Your diffuser can do a lot more than you give it credit for. 

Many people are drawn to essential oils in the first place because they enjoy the toxin-free lovely smells you can create with them (please see last week’s post on essential oil purity). They add an element of home decor. Also, that lovely plume coming out of the top can be so satisfying and mesmerizing to watch. 

Many of you know the story that I grew up in a scent-free home due to my mom’s serious lung issues. We never had air fresheners or perfumes or anything like that around. When I first became an oiler, I was certain I would never diffuse. 

Luckily, my starter kit came with a diffuser, so I started dabbling, and it took zero minutes to start enjoying it. Using an aroma in the home “just because it’s nice” was never on my radar and far from my personal experience. Good thing I had that diffuser from my starter kit because it took zero seconds for our home to adopt diffusing as a daily practice. 

Why diffusing is so powerful

I used to think aromatherapy was interesting, but really not for me. Smelling something to support your mood was something I just didn’t buy into, but I opened myself up to do some learning. If you’re like me you love to know why something is the way it is, so here’s a bit of explanation, through my own understanding, of how this aromatherapy thing works. Despite my skepticism, I have to say that it does work. 

Aromas are inhaled through the nose (obviously). The olfactory bulb sits at the top of the nasal passages right close to the brain. The bulb picks up scent molecules and pulls them into the limbic system of the brain. 

The limbic system is the part of the brain that houses memory and emotion, together. It’s an extremely powerful function that we experience as scent memories that evoke deep emotional responses. Have you ever had the thing where you walk by a shop, smell something and suddenly, you’re transported back to being four years old in grandma’s kitchen? 

Here’s another example. Say someone in your house burns popcorn. The house didn’t burn down or anything, it’s fine. Then you walk into the kitchen, you pick up the scent of burning food and your fight-or-flight reaction kicks in because of the perceived threat of fire. 

These reactions all happen before you are consciously aware of them. This is the place in the brain where memory and emotion are stored together, and they can be quickly triggered by scents. 

The powerful link between memory and emotion

When I was preparing this post on work from home productivity, I looked around for published studies that support these ideas. The ideas in this post come from personal experience and through second-hand reports. As a scholar, this just isn’t good enough, but since this isn’t a scholarly article, and I do have a bazillion other jobs, this little bit of info will have to do. Please do more digging on your own! 

I came across this fascinating article published in 2016 in Brian Sciences Journal called, “The Role of Odor-Evoked Memory in Psychological and Physiological Health.” You can read it on Pub Med here. Below is an excerpt from the conclusion of this article: 

Any odor that for a given individual evokes a happy autobiographical memory has the potential to increase positive emotions, decrease negative moods, disrupt cravings, lower stress and decrease inflammatory immune responses, and thereby have a generally beneficial effect on psychological and physiological wellbeing. Odor-evoked memories may also be able to stimulate specific emotions, such as self-confidence, motivation and vigor, and thus energize behavior as a function of the specific emotions that a given odor-evoked memory evokes. For example, an odor that triggers the memory of winning an important race could inspire all of these states and trigger positive physiological consequences. 

Leveraging the memory-emotion connection

Let’s pull this back into our daily lives. There are a few important things to notice here. First, the author doesn’t talk about specific odours, but rather the association of an odour to past behaviour and outcome. Second, recreating that aromatic link to a past desired behaviour can offer similar emotional responses when experiencing that same odour. 

Why is this important? It shows that you can strategically use specific aromas to incite certain emotional responses, and then recreate those emotional responses later. 

This is exactly how my experimentation in using essential oils with practicing and performing got started. I planned to use a special blend of oils every time I practice, and then use that same blend before going on stage. It’s like having a dress rehearsal in the performance space and in the same outfit. Performing musicians all know the performance greatly benefits by having as much consistency as possible from preparation to stage. The aromatic link between practicing and performing is one more item on the consistency list. 

Further, I knew when I maybe didn’t feel like practicing, just smelling that same aroma would trigger positive responses of past enjoyable practice sessions, and a level of familiarity that “this” aroma goes with “that” activity. So, when I need a little boost to get me on the bench, I just smell that blend and it helps me get down to work. 

Strategic aroma choice

Let’s go off-book here and look at the possibility of customizing your own emotional-response/behaviour link. This is exactly what I was trying to do in my very first personal experimentations, though I didn’t fully realize at the time just how deeply this experiment was going. 

You can read about my early personal experimentation between aromas and memory in my post about Rosemary essential oil. I didn’t realize at the time that I was also setting up an emotional link between practicing and performing. I was just looking for a place to start, and I had learned that Rosemary might be good for memory. 

The magic blend also included Peppermint for focus, Wild Orange as a mood lifter and for creativity, and Frankincense for focus and management of perceived stress. All these expected responses were based on print resources and anecdotal evidence. The link between practicing and performing seemed to work, but the big surprise was the noticeable and remarkable increase in focus. 

Create and control the future emotional response

At the time of writing this post (January 2021), most of us are affected by some degree of restriction. More people than ever before are spending 100% of their activity time in the home. We are definitely in this category, with two adults and two elementary-school kids doing everything at home. 

It is so easy for the days to blend together, and it is also so easy to have difficulty sitting down to work. There are chores, and open spaces, and lunches to make, and the same spaces every single day. Keeping the research in mind, we can strategically use different aromas to connect with different behaviours. 

Examples

Here’s an example of what I mean. Most of us know that Lavender can help us relax, so many people diffuser Lavender at bedtime. It doesn’t work that way for everyone, so if you’re someone who has had a previous association with Lavender that created a response you don’t want (maybe you hate it, maybe it caused you to have more energy, whatever) you can find something else. 

Whatever you decide to use at bedtime, make a conscious effort to create a sense of calm to go with that aroma. Really make the link between that emotion and that aroma. Before too long, just smelling that same aroma should recreate the calming response you’re looking for. 

Here’s another example. My dog Pepper just turned 14 the day I’m writing this post. In her old age she has started having panic attacks in response to loud noises. I learned that Lavender and Balance blend are supportive for moments of high stress, so I grab those oils and use them on myself, then spend some time with her to calm her down. 

The first time we tried this it took about 45 minutes for her to calm down. Now when we open the bottles, she comes over right away, looking for comfort. Now the calming time is much shorter, around 10 minutes. It appears that she now associates this blend with feeling calm and secure. That’s just a theory of course, but it seems to work, and it certainly doesn’t make anything worse. 

Aroma + location = strong connection

Let’s experiment further. Let’s say you work from home and have trouble focusing during the workday. Start by putting a diffuser in your workspace for some work from home productivity. Then choose some oils that make you feel energized and uplifted. 

Start your workday by filling your diffuser with those oils, then diffuse it every time you sit down to work. It won’t be long before you associate that activity with that aroma. Just make sure you do it at a time when you’re feeling good about working to create the most benefit. 

Repeat the process with other areas of your home. I highly recommend keeping the work blend only in the workspace. Then make a concerted effort to diffuse other things in the non-work areas, like the kitchen or living room or whatever suits your home. There are also obvious oils for diffusing at bedtime too. 

Oil suggestions for Work from Home Productivity

I have a favourite general recipe for working/practicing that you may find useful: 

This is just a starting point, and you should use what draws you. There are pre-existent blends that work really well too and require no mixing. Adaptiv and Motivate are stellar for this and they smell amazing. 

For sleeping/calming try any combo of the following: 

There are so many others, but this is a place to start. I always diffuse 3 Bergamot, 2 Cedarwood, 1 Marjoram at bedtime. My second choice is 3 Serenity and 3 Easy Air (Breathe). A quick online search for “diffuser blends for sleep” will take you down a wonderful rabbit hole of possibilities. 

Be intentional

Don’t underestimate the power of your humble diffuser. The research shows the strong connection between aromas and emotional responses, so use this to help you navigate your day. This knowledge can really help you anchor specific behaviours to specific locations, and help you separate work from home when you work at home. 

Coda: diffuser maintenance

To keep your diffuser running at its best you should clean it once a week. It’s easy: 

  • fill halfway with water 
  • add 1-2 Tbsp white vinegar 
  • diffuse for 10 minutes 
  • wipe out the gunk with some Lemon oil or alcohol 

If you really hate the smell of vinegar you can also give it a regular wash with mild detergent and water. The OnGuard Cleaner Concentrate is perfect for this. Just be careful to keep water and soap out of the electronic controls (obviously). 

Report back! Are you trying these strategies for work from home productivity? What’s working for you?