Category: Clinical Aromatherapy

What is Aromatherapy?

Have you ever inhaled the scent of a rose? Perhaps you’ve enjoyed the scent of fresh rosemary, sage, or thyme as you use cook with the fresh herbs. Or, maybe you live in an area where there are pine trees or flowering trees that bloom in the spring.

If you’ve had these experiences, you have connected with the natural aromatic compounds from these plants. They may create feelings of warmth, evoke fond memories, and maybe even excitement.

While these experiences are not considered “aromatherapy” in the professional sense, it is certainly a window into that world.

I WAS USING ESSENTIAL OILS, BUT NOT AROMATHERAPY

When I first started using essential oils back in the early 1990s, I only used them for two reasons: to scent my environment, and to feel calm. Was this aromatherapy? Not necessarily.

Sure, I had several different types of diffusers, including a fancy glass nebulizing one. I also was gifted an expensive and overwhelming essential oil kit. I had no idea how or why I should use the oils, and I didn’t appreciate their aromas. I was in college at the time so I was busy studying and working. I didn’t have the time or energy to explore aromatherapy any further.

So, I only used the lavender essential oil with the occasional addition of lemon or sweet orange. I’d use the diffusers, or I’d drop the essential oil on a cotton ball. After that, I wouldn’t interact with the oil, and I certainly wouldn’t pay much attention to it other than to notice the smell in my room or car. The rest of the essential oils went to waste because after opening them one time, I never touched them after that.

Even though I was using essential oils with a hint of purpose, I was not using them with any skill.

THE HISTORY OF AROMATHERAPY

Left: Rene-Maurice Gattefossé. Right: Dr. Jean Valnet.
Left: Rene-Maurice Gattefossé. Right: Dr. Jean Valnet.

To be able to understand aromatherapy, we need to look at some of its history.

In ancient texts, there are references to aromatic plants that have been used for thousands of years. The aromatic plants and oils that were used in ancient China, Egypt, India, Greece, and Rome may not have been exactly like the essential oils that we know and use today. They were most likely used by these ancient civilizations in the form of incense, perfumes, and scented fatty oils. They were used for a variety of purposes including medicinal, spiritual, social, relational, and also for trade.

The approach to modern-day aromatherapy started to be molded in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The most well-known of the early pioneers were Rene-Maurice Gattefossé, Jean Valnet, and Marguerite Maury.

In 1910, French chemist and perfumer Rene-Maurice Gattefossé was working in a laboratory when there was an explosion. He states that his hands were covered “with a rapidly developing gas gangrene. Just one rinse with lavender essence stopped the gasification of the tissue” (Gattefossé, 1993, p. 87). Battaglia (2018) states that “Gattefossé is to be commended for having the insight to see that the therapeutic application of essential oils constituted a discipline in its own right.” (p. 36). He continued to have an interest in using essential oils therapeutically in medical settings and coined the term “aromatherapie” in 1937.

Dr. Jean Valnet was an army surgeon who used “essential oils as antiseptics in the treatment of war wounds during the Indochina war from 1948–1959” (Battaglia, 2018, p.36). He continued his work and focused on anti-infectious and antibiotic properties, dosage levels, and methods of application (Shutes, n.d.). Valnet (1980) states that “Aromatics have always played a leading part in the maintenance of health” (pp. 260–261).

Marguerite Maury was a beautician and biochemist (Battaglia, 2003, p.18) with a background in nursing and surgical assisting (Shutes, n.d.). She moved from Vienna to France and became the pioneer of dermal application, including dilution for massage and the use of essential oils in the beauty industry (Battaglia, 2003, p. 19).

In 1977, Robert Tisserand published his book The Art of Aromatherapy. Tisserand (1977) references the work of Professor Paolo Rovesti at Milan University and states “essences cannot be expected to do the whole job on their own: they are not miracle drugs. In such cases some form of counselling, psychotherapy or spiritual inspiration is needed in combination with aromatherapy.” (p. 98).

To identify this concept, Tisserand coined the term “psycho-aromatherapy” in the 1980s (H. Tisserand, personal communication, May 19, 2022). Note that psycho-aromatherapy is a different concept than aromachology. At the Botanica2022 conference, he referred to this concept as “aromapsychology” (Tisserand, 2022). Mr. Tisserand is the founder of the Tisserand Institute which provides education on aromatherapy, essential oils, and safety.

Around this same time, there was a new shift in aromatherapy, and it “became a semi-medical modality, which allowed the lay person to attempt self-therapy for many common ailments.” (Battaglia, 2018, p.38).

Fast forward to today, where the use of essential oils and aromatherapy is a thread that intertwines and overlaps across many different industries and professions.

AROMATHERAPY BY DEFINITION

There are a variety of definitions and perspectives that illuminate the fragrant world of aromatherapy. In general, aromatherapy can be considered the skillful use of pure essential oils with a specific goal in mind. This goal lies within the context of an overall holistic picture: to restore balance and enhance the well-being of the individual.

Aromatherapy can be considered its own practice. It can also be integrated with other approaches and modalities. While essential oils are a wonderful tool to support health and well-being, they are not a magical solution or a “one size fits all” approach.

You may hear some aromatherapists also using the term “essential oil therapy” to ensure the inclusion of various application methods. Rhind (2020) uses the term “Aromatic therapy” (p. 21).

To enhance our understanding, we can review some additional definitions of aromatherapy. Here are a few that come from professional aromatherapy associations:

Aromatherapy refers to the inhalation and topical application of true, authentic essential oils from aromatic plants to restore or enhance health, beauty and well-being. The field of aromatherapy activity is quite wide, ranging from the deep and penetrating therapeutic actions of essential oils to the extreme subtlety of fragrance on the psyche. One of the uses of aromatherapy is to strengthen the self-healing processes by preventative methods and indirect stimulation of the immune system. (AIA, 2019).

Aromatherapy is described as both an art and a science because it takes the knowledge of the scientific aspects of the plants and oils and combines it with the art of producing a beneficial blend. Basically, a successful aromatherapy blend is a synergy of science, art, and the practitioner’s knowledge of both, and how to apply it. (NAHA, 2022).

Aromatherapy uses the volatile aromatic plant essences, known as essential oils, to treat ill-health and help maintain good health. (IFPA, 2022).

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health, National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health describes aromatherapy as “the use of essential oils from plants (flowers, herbs, or trees) as a complementary health approach. The essential oils are most often used by inhaling them or by applying a diluted form to the skin.”

While the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health, National Cancer Institute describes aromatherapy as the “therapeutic use of essential oils (also known as volatile oils) from plants (flowers, herbs, or trees) for the improvement of physical, emotional, and spiritual well-being.”

WHAT DOES AROMATHERAPY MEAN TO ME?

Left: Connecting with the oil while visiting an aromatherapist’s shop in Alberta, Canada. Middle: Connecting with the plants and distillation process. Distilling Utah Juniper (Juniperus osteosperma). Right: Connecting with the plants and the farm at New Life Lavender and Cherry Farm in Baraboo, Wisconsin. Jen getting ready to blend.

For me, aromatherapy means using essential oils with skill and purpose. I have a specific purpose or goal in mind. I also have a skill set that I can draw upon. My skills have developed from going to school, but also from ongoing education. I have a process that takes me from when I first encounter an essential oil, to when I’m using it in my blends.

My process includes the science and art of aromatherapy. When I’m first introduced to a new oil, I begin to study it from different perspectives. I learn about essential oil research, chemistry, and how the oil has been used traditionally.

I also spend time with the oil. I spend time sampling the aroma on different days, in different situations, and with different methods of application. I also spend time blending the oil to see how it interacts with other essential oils. Throughout this process, I make notes about the oil for later reference.

When a situation comes up where aromatherapy would be a great option, I review what I have in my current stock, and start my process to create the aromatherapy product that I’d like for that specific situation.

For example, if I want to improve my mood, I first identify the emotions that I’d like to work on. Let’s say that it’s wintertime, and I’m feeling a bit down, and overall sluggish. I take a look at what I have on hand and find that I have some great options which include lavender (Lavandula angustifolia), bergamot (Citrus bergamia), and frankincense (Boswellia carterii).

From going through my educational and experiential process with each of these oils, and also knowing my scent preferences, I’m able to move forward. I proceed to make myself an aromastick that I can use throughout the day to help bring myself back into balance. The key then is to make sure that I continue to use it. It will be even better if I can pair the use of the aromastick with other practices I have, such as breathing or meditation.

This illustrates aromatherapy and how I use it in my daily life. Aromatherapy is an ongoing journey. Regardless of where you’re at with your knowledge, experience, and skillset; there is always something new and fun to experience!

REFERENCES

Alliance of International Aromatherapists. (2022). Aromatherapy history and basics. Retrieved October 28, 2022, from https://www.alliance-aromatherapists.org/aromatherapy

Battaglia, S. (2003). The complete guide to aromatherapy (2nd ed.). Brisbane QLD, Australia: The International Centre of Holistic Aromatherapy.

Battaglia, S. (2018). The complete guide to aromatherapy (3rd ed., Vol. 1). Zillmere QLD, Australia: Black Pepper Creative Pty Ltd.

Gattefossé, R. M. (1993). Gattefossé’s aromatherapy. R.B. Tisserand (Ed.). C.W. Daniel Company, Ltd., Trans. Essex, England: The C. W. Daniel Company Ltd. (Original work published 1937).

International Federation of Professional Aromatherapists. (2022). What is aromatherapy? Retrieved May 18, 2022, from https://ifparoma.org/resources-media/information-on-aromatherapy/

National Association of Holistic Aromatherapy. (n.d.) What is aromatherapy. Retrieved October 28, 2022, from https://naha.org/explore-aromatherapy/about-aromatherapy/what-is-aromatherapy

Rhind, J. (2020). Essential oils: A comprehensive handbook for aromatic therapy (3rd ed.). Philadelphia, PA: Singing Dragon.

Shutes, J. (n.d.). Foundations of Aromatherapy and Scholars courses. Retrieved from https://courses.aromaticstudies.com

Tisserand, R. (1977). The art of aromatherapy (16th impression printed 1994). Saffron Walden, Essex, England: The C. W. Daniel Company Ltd.

Tisserand, R. (2022, May 20-22). From energetics to science and beyond – A personal journey [Conference presentation]. Botanica2022 Conference, virtual.

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health, National Cancer Institute (2022). Retrieved June 21, 2022, from https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/treatment/cam/hp/aromatherapy-pdq

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Institutes of Health, National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (2022). Retrieved May 18, 2022, from https://www.nccih.nih.gov/health/aromatherapy

Valnet, J. (1982). The practice of aromatherapy: holistic health and the essential oils of flowers and herbs. (The C. W. Daniel Company Ltd., Trans). Rochester, VT: Destiny Books. (Original work published 1980).

Why I Went Back to School for Clinical Aromatherapy

Being a clinical social worker, I saw a need for holistic care for my clients and patients. I wanted to offer aromatherapy as one of the tools they could choose from.

After working in the field of clinical social work, I had seen both the strengths and the opportunities for growth within our medical, mental health, and behavioral health care systems. While many individual providers strive to provide excellent care for their patients and clients, service delivery is confined within a system that is driven by finances.

I have always been passionate about providing care that is geared towards prevention, stabilization, and revitalization. This passion stems from many years of being frustrated with the gaps in care while trying to help patients and clients navigate the system. I’ve also pondered how service providers can empower clients to participate in their own self-care with non-pharmacological interventions.

This passion led me to investigate the integrative therapies that I was introduced to as a child: essential oils, herbs, and nutritional intervention. I wanted to know if, and how, these interventions were being utilized within various areas of the health care system. I was curious about their integration in the field of social work. Particularly in hospice, oncology, home care, chemical health, and mental health.

During this exploration, I became fascinated with aromatherapy. Having worked primarily in behavioral and mental health for the majority of my career, I was particularly interested in its effect on stress and emotions. I was impressed by the affordability, versatility, and accessibility of this complementary health care modality.

In my career, I’d learned from other medical professionals on my teams that it is important that patients have all medications, supplements, vitamins, and any other natural products be reconciled. This is for proper assessment of potential contraindications as well as ongoing medication management.

Just like vitamins, minerals, herbs, and other supplements, essential oils can be purchased over-the-counter. Anyone can buy them from the internet, grocery stores, or home parties. I started to have questions about my patients using essential oils without any direction. How were essential oils benefiting, or even interfering, with their medical and mental health conditions? Was it possible that the essential oils could be interfering with their medications?

As these questions and concerns arose within me, I knew I needed to investigate further. So, I started a new quest for learning, specifically about the use of safe and effective aromatherapy. I was not even aware that there was formal education out there for clinical aromatherapy.

Around this same time, I had started working as a medical social worker for a local hospital based home care agency. The hospital system was already utilizing aromatherapy with its patients, primarily in hospice and the family birth center. This approach to using essential oils was new to me. It was based in evidence-based practice, and there were policies and procedures in place. These policies and procedures had been developed by an integrative team that was spearheaded by a nurse who had extensive training in aromatherapy. She had also consulted with a local clinical aromatherapist. This experience led me to seek further education and guidance on how I could implement this with our home care team.

I started to look for additional training around the use of aromatherapy in health care and I found a Certified Clinical Aromatherapist named Jodi Baglien. At the time, she was teaching a two day Aromatherapy Foundations course at a local community college. I attended the class and was overwhelmed with the amount of information regarding aromatic chemistry, anatomy and physiology, therapeutic actions, methods of application, profiles, safety, and best practices. I grew up around essential oils, and I’d never realized how much there was to know! A short time after, she offered me a position to work for her in her studio, which I gladly accepted!

At this point, I was faced with two paths for my level of involvement with aromatherapy. I could learn just enough to be able to use essential oils safely, and confidently, in my own personal life. Or, I could go back to school for a formal education so that I could use essential oils safely with my clients.

As a social worker, it is my ethical duty to refer out to other professionals, and to not engage in work that is outside of my scope of practice. So, did I want to refer my clients out to the clinical aromatherapy professionals? Or, did I want to become a professional clinical aromatherapist? If I did the latter, I could work with clients individually. I could also bring education to other licensed professionals, so that they could learn how to integrate aromatherapy into their practice. After several months, and many conversations with my mentor, I made the decision that I wanted to go back to school for clinical aromatherapy.

If you know anything about social workers, you know that we love our research, resources, and connections. I thoroughly researched the different levels of certification, and every approved school that was listed on the National Association for Holistic Aromatherapy and the Alliance of International Aromatherapists websites. I created a spreadsheet that took note of each school’s qualities that included: costs, time investment, method of learning, teaching styles, certification options, values, morals, ethics, rooted in evidence based practice, and the alignment with my professional trajectory. With the help of my mentor’s reflection, observations, wisdom, and feedback, I decided that I wanted to go back to school to complete enough hours to become a Certified Clinical Aromatherapist. I also decided to get my specialty certification in wellness coaching at the same time. The rest is history!

I encourage you to reflect on how you became interested in aromatherapy and using essential oils. What drew you to them? Do you want to only use them in your personal life? Or would you like to be able to integrate them on a professional level? Is this a tool that you can see yourself using to empower your clients in their own self-care and wellness? How in depth do you want to go in your learning?

If you would like help reflecting on any of these questions, please feel free to contact me for a complimentary consultation.

References

National Association of Social Workers. (2008). Code of Ethics. Retrieved 8/10/17 from: http://www.socialworkers.org/pubs/code/code.asp