Joyful, elated, sad, grateful, angry, disgusted… we experience thousands of emotions on a daily basis. It is hard to argue that the nature of our predominant emotions governs the quality of our lives. We hear so much about cultivating gratitude, the positive thinking movement is sweeping the world, but are things really that simple? Forcing yourself to feel good and happy all the time has a real potential to backfire. So, what do you do?
First lets’ look at the nature of emotions. Emotions are short term affective responses to external stimuli. Something happens in the outside world (we get a kiss, or get cut off in traffic), the affective response gets triggered based on our pre-existing evaluation of the event (kiss – good, cut off – bad) and causes bodily reactions (heightened pulse and blood pressure, perspiration, change in breathing patterns, muscle contraction or relaxation). Without going too deep into the science of emotions, we can agree that they are very powerful in creating mental and physical states that determine the direction in which our days (and lives) can go.
Early Greek philosophers determined five basic emotions: fear, anger, disgust, sadness, and joy. Notice anything? That’s right, only one positive emotion. Negative emotions dominate this list, and dominated the scientific inquiry, for quite some time. The reason is that they are much easier to recognize and report, more pronounced physically, and more important for survival. Only recently scientists like Barbara Fredrickson and Sonia Lyubomyrsky began investigating positive emotions. But still, negative emotions are the primary focus as they elicit the strongest bodily responses and affect our physiology and overall quality of life. Most prominently, they cause what is termed the modern plague – stress.
There are actually three types of stress. Eustress, or the good stress, helps you achieve and experience intense feelings. Eustress before a test pumps your heart, delivering more oxygen to the brain and helping you learn. Eustress on a first date produces that “shaking knees head over heels” feeling that we cherish when we recall our first few dates. Then there’s the acute stress – the type of stress that arises and passes quickly. You walk out on the street and a car comes to a screeching halt next to you – and you instinctively jump away, heart pounding and breathing heavy. This stress puts your body into “fight or flight” response helping it get out of potentially dangerous situations by redirecting resources (blood, oxygen, adrenaline) into parts of the body responsible for survival. Now, the real problem here is the chronic stress – the type of stress that lasts for long periods of time, depleting the body of its resources and plummeting your normal functioning. Long term consequences of chronic stress include high blood pressure, heart issues, diabetes, muscular tension, and digestive issues.
The most prominent cause of chronic stress is what is known as “second darts” in the Buddhist teachings. Any negative situation in life is the “first dart” – they can rarely be avoided, and they cause short term stress or eustress. But, unfortunately, it doesn’t end there: we then throw the “second dart” by overthinking it, beating ourselves up, ruminating over “coulda shoulda woulda” and causing the acute stress to extend turning into chronic stress. This is bad news and good news: bad news is that we are essentially the primary cause of our chronic stress. The good news is that we have the power to intervene in that moment between the first and second dart and take measures to ensure that the second dart never flies out.
And this is where the power of aromatherapy comes in. The physical part of the brain where emotions originate and are processed and stored is called the amygdala. Research done in the 1980s shows that stimulating the amygdala can release long standing emotional trauma. And guess what? The only way to stimulate amygdala externally is through the sense of smell. Visual and auditory information is rather complex and has to travel to the prefrontal cortex to be processed (the good-bad evaluation) before being sent to the amygdala to trigger emotions. When smells get into the olfactory system, they trigger responses that bypass the prefrontal cortex and travel straight to the amygdala, directly triggering emotional responses. This means that aromatherapy has an unbeatable advantage when it comes to emotional regulation.
The art of emotional aromatherapy is quite old, but modern technology allowed us to formulate blends that can address specific emotional states and help us relieve some of that chronic stress. Check out some of these blends here and next week we will cover them in more detail.
Hope you have a happy week!