Without the holiday lights and hullabaloo, winter's short days are certainly more noticeable. It's not surprising people's moods veer sharply toward blah at this time of year. Since spring's magic is still a couple of months away, it's reasonable to go looking for something to lift your mood. One avenue to build a better vibe could be through your nose.
While it wasn't so long ago that aromatherapy was New Age voodoo, today even the medical establishment has taken notice of its effects. According to Tricia Acheatel, owner of Alchemy Botanicals in Ashland, aromatherapy includes "any scent that taps into the limbic system." The limbic system, a part of the brain, controls many of our basic emotions and has a role in establishing memories. That's why, when visiting a home with the lingering scent of baking cookies, you may be overwhelmed with memories of your grandmother. Odors open the door to those memories, and may explain why you really like the scent of those apple spice, or pumpkin pie candles.
Using essential oils to address emotions has a long history of use, including in many healing and spiritual traditions. Highly concentrated, these oils are made from the fruit, leaves, bark or berries of plants, says Acheatel. They can be used in diffusers, bath products, candles and massage oil. Highly concentrated, they are generally diluted before use.
"A lot of people are coming in to add that touch to their home environment," says Susan Stanley, co-owner of Willowcreek Gifts in Phoenix. "It's mood enhancing. It's relaxing. Whatever you use, you're doing it for a reason."
According to Acheatel, an herbalist and nutritionist, the most common oils used for lifting spirits are citrus scents--bergamot, grapefruit, lemon, and bitter orange among them. These fruits take a lot of sunshine to ripen, she explained. That energy comes back to us in their oils. Just think of squeezing citrus rind, she says. The scent's like liquid sunshine.
Another useful class of oils is the euphorics - neroli, jasmine, and ylang-ylang - explains Acheatel. "Euphoria is the opposite of malaise."
For some people, stress is more likely to cause their winter blues. If that's so, a nervine, or plant that claims to calm the nervous system may be called for. Chamomile and lavender, both used herbally for this purpose, have the same effect through their scents, says Acheatel.
"Personally, I have migraine headaches," says Stanley. "I used to put a lavender sachet in my pillow and squeeze it. I'd actually be able to go to sleep."
Oil of rose is used for grief, says Acheatel. "It tends to open the heart and lift the spirits." She uses jasmine and ylang-ylang for this purpose as well.
Once you enter the rich world of aromatherapy, it's clear that knowing the root cause of your mood is key to addressing it correctly. While some people are down in the dumps because of the bad weather, others might be feeling blah because they have been stuck in a literal sense. Sitting at a desk all day, then going home in the dark to sit at a computer or the television can be a real downer. In this instance, an energizing scent might be the right thing.
Exercise and essential oils "can make a big difference," says Acheatel. Scents that bring movement to the body's energy include ginger, coriander and rosemary. Use them in a bath to bring energy to the body, she says.
For those who've got plenty of movement - but can't get enough sleep, the scent of marjoram or lavender might be used, suggests Acheatel.
Since melancholy is a fairly common feeling, shops often sell pre-made essential oil blends to lift your spirits. Once you become familiar with what works to improve your own sense of well-being, you can have a personalized blend created. Books like Aromatherapy for Healing the Spirit, by Gabriel Mojay, and Aromatherapy: Scent & Psyche by Peter and Kate Damian can give a more detailed introduction to the power of fragrance over mood and mind. Keep in mind that low spirits that last more than a couple of weeks, or that include morbid thoughts, should be addressed by your physician right away.
"We need things around us that calm us after a hectic day at the office or in town," says Stanley. "[Using aromatherapy is] getting back to the natural way."
Another way plants are used in balancing mood is with flower remedies. These were first developed in England using homeopathic principles about 70 years ago by Dr. Edwin Bach. He wanted to address the emotional link between health and disease and found the flower remedies as a way to do that.
Explanations about how flower essences, or all of homeopathy works, bring us into the realm of quantum physics, says Dr. Cory Tichauer, a naturopathic doctor in Ashland who uses the 39 Bach remedies in his practice. A basic premise recognizes that all physical or emotional issues start out as energy, including conscious and unconscious ideas, he says.
We all develop individual patterns in our reactions to stress or our environment, Tichauer explains, and these personality traits, often unconscious, can prompt unhelpful behavior. "Bach's remedies are a piece of the puzzle," and catalysts to self-recognition so you can alter the way you interact, he says.
Like essential oils, they can be used in combination with each other. Handouts that help determine which to choose, along with handbooks on use, are often available where flower essences are sold.