The Alchemy of Trauma: Healing with Aromatherapy



Near to where I live tall cedars and towering douglas firs fly upward to the sky.  Walk through the woods and you will catch the scent of the canopy and the aroma of the wild and varied underbrush below.  What you are smelling are volatile oils, the evaporated molecules and compounds that float in the air and emanate from the landscape.  Traditionally when most of us lived closer to the land we were breathing in these volatile oils throughout much of the day.  These aromatic compounds float through the nasal passage, stimulate the olfactory bulb and send messages to the amygdala where we process emotional experiences.  The brain then sends internal electrical and hormonal signals that shift mood and perception.   Human sensorial and emotional experience has long been wedded to the aromatic pulses and emissions of the land.


Which brings me to trauma.


If you study the massive Kaiser study about traumatic childhood experiences that surveyed over 17,000 people back in the 90’s, you’ll find that 2/3rds of us have experienced trauma sometime in our childhood, and that 40 percent of us have had multiple traumas.  And what we have learned is that these traumas translate into adult experiences of mental and physical illness as well as heightened susceptibility to addiction.  The Kaiser study pointed to the universality of trauma without even getting to larger frameworks of trauma such as systemic oppression, inequality and poverty.  They also didn’t record our core modern experience of trauma, the sense of deep disconnection from land and ancestral home, our sense of alienation and separation from the meadows and forests, the rivers and estuaries that once were woven into the fabric of our everyday experience.



Some time ago we chose to see the land as separate, to treat it as so many board feet, so many kilos of gold and coal.  We eschewed the ancient rites of dancing the turn of the seasons, gathering from field and fen, honoring the spirits and wild beings of the forest.  We started to dance to a different rhythm of clocks and machines, the humming sound of progress, getting faster, bigger, more efficient, onwards and onwards.   And as we reap the rewards and comforts of untold riches harnessed from mining the mountains and felling the trees, we have realized that our destination seems to have arrived.  It shows up in clearcuts, mountaintop removals, an ever warming planet, crowds of people with no where to sleep, too much too many too fast.




Small Batch Distillation 








Lately, I have been distilling the leaves and flowers of plants and trees into aromatic compounds.  Making essential oils and hydrosols from the woods.  Trimming, pruning and gathering a few branches here and there.   Gently watching the forest turn into aromatic elixirs and glimmering oils.  The device I use is much the same as one invented by the great physician and alchemist Avicenna in the 11th century in the Middle East.  When I fire up the copper alembic, I like to think I am following in his footsteps, quietly worshipping the sacred landscape, turning lead to gold.




There has been a strong movement to reconnect to the power of essential oils to heal mind and body.  But much of that movement is connected to large scale industrial production of essential oils.  We now clean our kitchens and douse ourselves in oils made in huge factories from unknown lands by farmers who we have never met.  We barely know the names of these plants, let alone know what they look like in the field and forest.  This form of aromatherapy is a continuation of the process of naming and selling the land as a commodity to be used and discarded.




The movement to small batch distillation is based in a desire to know the fabric of our landscape, to connect to this tree right here and this patch of lavender right there; toknow the terrain and landscape, the feel of the air and the sense of magic and timing that is intimately entwined with the process of artisan distillation.  When we distill a few branches from a single tree into precious drops of oil and then invite that scent in,  we are welcoming the forest and asking to dance with the land.  There is a sense of remembrance, of connectedness, a deep long yearning for merger, enchantment, symbiosis finally being met.  By working with the plants directly we are also become aware of what is ok, how much to prune and take, when the gathering is too much and unsustainable.






The Alchemy of Trauma



When we experience trauma of any sort, the memory becomes recorded in the limbic portion of our brain and kindles greater sensitivity and alertness for any further danger.  Our body is ready to jump into action, to pump blood to our muscles, dilate our pupils, to release cortisol and adrenaline in reaction to the threat.  When our limbic system is kindled again and again by trauma and threat, we lose resiliency and the ability to adapt to stress.  We become rigid and scared.  We tremble with fear, shut down and dissociate, hide and isolate, lash out in anger and rage.



Healing from trauma is the process of learning to find comfort, joy, pleasure, and relaxation in our bodies again- to be able to be resilient and confident.  This is not an easy or quick process.  Regaining ourselves is a slow transmutation of the soul.   Just as ancient alchemists paid extraordinary attention to attending to the right balance of heating and cooling, condensing and mixing, those who are working through the depths of traumatic stress have to pay careful attention to self-care, activity and managing stressors so that they can fully heal.  In both processes, timing, rest, effort and mindfulness are keys to success.



Aromatic plant based compounds such as terpenes and esters have the powerful ability to transform our emotional landscape, to help calm or stimulate, nourish the senses and bringdeeply needed pleasure.  When we make contact with aromatic compounds again and again, we can begin a process of transformation- from a state of feeling sad, confused and overwhelmed- to feeling increased feelings of relaxation, serenity  and joy.  We are essentially retraining the limbic portion of our brain to create memories and new neural pathways.  Brain plasticity means that the neural connections we made out of trauma states when younger do not have to be frozen and static.  They can change in time.   We are also reconnecting to land and between us and nature, that sense of deep disconnection can be bridged in the process of scent and breathing the field and forest in.






Aromatic plants for healing trauma



Connecting to aroma and scent as a tool of healing does not have to be complex and should not have to be expensive.  Some options include:


1- Take a walk in the forest.  The forest is humming with aromatic compounds that we are imperceptibly drawing into us.  Its one of the reasons that researchers are seeing decreased levels of anxiety and depression in folks who take part in regular connection to nature.    (See Forest Breathing.)




 2- Plant aromatic plants in your yard.  Think of rosemary, lavender, daphne and jasmine.  Purchasing a small plant can pay dividends down the road as these plants transform into huge beautiful aromatic creatures.   (See horticulture therapy.)










3- Buy small batch artisan distilled oils and hydrosols.  Try to purchase these aromatic elixirs from people who lovingly tend to their plants and have a direct connection to the process of distilling.  (See more here.)






4- Make or purchase aromatic massage oils and bath salts that can be part of a daily protocol.   Again be sure to buy from artisans who are in love with their plants.



5- Distill your own hydrosols and essential oils.  Its a lot more simple than you think to purchase a small distillation unit and start making aromatics.  I purchased my small kit here and use it regularly.  Here is a great article by Cathy Skipper to get you started.



6- Work with trained aromatherapists and specialists who can offer treatments using artisan essential oils.  see- Kate Kirkham



7- Learn from amazing teachers such as Jeanne Rose, Ann Harman, Cathy Skipper and Jessica Ring.  Here are some of their books and articles:


Essential Oils by Cathy Skipper

Making and Using Hydrosols- by Cathy Skipper

Harvest to Hydrosol by Ann Harman

Distilling your own hydrosols  by Ann Harman

375 Essential Oils and hydrosols   by Jeanne Rose

Jeanne Rose articles  by Jeanne Rose

Douglas Fir Distillations   by Jessica Ring

Lavender Distillations by Jessica Ring






Ancient alchemists worked to take a base material such as lead and exalt itto a higher form such as gold.  With trauma, the work is to move from a state of being extraordinarily sensitive, frozen or numb to one of being more calm, at ease, fluid and joyful with the capability of greater trust and love for self and others   It is not about denying or ignoring the parts of ourselves that are sad, wounded and disconnected.  But it is about not letting that part of us become the totality, the dominating force that guides our life.   Aromatics can be a key way to help heal that trauma as well as reconnecting us to the land and the Earth itself.













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