Essential oils for panic attacks

A panic attack is where a person will experience a feeling of sudden and intense panic, fear or anxiety.  Most of us will suffer feelings of panic at some point in our lives, because it is a normal reaction to traumatic or threatening circumstances.  However, people who suffer panic attacks, will experience panic frequently and there is often no obvious cause, although experts believe they may be related to an extremely stressful life incident or an imbalance in chemical messengers in the brain.  Having a family member with the disorder may also increase the risk (National Health Service, 2017).  This article explores symptoms, conventional treatment and how aromatherapy may also be used to manage the condition.

Symptoms of a panic attack

An individual suffering a panic attack will experience both physical and mental symptoms, which can come on very rapidly and for which there may be no clear explanation.  Symptoms include a racing heartbeat, feeling faint, perspiring, feeling sick, chest pain, shortness of breath, trembling, feeling hot and cold, limb weakness, dizziness, feeling numb, pins and needles, dry mouth, needing to urinate, buzzing in the ears,  stomach churning and a sense of disconnection with the body (National Health Service, 2017).

Panic attacks can last up to an hour, although most will be between 5 and 20 minutes.  The frequency of attacks will be dependent upon the severity of the condition.  While some people will experience them no more than twice per month, some individuals will suffer panic attacks much more frequently (National Health Service, 2017).

While panic attacks can feel frightening, they are considered harmless by healthcare professionals, as they do not affect physical health, and it is extremely unlikely that an individual will be hospitalised if they have one.  Nonetheless, it is important to seek medical advice to rule out any other conditions (National Health Service, 2017).  

Treatments

There are several treatments aimed to help people who suffer panic attacks, including both Talking Therapies and medication.  If these treatments do not work, a person may sometimes be referred to a psychiatrist or clinical psychologist, and they will formulate a plan aimed at helping the individual manage their symptoms more effectively (National Health Service, 2017). 

The NHS (2017) state that if an individual is aware that a panic attack is coming on, there may be things they can do to help themselves.  For example, it is important that a person does not fight against the symptoms, remains still, breathes slowly and deeply and remembers that the attack will pass.  Focusing on positive images may also help together with breathing techniques, regular exercise and avoiding stimulants, such as sugar, caffeine and alcohol.  Refraining from smoking can also help reduce the risk of a panic attack.  Furthermore, complementary or alternative therapies, such as aromatherapy can be helpful, as they encourage a more relaxed and calm state of mind.

Aromatherapy and panic attacks

Aromatherapy in which essential oils, herbal oils and carrier oils are used in a variety of ways is considered a complementary or alternative therapy in that it is deemed complementary when used alongside orthodox healthcare and alternative if not.  Aromatherapy is not included on the NHS website for conditions and treatments, possibly because it is based on anecdotal evidence, as opposed to scientific evidence and is not generally recognised by scientists.

Research

Aromatherapy is not, however, a new age therapy, as its origin can be traced back to ancient times.  Additionally, many people claim that aromatherapy can improve wellbeing and increase feelings of relaxation so it may, therefore, be considered an effective method for preventing or managing panic attacks. 

For example, studies indicate that aromatherapy is beneficial for individuals experiencing anxiety, a mental health disorder linked to panic attacks.  A systematic review on the anxiolytic effects of aromatherapy in people with anxiety symptoms concluded, for instance, that aromatherapy could be applied as a complementary therapy for people with anxiety symptoms, although further studies were recommended (Lee, Wu, Tsang, Leung, & Cheung, 2011).  Additionally, in an assessment of treating depression and anxiety with aromatherapy at Surrey Oaklands NHS Trust’s Day Hospital, statistical analysis of the results indicated a significant difference between aromatherapy and control groups (Lemon, 2004).  Furthermore, a pilot study carried out by Edge (2003), concluded that aromatherapy does have positive effects on anxiety in the short term. Finally, results from a study exploring the effect of lavender oil inhalation on emotional states, autonomic nervous system and brain electrical activity, indicated that the essential oil caused significant decreases of blood pressure, heart rate, and skin temperature, thus indicating a reduction in autonomic arousal, and the control group assessed themselves as feeling more relaxed than participants just inhaling a base oil (Sayorwan, et al., 2012).

Methods of use

Several methods of application can be used in aromatherapy, including compresses, bathing and massage.  If you experience headaches after a panic attack for instance, applying a cold compress may help reduce pain (see below).

Inhalation is another easy and effective way to use essential oils and may be considered particularly suitable for individuals who suffer from panic attacks.  Inhaling aromas of essential oils causes receptors within the olfactory system, otherwise known as our sense of smell, to send signals to the brain.  The brain receives the scent and, depending upon the response required, may stimulate us when feeling tired, or stimulate our immune system.  Serotonin may be released, which induces relaxation and sleep, or mood elevators can be released that help lessen low mood.  Finally, endorphins may be released which inhibit the transmission of pain signals and stimulate feelings of euphoria.   

Best essential oils for panic attacks

There is an array of essential oils that, when inhaled, are reputed to calm the mind, slow the breath and reduce feelings of panic.  You may wish to experiment with your own blends, and examples of recommended oils are listed below.  As a rule of thumb, a top, middle and base note is selected to create a synergistic blend.  Alternatively, you may wish to try out the recipes shown below the table.

Top notesMiddle notesBase notes
BasilChamomile (Roman or German)Benzoin
BergamotClary Sage
Cedarwood
LimeGeranium
Frankincense
May Chang (Litsea cubeba)LavenderNeroli
PalmarosaMarjoram SweetRose Otto
PetitgrainMelissa (Lemon Balm)Sandalwood
Sweet OrangeYlang YlangVetivert

Recommended blends

Inhalation blend 1

2 drops of Lime
4 drops of Lavender
1 drops of Frankincense 

Carefully add the oils to the wick of an aromatherapy inhaler taking care not to get the oils on your skin. Inhale the aroma regularly throughout the day and focus on your breath to encourage feelings of calm.

Inhalation blend 2

2 drops of Bergamot
4 drops of Melissa
1 drop of Neroli 

Add the essential oils into an aromatherapy inhaler. Inhale when you wake in the morning and throughout the day to help lift your mood.

Bath blend

A soothing bath is another effective way to ease tension and may also aid rest and relaxation.  You can also benefit from the aromatic scent of the oils whilst you soak.  

2 drops of Sweet Orange
4 drops of Geranium
1 drop of Rose Otto
15ml of Bath Oil or Grapeseed oil

Mix the essential oils into the base oil and add to the bath water.

Cold compress for headaches

Many people with panic disorder experience severe headaches and migraines. A cold compress may be of help. Pour approx 100ml of iced or refrigerated water into a bowl (or the sink) and add 5-6 drops of Lavender essential oil. Place a folded piece of material on top of the water and let it soak it up. Next wring out the excess water and place it over the temples.  Replace the compress when it has warmed up to body temperature but do not leave on for more than 10 minutes.


Christine Fisk
Consultant Aromatherapist

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References

Edge, J. (2003). A pilot study addressing the effect of aromatherapy massage on mood, anxiety and relaxation in adult mental health. Complement Ther Nurs Midwifery, 9(2), 90-7. doi:https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12697161?dopt=Abstract

Lee, Y.-L., Wu, Y., Tsang, H. W., Leung, A. Y., & Cheung, W. (2011). A Systematic Review on the Anxiolytic Effects of Aromatherapy in People with Anxiety Symptoms. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 17(2). doi:https://doi.org/10.1089/acm.2009.0277

Lemon, K. (2004). An assessment of treating depression and anxiety with aromatherapy. International Journal of Aromatherapy, 14(2), 63-69. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ijat.2004.04.002

National Health Service. (2017, August 15). Panic Disorder. Retrieved January 31, 2020, from www.nhs.uk: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/panic-disorder

Sayorwan, W., Siripornpanich, V., Piriyapunyaporn, T., Hongratanaworakit, T., Kotchabhakdi, N., & Ruangrungsi, N. (2012). The Effects of Lavender Oil Inhalation on Emotional States, Autonomic Nervous System, and Brain Electrical Activity. J Med Assoc Thai, 95(4). Retrieved January 31, 2020, from https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/e675/5d2bf57e667c90dcddc5977371296508c58b.pdf

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