. In another scientific study in 2013, researchers found that brain activity associated with smell is much greater than brain activity associated with sight (Scientific American, 2020).


Therefore, aromatherapy is considered a powerful method for emotional and psychological healing. According to Dr. Rachel Herz, “scents have the ability to alter our emotions and moods more than any other sensory experience”.


Aromatherapy for Stress, Anxiety, and Depression


Essential oils that can be helpful for depression are lavender, chamomile, sandalwood, rose, jasmine, ylang-ylang, and geranium. Lavender slows down the heart rate and calms the nervous system. Chamomile has a calming effect. Sandalwood calms the mind and body and puts you in a meditative state of mind where you can find inner peace. Rose increases feelings of happiness and reduces stress. Jasmine calms irritability and insomnia. Ylang-Ylang is uplifting and energizing. Geranium eases mood swings, promotes relaxation, and alleviates depressive mood.


Wild West Candle Recommendations

for Stress, Anxiety, Depression

  • Stress, Anxiety, Depression

  • Clearing Negative Energy

  • Lavender

  • Sandalwood

  • Rose Tree Festival

  • Southwestern Resort

  • Grounding




Aromatherapy for Pain


Essential oils that can be helpful for physical pain are peppermint, eucalyptus, cinnamon, bergamot, lavender, and sandalwood. These essential oils are often applied on the skin as topical treatments directly over the area of pain. Peppermint, for example, has a menthol cooling sensation when applied to the skin. However, when peppermint is used for smell sensory purposes only it can reduce and/or eliminate symptoms like headache and nausea. For deeper areas of pain such as severe menstrual cramps, back pain, etc., we formulated the “Pain” candle which is a combination of cinnamon and bergamot.


Wild West Candle Recommendations

for Pain

  • Pain

  • Headache & Nausea

  • Peppermint

  • Lavender

  • Sandalwood




Aromatherapy for Hope, Healing, and Happiness:


Some of the essential oils that stimulate positive feelings for hope, healing and happiness are lemon, rose, clove, frankincense, basil, and grapefruit. These scents are uplifting, energizing, inspiring, and stimulate positive change. However, the list of aromatherapies for hope, healing, and happiness is infinite. Any scent that makes you “feel” good emotionally, physically, and/or spiritually also falls under this category.



Wild West Candle Recommendations

for Hope and Happiness

  • Immunity

  • Energy

  • Love

  • Empath

  • Inspiration




Aromatherapy for Meditation


Some of the most popular essential oils used in meditation are palo santo, sandalwood, frankincense, lavender, cedarwood, and patchouli. These oils provide a peaceful, calming, and grounding effect that enhances relaxation and increases spiritual awareness. Other essential oils commonly used in meditation are lemon, peppermint, pine, and rose. These oils are used for balancing various energy centers (chakras) in the human body. They assist in filtering out negative energy, and stimulating awareness, focus, and healing.



Wild West Candle Recommendations

for Meditation & Spiritual Healing


  • Chakra Candles

  • Zen

  • Higher Consciousness





The Debate: Does Aromatherapy Really Work?


According to an article written by Sabrina Stierwalt, PhD, “Currently, there is no evidence-backed research showing any illnesses that can be cured using essential oils or the practice of aromatherapy. The results on the other possible benefits of essential oils as, for example, mood elevators or stress relievers, are more mixed. But most are still inconclusive.”


Now, let’s reflect on the scientific study led by Dr. Rachel Herz in 2004; “a group of five women showed more brain activity when they smelled a perfume with which they associated a positive memory than when they smelled a perfume they had never smelled before.” We know that science uses a variety of instruments for measurement purposes, and scientists can determine changes in brain activity by altering variables through different receptors such as visual, audio, touch, smell, and taste. Through this process, positive and negative responses are detected. Fast forward to the scientific study in 2013, when researchers found that brain activity associated with smell is much greater than brain activity associated with sight. This is an example of scientists measuring the intensity of responses between receptors. This is enough “scientific” information to determine there are measurable variables to support the hypotheses ‘Smelling a fragrance can alter a person’s mood’.


Sabrina Stierwalt stated “the results on the other possible benefits of essential oils as, for example, mood elevators or stress relievers, are more mixed. But most are still inconclusive”. Now let’s look at another example and say that I gifted you a rose scented candle. I tell you the scent is uplifting, and its purpose is to make you feel good emotionally. Although rose oil is an uplifting, positive essential oil the candle could trigger the exact opposite emotions if you dislike the scent of rose or if you have had a negative experience associated with the scent of rose. Therefore, your response to the scent of rose would not align with the “benefits” of this specific essential oil, which would ultimately create “mixed or inconclusive” results in any scientific case study.


The key in finding aromatherapy products that will work for you is to use fragrances that make you feel “good”. Which fragrances make you feel more energized? What scents trigger positive memories from your past? What types of aromas motivate you? What smell can you just not get enough of? When you search for aromatherapy products filtered by purpose, always choose your favorite scent from the list of recommendations. Never choose a scent you dislike based on its “purpose”.

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