Developmental Traumas Impact on the Efficacy of Essential Oils-A Clinical Aromatherapy Analysis

Two little girls crawling through a yellow tunnel

I'd like to thank one of my readers for this question. Please let me know if you have additional questions at the end. So what exactly is Complex Developmental Trauma (CDT)? First, let's make sure we're working with the same definition before we go too far. Dr. Bessel van der Kolk coined the terms Developmental Trauma Disorder and Complex Trauma. Any parent with a child who has experienced traumas in their pre-verbal days can give you a pretty good idea what it means in their family. For the sake of this post I'm using the one from Dr. van der Kolk's website. "Developmental Trauma Disorder-Multiple or chronic exposure to one or more forms of developmentally adverse interpersonal trauma (abandonment, betrayal, physical assaults, sexual assaults, threats to bodily integrity, coercive practices, emotional abuse, witnessing violence and death)." 1

"Complex Trauma-the experience of multiple and/or chronic and prolonged, developmentally adverse traumatic events, most often of an interpersonal nature (e.g., sexual or physical abuse, war, community violence) and early-life onset. These exposures include physical, emotional, and educational neglect and child maltreatment beginning in early childhood."1

I'll also reference knowledge based on my study of other trauma professionals, the ACES study, and clinical aromatherapy resources on psychoneuroimmunology, pathophysiology, biological processes, and chemistry. Trauma professionals talk about a number of different behaviors and/or diagnoses they see in their client base. For ease of reading I'm using a list format. Symptoms, issues, or diagnoses related to CDT can include1: (not a comprehensive list) Depression

Assorted Medical Illnesses (See ACES Study) Impulsive and/or Self-destructive behaviors

Sensory issues (seeking and/or avoiding)

Emotional dysregulation

Cognitive deficiencies Suicide attempts

Drug abuse

Sexual promiscuity

Sexually transmitted diseases

Alcohol abuse

Cigarette smoking


Physical inactivity Let's take a look at the likely driving factor behind these behaviors, issues, or diagnoses. The majority of children impacted by trauma are victims of their own parents. 80% of children with a trauma history were victimized at home by people they should have been able to trust. Abuse and neglect are the most common ways children are traumatized in the home. Statistically around one million children per year are traumatized at home. Other forms of trauma include multiple medical surgeries or procedures. What does this do to the child? Not every child processes trauma the same way. What may be traumatic for Suzy won't necessarily be traumatic for her brother Tommy and vice versa. However, science shows when a child is traumatized it creates a neurological change in the brain. The chronically traumatized child's biochemistry is altered as the body gets acclimated to higher cortisol levels and produces high levels of cortisol even when it's not needed. In a matter of speaking it resets the thermostat. Chronic trauma can also disrupt the neurobiological development and the brains ability to integrate cognitive, sensory and emotional inputs into a cohesive unit. So what, if any, is the effect of trauma on the efficacy of essential oils? It really depends on the child. From my experience, trauma commonly leaves children with sensory issues that impact their response to essential oils. Some sensory seeking children are fine with the use of a properly diluted essential oil or may be attracted to the strong scents, like those found in ketones and phenols. The sensory avoidant child may be overwhelmed by essential oils, even ones that typically initiate a calming effect. Sensory avoidant children commonly respond very well to the gentleness of hydrolats. The complexity of the individual is why it's important to work with a clinical aromatherapist who is knowledgeable about the chemistry of essential oils and their psychoneuroimmunological effects. It is even more critical to work with someone trained to the clinical level of aromatherapy when there are prescription medications in use and/or chronic illness factors. Due to each individuals response to trauma it's impossible to say X=Y in this equation. However, essential oils and hydrolats are highly effective at supporting the central nervous system. Clinical aromatherapy can be very supportive of children in a hyper-vigilant state with high cortisol levels when used appropriately to their individual needs. Clinical aromatherapy is also supportive of sensory seeking and sensory avoidant behaviors as long as one knows how to address each one appropriately. In my experience, the most significant effects on the efficacy of essential oils I've noticed are the individuals’ dietary practices and/or any prescription medication in use. This is why when I start a working relationship with a client I take a very holistic approach. It is also why working with someone who has the industry recognized and approved training is the safest, most effective, and least expensive method of benefiting from the use of essential oils. This is why I take a holistic approach when working with clients. I look at a clients lifestyle, health history (physical and emotional) and nutritional factors. The complexity and unique biological response to the use of clinical aromatherapy is the most interesting part of my work. I'm fascinated at the interconnections of the biological organism and the impact clinical aromatherapy has on the nervous system, gastrointestinal system, etc. Yes, I'm a nerd and I love it.