Stress, and stress related illness, are among the most prevalent health problems of 'civilisation' and certainly figure prominently on any aromatherapist's case-list.

Stress can be described as anything which disturbs the normal balance of mental and physical health and stress factors may be mental, physical or environment in origin. For example, an accident or injury is a source of physical stress: bad lighting, noise, polluted air or ugly, dehumanised surroundings are sources of environmental stress. However, in discussing stress we tend to think more of the mental/emotional aspects, such as worries about work, finance, relationships or even the threat of nuclear annihilation. Stress from any source makes us less able to withstand stress from any other source: for example, when we are worried, we may have minor or major accidents and we are more prone to 'catch' infectious illnesses when we are emotionally drained.

External sources of stress are not, in themselves, the problem, but the way in which we react to them. This has been described by Dr Hans Selye as the General Adaptation Syndrome. After an initial reaction to some external threat or stress, the body adapts to the situation and can continue to function reasonably well, even though the source of stress is still present, for some time. This adaptation phase puts a certain degree of strain on the body, especially the adrenal glands, and if the level of stress increases, or if a fresh source of stress materialises, the ability to adapt to it may break down, and all kinds of symptoms, from allergy to heart attacks can follow.

One of the most useful things that anybody can do about stress is to recognise that they are threatened in this way, and take active steps to reduce the levels of stress suffered by the body. Along with such techniques as yoga, meditation, exercise, and creative activities, aromatherapy has an important function as a de-stressing technique. Some people consulting an aromatherapist are well aware that they are stressed, and have chosen this therapy for the deep relaxation that massage with essential oils can bring. Many others consult about the physical symptoms provoked by stress, and may need to be helped to understand that reducing the stress will help their overt problem.

A huge array of essential oils are at our disposal in coping with stress: all the sedative and antidepressant oils initially to induce relaxation. These include Bergamot, Camomile, Clary Sage, Jasmine, Lavender, Marjoram, Neroli and Rose.

Oils which strengthen the action of the adrenals may help in the short term, but they should not be over-used. The most useful of these are Geranium and Rosemary. Rosemary is also a general stimulant, along with Black Pepper, Peppermint, Thyme, etc., and these can be used for short periods when stress has led to exhaustion.

These oils are by no means the only ones that might be used, and represent only those that are found to be most effective.

Anybody who knows that they are under some stress, be it long term or of a passing nature, can do a great deal to help themselves by using aromatic baths as an aid to relaxation. It helps to make bath time almost a ritual; setting aside a time when there will be no interruptions, taking the phone off the hook if necessary, choosing a favourite essential oil or blend to add to the bath and perhaps making a cup of relaxing herbal tea to take into the bathroom.

Obviously, it makes sense to do whatever possible to remove the source of stress. Talk to a trusted adviser or a professional counsellor about work, financial or relationship problems, remove additive-laden foods from your diet, choose household products free from synthetic chemicals to reduce the number of physical stressors affecting your body. Joining an environmental pressure group or blog and campaigning about water, air or agricultural pollution is far less stressful than doing nothing but worrying about the possible effect on your self or your family.

During a period of stress, the body is less able to absorb nutrients, so some supplementation especially of the B group of vitamins, and vitamin C is helpful. Ginseng, described as an 'adaptogen' helps the body to cope with the effects of stress, and many people find herbal iron preparations helpful.

But the best advice is: get massaged as often as you possibly can.

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