I took some time this weekend to re-focus and re-centre and think about WHY I am doing this.
Because I found something that helped me, and I want to help others in the same way.
Let me explain.
I am a survivor of what is referred to as ACE’s, adverse childhood experiences. No pity party, I have owned my healing, no one else is going to do it for me and if I look back to even two years ago, I have come a LONG way. A few years ago I found plant allies in the form of essential oils to support me. NO, they are not a miracle cure, they are a complimentary therapy, and they are probably not for everyone. That is OK. But they can help most people in some way. More on that later.
You may have heard people using the word trauma. Trauma can mean something physical like a cut or broken bone, but it can also be emotional; deep emotional wounds caused by the actions and or words of others. Instead of realizing that these words or actions do not reflect who we are, we make them who we are, we internalize them and allow them to cause us harm. This can manifest as physical illness.
Trauma can be different things for different people, it may have been a one-time incident, it may have been an accident, the death of a loved one, a breakup, bullying, physical, emotional, or sexual abuse that happened once or over many years.
The thing about trauma is it is not the same for everyone. What is traumatic for me may not be for you, we must resist judgement and comparison when talking about trauma.
Some people address trauma immediately by getting help, others supress it and don’t deal with it. Sometimes as in the case with childhood trauma they are unable to get help for fear of not being believed, or not even realizing that what is happening to them is abuse.
Not dealing or being able to deal with it results in unresolved trauma. Sometimes we don’t even realize that it is there. This can lead to addiction in various forms, risky behaviours, fears, depression, anxiety, anti-social behaviours, and a myriad of illness that in many cases with investigation by a physician come up with no obvious cause.
What types of health issues do people with unresolved childhood trauma deal with?
They frequently develop a wide variety of symptoms that are often medically unexplained, including chronic pain, sleep problems, adult-onset arthritis, fibromyalgia, long-term fatigue, diabetes, and circulatory, digestive, respiratory, musculoskeletal, reproductive, and neurological problems (Sigurdardottir and Halldorsdottir, 2018; Fagundes et al., 2013).
Adverse childhood experiences can also have long term effects on intra and interpersonal relationships (Henning et al., 2018) resulting in social anxiety (Feerick and Snow, 2005).
When these experiences occur early in a child’s life it can disrupt many aspects of development and formation of sense of self. According to the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (2022) 91% of the time the abuser is one of the child’s caregivers. This interferes with the child’s ability to form a secure attachment, which is crucial to feelings of safety and stability (The National Child Traumatic Stress Network, 2022).
The younger and more insecurely attached the child is when the trauma occurs, the more likely they are to develop symptoms of shame, dissociation, and depression (Levine, 2010). A child’s feeling of safety and stability is reflected in their mental and physical health. If this is lacking, long term effects into adulthood are inevitable, affecting mind, body, and overall quality of life (Van Der Kolk, 2014).
Survivors of childhood trauma also have shame, fears of unworthiness, not being good enough, abandonment and worst of all being unlovable. This usually also comes with a lack of self-love. In fact, in many cases these people feel a self-loathing, blaming themselves for what happened to them.
How can aromatherapy support survivors of childhood trauma?
One key to aromatherapy being helpful in this situation is the limbic system, which is a collection of brain structures that are involved in behavioural and emotional responses related to survival, such as feeding, reproduction, caring for offspring, and flight or fight, as well as things like homeostasis, olfaction, and memory. The key structures of the limbic system of the brain include the hypothalamus, hippocampus, and amygdala (Morgan-Smith et al., 2021). Essential oils delivered via inhalation link directly to the limbic system via the olfactory bulb to the amygdala and the hippocampus, which, in turn, are associated with emotion and memory. It is because of this direct structural link between olfaction and the brain that our sense of smell is linked so closely with our emotions. Interestingly, odour-evoked memories elicit more emotional and evocative recollections than memories triggered by any other cue, which makes these memories important to human health and wellbeing (Herz, 2016).
Raikar, S. Pai (2023, December 15). limbic system. Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/science/limbic-system
Since survivors of ACE’s tend to experience physical, emotional, and spiritual dysregulation aromatherapy can be beneficial in many ways. All these facets are interlinked, so supporting one aspect may, in fact, help support the others. For example, essential oils and carriers chosen for a massage oil for pain or a belly cream for digestion may also be beneficial for alleviating anxiety and lowering the stress response.
Something to be aware of is that it is so easy for those of us with science backgrounds or those focussing on the science behind how essential oils work to take the reductionist view and look at the individual components of the essential oils and their therapeutic properties.
For example, linalool, one of the main components of lavender (Lavendula angustifolia) essential oil known for, among other things, its calming properties, is found in over 200 essential oils and is well studied, however there is much to be said about synergy of the whole plant extract. Takahashi et al., (2011), showed the synergistic effects of linalool and linalyl acetate that create the anxiolytic properties of lavender. This is just one example of many where components act together in synergy to create the desired effect.
One must also keep in mind that if we rely solely on the science, we lose sight of the impact of aroma on the psyche. The psyche is what needs the most healing in cases of trauma. Battaglia mentions in his 2021 blog post, The Psyche and Subtle Pt 1, that we need to recognize the importance of the spirit in healing and understand the practice of aromatherapy within a spiritual framework (Battaglia, 2021a). Aromatherapy seeks to unite body and soul to promote healing for the whole being, it contributes to health what no material science can by integrating the soul (Schnaubelt, 1999).
The essential oils interact with the physical systems via receptors though olfaction, which, in turn, interact with the emotional centres (Schnaubelt, 1999). It is a complex system and just because it has not yet been fully explained by scientific inquiry does not invalidate it. Schnaubelt (1999) states that plants connect to the spirit, and they have the power to provide the missing element for healing the soul. Therefore, aromatherapy is such a beneficial modality for those healing from ACE’s as it is very much the soul/ spirit that needs healing.
Here are some key points to using aromatherapy to support aduhealing from ACE’s and other trauma.
There is no definitive list of oils to suggest or to avoid for this type of trauma as everyone has different preferences, there may be oils that trigger unpleasant thoughts and emotions in some but are calming and soothing for others.
There are oils that you may smell that will allow you to open up and talk to your therapist or will help to clear your head so you can journal or calm you so you can meditate, or relax you so you can finally get some sleep. Be patient, it takes time to find the perfect oils for you.
It is necessary to be aware and observant; if you have a major dislike for the essential oil, do not continue to use it, no matter how much you think it will work, or how much someone has told you that it will work. I will never push an essential oil on a client who shows any kind of dislike for it. I can tell by the look on your face right away. You should feel comfort, calm and relaxation; anything that triggers a negative reaction will no support you.
It is important to be in control of your own healing and identify what works for you. If an odour is associated with a stressful event or intense emotional experiences, then later that odour may elicit mood and attitudinal changes (Kirk-Smith et al.,1983; Herz, 2016; Vermetten and Bremner, 2003). This is the caveat with using aromatherapy for trauma, and why I always proceed with caution and ask lots of questions about aromatic preferences on your intake form before we even start to smell the oils. I do NOT want to trigger you.
It is so important to work with a qualified aromatherapist on this journey as there are some essential oils that are contraindicated with the medications you may have been prescribed, there are essential oils that may interact with antidepressants and other medications. Most aromatherapists are more than happy to work with you and your other healthcare providers to come up with a plan that is safe and helpful for you as an individual.
As aromatherapists, we need to be cognisant of this with all our clients, as we do not know if they are dealing with unresolved trauma that can elicit triggers to various aromas. My rules are to proceed with caution, be aware and observant and most importantly do no harm.
In conclusion, what is my why?
It is you; I want you to find comfort and support from YOUR plant allies, from your aromatic anchors, on your terms with my guidance and support. I have your back.
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Fawn Last is a life long learner and educator with degrees in biology and geology. She left an academic career to become a certified aromatherapist and continues to learn as she helps others find ways to support their wellbeing using aromatherapy.
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DISCLAIMER: The information on this site is not intended to be a substitute for medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment, and is for educational and informational purposes only. When incorporating any complementary alternative therapy into your health care regimen, always seek the advice of your medical doctor or qualified healthcare provider, and watch for any possible interactions or side effects. Statements made on this site have not been evaluated by Health Canada or the FDA (U.S. Food & Drug Administration)
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