Scented Escapes

In our bones we need the natural curves of hills, the scent of chapparal, the whisper of pines, the possibility of wildness. We require these patches of nature for our mental health and our spiritual resilience.  –  Richard Louv

IMG_2797 2Yesterday I was getting that frazzled feeling you get when you’re thinking about everything that needs to get done and all the things that haven’t yet been resolved. I’ve learned that’s exactly the time to stop, take a deep breath, and figure out how to change the channel. Just a few miles from my home is an arboretum that houses a collection of nearly 400 lilac varieties and since lilacs are in bloom here, I decided to take a nature break and go see them.

The warm sun on my face and cheerful bird songs were uplifting, but the overwhelming scent of the lilacs transported me.

Lilac Memories

IMG_2787When I was a kid, our family lived down the road from an enormous row of lilacs that edged a college parking lot. My sister and I would take our red wagon and scissors over to that grove and shamelessly cut armloads of flowers to haul home as we inhaled their fragrant blooms. I had no idea that the scent of lilacs would forever conjure memories of carefree childhood times celebrating spring under the weight of that perfume.

Our sense of smell is powerful. Unlike other sensory systems, the olfactory receptors are connected to the limbic system, the most primitive part of the brain which influences emotions and memories. A scent can trigger memories and feelings before your conscious mind even registers what happened.

Quick Aroma “Therapy” at the Market

You may not be able to find a blooming lilac bush or get away to your nearest arboretum for a sensory escape (although I hope you do your best to get outside whenever possible!), but there are other simple ways you can harness the gift of aroma “therapy”.

Let’s start with the idea that you can use your nose even when you’re on a hurried trip through the grocery store:


In the produce section, take a big whiff of a woodsy rosemary bunch to wake up your brain. The ability of rosemary to boost mental power has been known for thousands of years. As Ophelia declared in Hamlet: “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance: pray, love, remember.” Researchers at Northumbria University in Newcastle found that rosemary enhances memory and helps people become more alert. What exhausted parent couldn’t use that?


When you pass the floral department, take time to smell the roses. It turns out that old adage contains real wisdom. A 2012 study by Nancy Fagley at Rutgers University found that appreciating the meaningful people and things in our lives has a significant impact on overall life satisfaction.


If you shop at a health food store or Whole Foods, treat yourself to a squirt of scented hand cream in the bath and body aisle, or take a light whiff of an essential oil sample while you’re there. Here are a few worth testing:

Lavender, considered the most essential oil, promotes relaxation and improves mood. There have been a number of studies indicating that inhaling lavender essential oil can reduce stress and anxiety.

The soft floral fragrance of ylang ylang is also known to have an uplifting effect, inducing feelings of joy and hope.

And bergamot, which is a citrus fruit, soothes the nerves and reduces tension, anxiety and stress. Bergamot is the secret ingredient that gives Earl Grey tea its alluring quality.

Essential Oil Diffusers

If you want to try an essential oil at home, diffusers seem to be all the rage – and might be worth exploring if you don’t have a child with sensory issues. I know plenty of people who swear by them. A mom told me recently that her daughter, who struggles with depression, finds aromatherapy is a useful complement to her other supports.

Back to Lilacs
IMG_2893Sadly, lilac is not an easy botanical fragrance to capture. Lilac essential oil is actually a steam distilled extract of the leaves (unless it’s synthetic – yuck). If you have a chance to find some lilacs, realize they are a fleeting pleasure. And if you don’t, I hope you use your nose – in nature or the super market – to experience a moment of calm and contentment. Or just look at these beautiful pictures from the arboretum and imagine the lilacs are with you.










* Note: Some essential oils are not recommended if you are pregnant or taking heart medication.




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