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The Amygdala and Aromatherapy: Achieving Emotional Balance

The lower legs of a gymnast on a balance beam

Je suis une femme d’un certain âge. It sounds so much better in French than English but the fact remains I am a woman of a ‘certain age’. An age that typically no longer goes to animated movies. However, when I heard about the movie Inside Out I just couldn’t wait to see it. It is now a personal favorite and I am hoping they make sequels to the movie.

As a certified clinical aromatherapist I reference this movie frequently. I work with a lot of young people who have been affected by exposure to traumatic experiences. Trauma changes the wiring of the neuro-pathways. As Dr. Bessel van der Kolk says, “Trauma results in a fundamental reorganization of the way the mind and brain manage perceptions.”- (van der Kolk MD 2014)

The limbic system is understandably frequently discussed in aromatherapy. However, most current definitions no longer refer to it by the older term rhinencephalon or “smell brain”. The parts of the limbic system I think we most need to focus on are those that aromatherapy can have the most significant impact on for emotional issues. Yet I fear in doing so the answer may lie in that part that isn’t focused on. We are surely complex creatures, which is why so little is understood about the brain today after decades of medical practice in the field both psychologically and physiologically.

The two most important structures of the limbic system related to the processing of aromas are the amygdala and hippocampus. I will also talk briefly about how some of the other structures interact with the limbic system in critical ways that are relevant for Complex Developmental Trauma (CDT) or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The amygdala is frequently referred to as the emotional center of the brain. As such it is important in controlling aggression. Damage in the region of the amygdala is associated with rage reactions, hyperphagia and increased sexual activity. (Patten, 1981).

Functionally the hypothalamus is the primary output node for the limbic system, but the connections between the limbic system and the hypothalamus are significant. (Swenson 2006). The hypothalamus is in charge of the stress response in the body. It’s responsible for synthesizing pituitary hormones and controlling visceral and emotional responses. Working with the limbic system the hypothalamus initiates primal brain responses for sex and hunger and awakens visceral gut reactions like rage, revulsion, fear, sorrow, affection and sexual attraction. (Jones, 2001).

The hippocampus helps one to learn new information. It also has the ability to generate new brain cells (neurogenesis). Animals exposed to chronic stress exhibit damage to the hippocampus with memory problems. (Nusbaum). However, due to the ability of the hippocampus to generate new brain cells, the use of essential oils could play a key role in assisting those living with CDT or PTSD. “Trauma by nature drives us to the edge of comprehension, cutting us off from language based on common experience or an imaginable past.”—(van der Kolk 2014).

Shirley and Len Price in Aromatherapy for Health Professionals explain that neuropeptide messengers provide two-way communication between the emotional brain and bodily systems via hormonal feedback loops. I believe we can use this information in conjunction with data on neurogenesis to use aromatherapy to help people living with neurological changes related to trauma. (Price and Price 2012).

If we harness the power of the hormonal feedback loop mentioned by Shirley and Len Price we have the potential for changing the face of education and healthcare for generations to come by conservatively utilizing the therapeutic properties of appropriate essential oils to retrain the brain and potentially develop new neural pathways.

One thing many of the children with trauma histories have in common is hyper vigilance. A need to always be on alert, to be ready for what lies around the next bend. This state of constant mental awareness is taxing on the nervous system and frequently leads to emotional outbursts in the form of rages on one end of the spectrum or complete withdrawal and shutdown on the other end of the spectrum. Behavior is their form of communication. I personally believe if they’re raging there’s still hope. Those rages are a cry for help. My own child used to say to me, “Why do I do this?! I hate feeling like this!! I can’t help it!” “How do I make it stop?!” Children who have experienced early trauma frequently also have issues with anxiety, anger, grief, fear, insomnia, night terrors, nightmares, riding in the car, separation anxiety, depression and more.

In their book Aromatherapy for Health Professionals, Price and Price discuss many studies starting in 1989 and proceeding through 2005 that determined aromas do have an affect on physiological and psychological states and that they affect cognitive behavior, energy, and mood. (Price and Price, 2012)

Kelville and Green report in Aromatherapy: A Complete Guide to the Healing Art on a study that was done in the New York City subway system using the scents of food sprayed into subway cars to see what affect it would have on the riders. What the study showed was that passengers in the cars where food scents were used had up to 40% less aggressive behaviors than riders in cars without food scents. This is but one of many studies showing there is definitely a neurological impact to the exposure of aromas. (Kelville and Green 2009).

When I imagine the chemical components of essential oils at work. I picture those scenes in the movie Inside Out where the emotion characters Anger, Disgust, and Fear are fighting over the control board. That control board is representative of our limbic system during times of stress. Properly used aromatherapy supports our limbic system to work harmoniously. There is nothing inherently wrong with anger, sadness, or fear. They’re valid emotions that serve a purpose. It’s when those emotions are left unchecked and in control of the limbic system for prolonged periods of time that issues can arise. There are many studies that have shown aromatherapy is a supportive therapy that can have a positive neurological impact. I can’t help it if every time I watch Inside Out I want to set up the diffuser and help support Riley’s stress with a little aromatherapy. It’s the clinical aromatherapist in me.

Van der Kolk, B. MD, (2014), The Body Keeps the Score. USA: Viking.

Patten, B.Sc, MB, MRCP J. (1981) Neurological Differential Diagnosis, Chapter 10 The Cerebral Hemispheres: Disorders Affecting the Limbic System and Hypothalamus. Great Britan: Harold Stark Limited.

Jones, L. (2001) Aromatherapy for Body, Mind, and Spirit. USA: Evergreen Aromatherapy.

Price, S. and Price, L. (2012) Aromatherapy for Health Professionals 4thEdition. China: Churchill Livingstone

Kelville, K. and Green, M.(2009) Aromatherapy: A Complete Guide to the Healing Art. USA: Crossings Press.






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