Essential Oils and Brain Fitness (Part 4): Breathe, Smell, Enjoy the Present Moment

This is the third post in my series on essential oils and brain fitness. To see other posts in the series, click here.

As I continue this series of articles on essential oils and brain fitness, it may be helpful to ask, why is brain fitness even important? Why devote time out of your busy life to developing a healthy brain?

One very good reason to start developing a healthy brain is that scientists have found that if your brain is unhealthy, there is a greater chance that the rest of our body will also deteriorate.

Listen to these words from neuroscientist and brain-researcher, Dr. Caroline Leaf, who wrote in her book Switch On Your Brain about the wide-ranging consequences of how we use our brains:

“You think all day long, and at night as you sleep, you sort out your thinking. As you think, you choose, and as you choose, you cause genetic expression to happen in your brain. This means you make proteins, and these proteins form your thoughts. Thoughts are real, physical things that occupy mental real estate. Eric R. Kandel, a Nobel Prize-winning neuropsychiatrist for his work on memory, shows how our thoughts, even our imaginations, get ‘under the skin’ of our DNA and can turn certain genes on and certain genes off, changing the structure of the neurons in the brain…. Our brain is changing moment by moment as we are thinking. By our thinking and choosing, we are redesigning the landscape of our brain.”

Dr. Leaf goes on to cite research which suggests that between 75 to 98% of illness may originate from one’s thought life. How you use your brain actually changes the physical structure of the brain which, in turn, effects the entire body. That’s a pretty strong reason to take these ten steps towards developing a healthy brain!

But what does a healthy brain look like? When we talk having a good brain, most of us immediately think of intellectual functions like being able to recall information, to calculate or to reason. These are certainly important aspects of brain fitness. But the brain is more than a giant computer: it is also the seat of the imagination. Moreover, the brain also plays an important role in our hopes, our fears and our loves. It is with the brain that we make connections with other people, interpret life’s experiences and empathize with those closest to us. Other parts of the body play important roles in these processes as well, but the role of the brain remains central.

So having a healthy brain is about more than just being able to remember where you put the keys or quickly memorize a friend’s phone number. It’s also about being able to creatively imagine how someone else is feeling even when their experiences are different from your own. It’s about being able to focus on one thing when distractions are competing for your attention. It’s about being able to reframe difficulties into challenges. It’s about being able to think outside the box to come up with creative solutions. It’s about using mindfulness to weed out toxic thoughts. It’s about harnessing the power of gratitude to remain in a state of wellbeing even when everything around you is going wrong.

In short, having a healthy brain is about becoming a healthier person.

With that in mind, let’s jump into today’s topic, which is a continuation of the theme introduced in my earlier post, ‘How to Develop a Peaceful Brain.’ Just as you can’t begin decorating a house until you’ve built the foundation, so you can’t begin working on the details of brain fitness until you’ve worked on the foundation. And one of the foundations to a healthy brain is taking time each day to engage in mindful, meditative breathing while inhaling essential oil mist.

A Birthday Party and a Conspiracy

“I’m glad you’re home dear”, my wife Esther said when I returned home from work one evening back in 2009. “It’s almost time to go to the birthday party.”

“What birthday party?” I said.

“Don’t tell me you’ve forgotten? Remember, you promised to attend Isaac’s birthday party tonight at Scott’s house.”

“Oh yes, I forgot all about that.” I said, trying to conceal my disappointment. I had been looking forward to having a quiet evening at home to finish reading A Tale of Two Cities. “Well,” I said as I concealed my disappointment, “it will be a good opportunity to meet some new people.”

I certainly did meet some new people that night. Back then I was still working my old job as a political journalist and, consequently, people at the birthday party sought me out for discussion of conservative politics. One of the most enthusiastic of the conversationalists that evening was a man in his late twenties called Trigger.

Trigger wanted to discuss with me the recent election of Barack Obama. During the conversation he kept referring to authors and concepts that I had never heard of (later I realized why).

During the next few days I stayed in contact with Trigger, and he introduced me to his friends Butch Tailgate, Thor Anderson and Punch Matthews. They started reading some of my online political articles and were impressed.

Then I received the fateful email. In the message, Trigger explained that he and his friends were secretly trying to take over the local chapter of the Idaho Constitution Party. They almost had enough people in their group to vote themselves into leadership at an upcoming meeting, but they were short one person. Would I be interested in joining their secret plot?

I replied that I would give the matter some consideration but I would first need more information about their plans. What followed was a series of emails and face to face conversations in which Trigger, Butch, Thor and Punch brought me into their loop. What they told me was absolutely horrific.

It turned out that these men were part of a larger movement of white supremacists in the area who planned on eliminating non-whites from Party leadership. Ultimately, they wanted to use the Constitution Party as a front for creating a new political movement that would culminate in Idaho and Northern Montana seceding from the United States. After leaving the union, they planned to create camps where African Americans and other ethnic minorities would be forced to dwell. After that, they hoped to introduce laws punishing interracial marriage, in addition to laws prohibiting whites from adopting children who were black or brown.

Instead of immediately repudiating these hateful plans, the investigative journalist in me kicked in and I decided temporarily to work my way deeper into the dark counsels of this group. It was then that I discovered how widespread the movement of white supremacists in North Idaho actually was.

Meanwhile, two friends of mine were lured into the group, one of whom started making racist jokes that he expected me to find funny.

When I couldn’t stomach it any longer, I showed my true colors and exposed the plot to the leadership of the Party. That was when the things really started to get dirty. Butch said I should be put on trial for execution. Trigger phoned up mutual friends to complain about me. The group began sending me hate mail because of the stand I took against their race-based neo-fascism. Former friends of Punch warned me to keep away from him for my own safety: both he and Thor carried weapons (knives and handguns) and weren’t afraid to use them.

During this stressful time, I began to experience high levels of anxiety. I stopped being able to focus on my work because all my energy was spent just trying to survive. I began being plagued by self-doubt and anxiety as friends questioned whether I had done the right thing to expose the group. I became hyper vigilant to threats and couldn’t concentrate on my work without checking my messages every few minutes to find out if there were further developments. I stopped being able to sleep because of constantly being plagued with fear, self-doubt and anxiety. I agonized over whether to take things further and inform the police, even though doing so might compromise the safety of my wife and kids.

As I look back on those events of 2009, I wish someone had explained to me about essential oils and the positive power of meditative breathing. If I had known how to stop and meditate, much of the stress and anxiety I went through could have been lessened.

C.S. Lewis once said that he wrote the books he wished he had been able to read. What follows in the remainder of this article is what I wish I had read back in 2009 when I found myself facing the wrath of Trigger, Butch, Thor and Punch

The Power of Positive Breathing

Anthropologists have found that writing, art, and the finer aspects of civilization tend to only be sustained in cultures where there was a surplus of food production. This isn’t surprising. When a human society is forced to spend all their energy trying to survive, as in cases where the members of a tribe are never sure where your next meal will come from, there isn’t much left-over to devote to writing, literature, philosophy or music.

What is true of human culture is also true of individuals. When a person’s brain is so focused on trying to survive, there aren’t a lot of resources left to allocate to the ingredients that go into brain-fitness. In short, less anxiety equals more brain fitness while more anxiety equals less brain fitness. That’s exactly what I found during my time infiltrating the white supremacists: since all my brain’s energy was exhausted trying to survive, there wasn’t much left for anything else.

What I didn’t know then, but subsequently learned, is that God has bestowed on each of our bodies a resource to help us escape from survival-mode into a place of peace and stillness. This resource is so basic that we usually take it for granted without even thinking about it.

The valuable resource that can move you from a life of survival to a life of safety and wellbeing is your own breath. Consider four reasons why deliberate deep breathing is central to well-being.

1. Slow Breathing Means “I’m Safe”

Perhaps you’ve notice that the rate of your breathing automatically speeds up whenever you’re confronted by danger. This even happens when you’re watching a scary movie. Faster breathing is the body’s way of getting ready to either flee or fight.

The really cool thing is that this phenomenon also works the other way round: when you slow down the pattern of your breath, you send a message to the body that you’re safe. If you are able to slow your breathing down to five breaths a minute (inhale as you count four seconds, hold for four seconds, then exhale for four seconds, doing this for an entire minute), this tells your body that you are really safe. By breathing like this, you are recognizing an objective truth about your situation, namely that regardless of whatever else may be going on in your life, right now and for the next minute (or however long you decide to do it) you are actually safe.

Try it right now if you feel inclined. Sit somewhere comfortable. Turn your diffuser on with an aroma that you find reassuring and grounding. Then breathe in for four seconds, hold it for four seconds, and then let your breath out for four seconds. At the end of a minute you’ll have only taken five breaths, yet surprisingly you won’t feel short of air; rather you’ll be amazed at how safe and secure you’ll feel. Through this type of controlled and deliberate breathing, you’re sending your body the message that you’re safe, that you are so safe that you don’t need to breathe quickly.

2. Slow Breathing is an Exercise in Focus

A second reason why slow breathing is important for wellbeing is that it helps to develop the same mental muscles needed for resisting constant shifts in focus. Deep breathing itself doesn’t do this, but deep breathing combined with mindfully observing the pattern of your breath helps to strengthen the brain’s capacity for attentiveness. By choosing to focus on your breath, or a simple prayer that you can synchronize with your breathing, you are giving a powerful message to your body that your wellbeing doesn’t depend on following every distraction that enters your brain.

When you choose to pay attention to your breathing for just five minutes, you’ll probably experience hundreds of distracting thoughts. Each time you say no to these distractions and calmly bring your focus back to your breathing, you’ll be a little more experienced in the skill of resisting distractions and preserving focus. These skills are transferable to numerous other areas of life, from being able to focus effectively on work to being able to pay attention to those you love. As you do this, you will literally be creating new neuropathways in your brain.

3. Slow Breathing Tethers You to the Present

By engaging in the discipline of deliberate, focused breathing, you are committing to live in the present.

Consider that when we’re controlled by our survival instincts we tend to be preoccupied by the past. For example, we obsess over past mistakes, we relive painful memories or we worry about what might have been if our past had been different.

Our survival instincts also lead to preoccupation with the future: worrying about what tomorrow will bring or obsessing over future scenarios that might never come to pass. Our survival instincts rob us of being able to enjoy right now.

The one thing that is always present to us is our breath. Insofar as our breath is always happening in the present, it has the potential to serve as a powerful antidote to survival-based obsessions with the future and the past. When we choose to focus all our attention on our breathing, or a simple prayer that we can align to the rhythm of our breath, we are committing to enjoy the present. At first this can be excruciatingly hard. Even experienced meditators find they can’t focus on their breathing for very long without the brain being bombarded with thoughts about the past or future. When that happens, it’s the brain’s survival instincts kicking in and feeling unsafe living in the present.

By being mindful to practice present moment awareness in the context of your meditative breathing, you will exercise the same mental muscles needed for present-moment awareness at other times. When we’re reading a book, going for a walk, exercising, working or listening a child talk to us, we all want—or should want—to be all there, to be completely absorbed in the activity at hand, to achieve moment-by-moment awareness. By learning to live in the present during times of meditative breathing, you train yourself to have present-moment awareness at these other times.

4. Slow Breathing Unites You to Your Body

Deliberate, focused breathing is crucial to wellbeing because it unites us to our body. So often our focus is everywhere but our bodies. We may be attending to what is happening somewhere else—at our work, at our house, in the news (or our newsfeeds), or other people’s bodies. Our attention is everywhere except our own body.

Consider also that our culture often treats our body as an enemy. We are constantly surrounded by gadgets and electronic devices that promise to deliver us from the limitations of our embodiment. On top of this, we easily get preoccupied with everything we don’t like about our body. This negativity about the body robs us of the sheer joy that comes with being physical—the delight of being able to touch, taste, see, and above all to smell. When we focus on our breathing, we draw our mind back into the body. I liked how the Greek Orthodox monk, Father Maximos Constas, explains about this aspect of focused breathing:

“If the mind focuses on the breath that means the wandering mind, which has been outside of the body, is now united to the body, and that’s a huge first step, because so often we’re absent from the present moment. You can live your whole life without actually having lived it. Focusing on the breath is important because it brings the mind back to the body, and also because the breath is the one thing that we have that is unambiguously in the present—right where and right now. If I can get my mind to focus on the breath I’m not only entering into my body but I’m also entering into the present. It is so tremendously powerful to be in the present. It can be frightening because it’s a place we’re not familiar with, and I think that’s one of the reasons we run from it. It can be overwhelming.” (From ‘Knocking at the Door of Our Own Hearts: Prayer of the Heart in an Age of Technology and Distraction, Part 5.’)

Anchored by Aroma

Just as our breathing draws our attention back to the present, so do the smells of plants. Insofar as aroma is always happening right now, it has powerful potential to anchor us in the present. Significantly, when Jesus told his followers to live in the present, he pointed to flowers as an example. (Matthew 6:28-34)

In the natural world, the fragrances produced by plants are transitory, unpredictable, fleeting. They gently caress us, linger and are gone. In the natural world, aromas are delicate and highly responsive to even the slightest permutations of sunshine or wind. As such, they are there to be enjoyed right now or not at all.

Aroma gently draws us back to the joy of the present moment.

This aspect of aroma—the sense in which it is always present—beguilingly entices our wandering minds back into the here and now. When we come upon a field of alpine flowers, walk through an aromatic pine forest or enjoy the fresh smell of a dewy morning, suddenly the cares of the past or the uncertainty of the future no longer seem as important. Aroma invites us to surrender to the joy of living in the enchanted present.

Accordingly, aroma offers a bodily experience similar to what happens when we choose to draw our mind inward to the pattern of our breath: in both cases we are allowing ourselves to be tethered to the present where we were meant to live.

Not all smells have the power to anchor us in the present like this, just as all breathing doesn’t necessarily anchor us in the present. Fast-paced stressful breathing perpetuates a survival-based sense of anxiety, as do smells that are toxic, rancid or artificial. Typically, the smells that tether us to the present are aromas that are gentle, supporting, floral, soothing and fresh. These types of smells help us to let go of toxic thoughts and to be positive in the present moment. And isn’t that how we all want to live? After all, the present is where we meet and touch each other; it is where we experience gratitude, hope and love. The present is where we laugh, cry and love.

Do Try This at Home

It’s time to put into practice what we’ve been talking about! Get an essential oil that you find reassuring, grounding, uplifting or relaxing. Because every person responds so uniquely to the different oils, I can’t tell you which oil to use. The point is to find an oil that works for you. If you’re stuck, some good oils to always fall back on are Idaho Blue Spruce, Stress-Away, Frankincense, Vetiver, Lavender or Citrus Fresh.

Once you have your diffuser going, set a timer for five minutes. During these five minutes be mindful of your breathing. As distracting thoughts arise in your brain, let the aroma gently draw you back to the present. (For more information about this type of activity, see my post ‘Essential Oils and Brain Fitness (Part 2): How to Develop a Peaceful Brain.’)

The Power of Positive Smelling

If it’s true that aroma helps to anchor us in a positive present, then we should expect to find a definite correlation between pleasant aromas and a lessening of anxiety. Moreover, because less anxiety equals more brain fitness, we should expect to see the research showing a connection between positive aroma and various markers of brain fitness.

And that is exactly what the research shows. The academic literature on this subject is now so voluminous that many scholars are devoting their entire careers to studying the relationship between aroma, mood and cognition. Here is a brief smattering of the research:

  • Dr, Schiffman found that negative odors led to an increase in bad moods. In 1995, the New York Times quoted Dr. Schiffman explaining that a group of people in North Carolina who live downwind of hog farms were “severely depressed, anxious and have less vigor.”
  • Japanese researchers tested the effect of a floral green aroma on subjects performing mental arithmetic, and then compared the results with a control group. The researchers found the group exposed to the aroma showed less stress activity in their prefrontal cortex, as well as less stress-related skin secretions.
  • In a study at Rutgers University, researchers found that women who wore flowers exhibited the Duchenne smile, which is linked with positive changes in the brain. They also out-performed a control group in their willingness to engage in social activities they had previously put off. Amazingly, the women who received flowers reported more positive moods three days later. (This research was published in a 2005 edition of the journal Evolutionary Psychology.)
  • Other Japanese research found that those who inhaled a lemon aroma made 54% fewer errors than those who sniffed plain air. Putting this research into practice, Tokyo’s Idemitsu Oil Development Co has created a system for pumping a citrus aroma through the ventilation ducts every 2 minutes. This is said to make the employees more productive, to put them in a better mood, and make them feel at home.
  • In a follow-up study at Rutgers, Dr. Haviland-Jones arranged for flowers or pens to be handed out to random people during elevator rides. Those who received flowers moved closer to the other elevator riders and initiated conversation, while the people who received pens did not. Flowers, and presumably the aroma emanating from them, increased sociability and friendliness on an unconscious level.
  • Dr. Haviland-Jones’ research also found that the presence of flowers triggered happy emotions, heightened feelings of satisfaction, and had a positive effect on social behavior, including increased contact with family and friends. Participants who received flowers also reported feeling less depressed, anxious and agitated.
  • Summarizing recent scent research, an article on Mood Media observed that “It is overall accepted that a smell of a fragrance can influence mood, memory, emotions, stress, sustained attention and problem solving, friends choice, the endocrine system and the ability to communicate by smell without knowing it. The effects mentioned can be elicited both by consciously and subliminally perceived odors.” (For a review of the academic literature on this subject, see Chapter 10 in Olfaction, Taste, and Cognition.)
  • A 6 month study of seniors 55+ showed that those who received flowers out-performed a control group in memory tests. The group with flowers also showed an increase in genuine well-being.
  • Clinical studies have repeatedly shown a reciprocal loop between depression and loss of smell. In her book The Scent of Desire, smell expert Rachel Herz explains that “Depression can truly bring about olfactory loss” and visa versa. Although skeptical of some of the exaggerated and inconsistent claims of aromatherapists, when Herz analyzed 18 different studies for the International Journal of Neuroscience, she found that “The results indicated that various odors can significantly affect mood, cognition, physiology and behavior…” Referring to her own clinical research, Herz recounts that “My studies have shown that odors can literally be transformed into emotions through associations and then act as proxies for emotions themselves, influencing how we feel, how we think, and how we act…”
  • In 2007, the Washington Post reported that educators are increasing their performance through peppermint aroma. The paper cited research conducted at the University of Cincinnati which discovered that a whiff of peppermint or lily of the valley helped increase concentration.
  • Oxford researcher, Mikiko Kadohisa, found that odor had a remarkable effect on human emotions. In the publication ‘Effects of odor on emotion, with implications’, Kadohisa shared that the olfactory system “could be a very effective, often sub-conscious, driver of emotional responses. …. Human and complementary studies in non-human animals provide evidence that odors evoke emotion and autonomic state via pathways to the amygdala and OFC, and become incorporated into episodic memory via the hippocampus. In addition, it is suggested that some odorants which elicit emotion may have potential to treat patients with psychological problem such as depression.”
  • In 1995 a team of scholars published research in the journal Neuroimmunomodulation showing that exposure to citrus fragrance improved the mood of depressive patients to such an extent “that the doses of antidepressants necessary for the treatment of depression could be markedly reduced.” Moreover “The treatment with citrus fragrance normalized neuroendocrine hormone levels and immune function and was rather more effective than antidepressants.”
  • Dr. Susan Schiffman conducted experiments which found that use of pleasant odors could improve the mood of males in midlife, reducing tension, depression, anger, vigor, fatigue, and confusion. She was also involved in an experiment that piped scents through a subway car and then observed the behavior of riders in that car. The pleasant odors are said to have cut aggressive acts by as much as 40%.
  • In 1991, the New York Times reported that companies and universities were seeking mood-altering fragrance systems to enhance alertness. To achieve better alertness, people found a blend of peppermint, lemon, eucalyptus, rosemary and pine to be effective. To achieve relaxation, lavender and clove were used. To refresh, “citrus notes with pine and eucalyptus.”

The conclusion to all this research is that the sense of smell may be one of the most important—though overlooked—components to human well-being and mental fitness.

Start Noticing the Smells

If you’re serious about applying this research to your own life, make a concerted effort to start noticing the smells that surround you.

If you live near some woods, a meadow or a sea shore, take a walk in these places and make a point of noticing and taking in the different smells. By deliberately focusing on the different aromas, your sense of smell will become more acute, according to research from the University of California Berkeley. Use this as a time to de-stress and focus on the positive things about your life.

If you live in a city and can’t enjoy the smells of nature, go for regular walks in which you train yourself to notice the aromas that are still available, such as the fresh smell meadow a light rain, or the aroma emitted by flowers, or the smell of damp earth.

During these walks practice the type of slow-deep breathing we’ve been talking about.

Meanwhile, continue using your diffuser liberally. Explore some of the oils in Young Living’s Premium Starter Kit, finding oils or combinations of oils that uplift your spirit and help you to maintain a positive outlook on life.

Robin Phillips

Robin Phillips

I am the author of Saints and Scoundrel, hold a Ph.M. in historical theology from King’s College London and I am currently working on a Masters’ in Library Science through the University of Oklahoma, with the aim of eventually becoming an academic librarian.