August 27, 2020 will mark the two year anniversary of the accident that killed Max and his two friends. It was a beautiful August day with a cloudless sky. They were heading to the Eastern part of the state to go white water rafting as a last hurrah before heading back to school. He was 12 and had his whole life ahead of him and I never imagined when I hugged him that morning that I would never again get to experience the feel of his engulfing embrace or the smell of his candy scented hair gel.
If I’m truly honest, I don’t think that I have been able to believe he was truly gone – until now.
I drifted through my first year of grief in a distracted haze, keeping myself so busy that I didn’t need to feel. I had positive distractions, like my daughter and my business, and negative distractions, such as a wrongful death lawsuit. Friends also really show up that first year to both distract and support me. They checked in, sent cards, and stopped by to drop off flowers, food and thoughtful gifts. I felt incredibly supported and also had the benefit of the pain numbing chemicals of shock, or the “freeze” response coursing through my veins.
Remember your body is designed for survival. Your brain and nervous system constantly monitor your environment, searching for internal or external signs of danger that trigger your fight, flee or freeze responses:
Fight: If you assess a danger as something you potentially have the power to defeat, your body drops into “fight” mode. Your sympathetic nervous system releases hormones like adrenaline which prime you for battle. This is where anger and bargaining play into the mainstream grief model – you are trying to fight the existing reality.
Flight: If you the danger is too powerful to overcome, your body prepares you to flee. Your system shifts resources and blood flow to the extremities and shuts down all functions not critical to your immediate survival (like digestion, detoxification, immune function, reproduction emotional connection and rational thinking) so you can escape the danger at hand. Depression is the grief experience of fight response.
Freeze: If you can neither defeat the dangerous opponent nor safely flee from it, your body drops into the self-paralyzing freeze response. This can present as being temporarily unable to move, spacing out, or ‘going out of body’ in cases where neither fight nor flight are viable options. In these situations, your body does not release the hormones to help you fight or flee, but instead causes you to “freeze up” or “numb out” by releasing chemicals that function as an analgesic, dulling the intensity and the pain of any mental, physical or emotional injury. This allows you to survive the enormity of what’s happening to you. If you can’t make a dangerous individual or situation disappear, you’re much better off “disappearing” yourself, by blocking out what’s much too scary to take in, in other words, the physical experience of shock or denial.
READ THIS NEXT: Releasing the Freeze Response with Essential Oils
The combination of numbing, distraction and denial carried me through year one. I had been told the first year was the hardest and I desperately wanted to believe that. But it turns out it wasn’t true. At least for me.
Year one was hard, but a different kind of hard than what I am facing now. Year one was about navigating the shock of the sudden loss, compounded by the loss of my father 7 months later. It was about creating a “new normal” for my daughter and myself. About figuring out how to navigate birthdays, holidays and family traditions – the events that brought Max such joy – without him.
William Shakespeare wisely noted that “life is a tragedy to those who feel and a comedy to those who think.” I managed to press overdrive on the thinking mode – growing my business, writing my book, preparing for my summit. It allowed me to be incredibly productive and avoid the danger and the intensity of truly experiencing the loss of my son. It also played to my life-long strength of avoiding pain by over-achieving. Work-a-holism is just another form of addiction that allow you to escape feeling hard emotions, like the overwhelming sadness of losing my child.
But I could not see that at the time. In some ways, it was probably a helpful coping strategy. It gave me purpose, distraction and allowed me to grow in a positive direction. It also helped bring positive recognition, which has been helpful in growing my business.
It seemed to be an effective coping strategy well, until the virus hit. And the world shut down, along with all my distraction techniques. And I had to land in the intensity of my pain. And my sorrow. And come to terms with the intensity of my denial.
As Mark Twain observed “Denial is more than a river In Egypt” Denial is a coping mechanism that gives you time to adjust to distressing situations.
When the police first called me to inform me of the accident, they shared that one of the boys died on the scene. At the time, they claimed not to know which boy had passed and asked me to call family and friends to wait with me while they gathered more information about the identity of the deceased child. They asked me to send pictures of all the boys and contact information for their parents. While I waited for my friends and mother to arrive, I immediately fell into denial, refusing to believe that Max could be the child that died on the scene. Even after the officer confirmed that my child was dead, I insisted on going to the hospital to see to make sure my son was not among the three children that been transported there. Even as I write these words, I still feel myself fighting the internal battle to actually accept that Max is gone.
That is perhaps what makes the two year marking of his passing so hard to bear. Denial no longer holds. I can no longer wish, think or pretend that somehow this isn’t real. That it might just be a bad dream and when I wake up tomorrow, all will be right again. When clearly, it will never be the same.
My inner drama seems to mirror the external shift I am seeing in the world in the midst of the current world crisis. Nothing is the same. People wear masks, physically distance, gaze avert and seem fearful and overwhelmed at the same time. Children are starting the new school year from home and struggling to balance their need for social connection with the ever shifting government mandates limiting physical interaction.
Limited social connection is further undermining all of our coping mechanisms and throwing many of us into states of sadness and denial.
So I thought I would share the essential oil strategies that have helped to carry me through the darkest hours of my darkest days in the hopes that might help carry you, your family and your loved ones through this dark time.
READ THIS NEXT: The Vagus Nerve and Social Connection
Denial can serve a protective role in the short-term, giving you time to adjust to any painful or stressful situation that makes you feel vulnerable or threatens your sense of control, such as the threat of this virus. Denial gives your mind the opportunity to unconsciously absorb shocking or distressing information at a pace that won’t send you into a psychological tailspin. Denial gives you the time and space to adapt to new circumstances, but it also prevents you from processing the underlying sadness and opportunity for growth.
As world slows down, you now have a choice – you can choose to look at the glass as half full and mourn the loss of your pre-lockdown world. Or, you can take advantage of the opportunity to release your denial and start to work through the underlying issues that are keeping you stuck in a state of denial.
Denial keeps you stuck in a state of dissociation with your thoughts, body and senses. Engaging the sense of smell by inhaling essential oils helps ground you back into your body to allow you to start processing and working through your thoughts and feelings.
Essential oils can calm your nervous system (more here) and help create a sense of safety. Feeling safe is a critical first step to letting go of denial and stepping into the sadness that often lies at the root of the feelings you are trying to avoid.
Grounding, or connecting to the healing energy of the Earth, brings your body into a state of balance that helps you feel both mentally and physically safe.
The definition of balance is to “maintain a steady state to avoid falling” — falling into ill health, negative thoughts, depressed or anxious mood. As our thoughts shift, so does our balance.
But nature remains steady. Plants, trees, rocks – their energy remains grounded and constant. Thus, when we align ourselves with that grounded energy of nature, it can help us return to and stay in balance. Essential oils and the energy of nature, especially oils from grounded plants like trees or grasses, help ground us and return our bodies to the state of balance and enhance our ability to change in response to body’s demands.
Essential oils, especially those derived from grounded plants like trees which are intrinsically grounded through their root structure into the Earth. Essential oils comprised from barks, roots, grasses, needles and resin of plants also help you pull your energy centers down into the Earth.
Plants that grow under earth entrain with earth’s energies. This is why stones, root vegetables or essential oils from root plants that share space with the Earth, match the frequency of the Earth and can be used for grounding. Rock, crystals and minerals, in particular, are able to hold a solid vibration so when you hold one in your hand or place it near your body, you have to change your frequency to match that of the rock or mineral. This is one reason that crystals are so popular for grounding.
Natural scents, like essential oils derived from plants, also carry a vibration and smelling essential oils forces you to entrain your energy with the plant and helps connect you to nature and ground you.
My favorite essential oils for grounding include:
Attention™ This blend helps ground you in your body. It contains Vetiver, a perennial bunchgrass with very deep roots that help ground it to the Earth. Vetiver essential oil is extracted from these deep roots and is known to ground you mentally, physically and emotionally, often helping you explore the root of your emotional issues. Attention™ also contains Frankincense™ and Cedarwood which helps us ground and feel connected to the planet and each other. Cedarwood is derived from a tall tree and gives you the strength of a tall standing tree that continues to grow over long years through all types conditions – weathering turbulent storms, fire, flood, and other such disasters only to bloom once more and stand strong. They remind us that “this too will pass with time.” Cedarwood enhances and facilitates this ability to stand tall and weather the storms of life, helping you endure dark, uncertain, and emotional events by instilling you with the strength to move forward. Apply 2- 3 drops of Attention™ on the bottom of the feet and back of the neck to help with grounding.
Frankincense™ is a resin extracted from trees that grow in the challenging climates of northeastern African and the Arabian Peninsula. These challenging climates make Frankincense™ uniquely resilient and supportive to help with grounding. What’s more, the resin and sap of trees is reminiscent of life’s blood in the sense that it protects, seals, and heals a wound. And, just like a physical wound, essential oils derived from resins are known for their ability to heals the wounds within us as well. Frankincense™ is known for helping to purify, sanctify and connect you to your spiritual path, calming the mental chatter of your nervous system. It also helps connect you to the healing energy of the Earth. Apply Frankincense™ to the bottoms of your feet to support grounding.
Parasympathetic™ Supporting the Parasympathetic State can also help the body ground which further benefits the vagus nerve. Further, the Lime oil in the Parasympathetic™ blend can help promote emotional grounding, encouraging a balance between the heart and mind, the connection of which helps you ground. Apply Parasympathetic™ over the vagus nerve (behind the earlobe on the mastoid bone).
READ THIS NEXT: Essential Oils for Grounding
When your brain senses a threat, it triggers your vagus nerve to activate your nervous system’s “fight-or-flight” survival response. Ideally, the danger is short lived and your vagus nerve then signals your body to shift back into your parasympathetic “rest, digest and recover” state of your nervous system so you can feel safe and calm.
Unfortunately, when stress doesn’t have a definitive ending — such as the uncertainty surrounding when we might be able to return to life as normal – you can stay stuck in the “fight or flight” state. Fortunately, you can activate your vagus nerve with essential oils to reset your “rest and digest” state amidst the chronic stress.
Essential oils are natural, non-invasive, easy tools to use to activate your vagus nerve. They possess both olfactory (smell) and transdermal (topical application) qualities, making them easy to inhale and apply on the skin to activate your vagus nerve.
Research backs this up as inhaling essential oils such as lavender or bergamot has been shown to activate your vagus nerve as measured by improved heart rate variability. Inhaled essential oils travel directly to your brain (specifically to the prefrontal cortex behind your forehead) where they can immediately help calm the fear response in your brain. In addition, topically applied essential oils can cross the blood-brain barrier to stimulate your vagus nerve within the brain.
Apply the Parasympathetic™ blend behind your earlobe on your mastoid bone to help calm your nervous system.
READ THIS NEXT: Stimulate your Vagus Nerve
The only way out is through, but there is no rush to get there. Intense feelings are painful to release and sometimes more manageable in small doses – think eye dropper, not fire hose. My first intense release of sadness occurred unexpectedly in a yoga class. The instructor guided us to recline over blocks – the physical pain I experienced was so intense that I thought I had slipped a disk. I rolled off the block, curled up into fetal position and laying sobbing on the floor. When the intensity subsided, I realized the heart opening position had triggered a physical release of the pain and sadness that I been trying to ignore.
Unfortunately, avoiding pain and sadness does not lessen the intensity when you are finally able to release them. They can pour out of you with such intensity that it can feel like you might drown in the magnitude of intense feelings. They are awful and unbearable.
Essential oils can calm the intensity of the flow, allowing you to chunk the release so that it feels more manageable. In this way, essential oils help you control the duration of the pain – releasing just a small amount of the intensity at a time, much like you would slowly and carefully unscrew the top of a carbonated beverage to gently release excess carbonation and avoid an explosion.
I recommend inhaling essential oils and gently releasing intense emotions with your exhale as a powerful strategy to allow you to micro-dose emotional release. Essential oils and the sense of smell allow you to activate and release intense emotions and sensations over brief durations – providing a small amount of stimulus to engage your body in releasing the pain without flooding and shutting down your system or keeping you stuck in denial.
Just place the bottle under your nose and breathe deeply, fully inhaling the oil for 3 – 7 breaths. It helps you breathe into and work through the emotion. Try to extend the exhale and really allow yourself to release the painful emotion and any associated pain and intensity
Some of my favorite essential oils to release intense emotions include:
Rose™ – Applying Rose™ over my heart was the fastest way to calm an emotional tidal wave. It immediately helped me feel better and more calm. Research by Noble prize-winning noble laureat Linda Buck shows that rose essential oil can counteract your brain’s response to fear. Her research found that smelling rose essential oil in the presence of predator odors (or other fear stimulus) can suppress your brain’s stress responses and hormonal signals.
Lung Support™ – According to Chinese medicine, feelings of grief and loss are stored in your lungs where they can obstruct ability of your lungs to accept and relinquish, impeding their function of “taking in” and “letting go” of oxygen and feelings. Grief that remains unresolved can become chronic and create disharmony in the lungs, weakening the lung’s function of circulating oxygen around the body. Lung Support™ can help release these feelings of loss and support your ability to transport oxygen from the atmosphere into the capillaries so they can oxygenate blood – and eliminate carbon dioxide from the bloodstream into the atmosphere. Apply 2- 3 drops over the lungs, allowing yourself to deeply exhale any grief as you apply the blend. Read More about Essential Oils for Grief HERE.
Liver Support™ – Anger that we don’t process and release can get stored in your liver, according to Chinese medicine. I believe anger can be the most intense and the most damaging of all the repressed emotions, because of its intensity. The more we try to suppress it, the more it rears its ugly head in ways that can undermine our health, our growth and our personal relationships. Liver Support™ helps support the release of anger, including frequent irritation, impatience, resentment or frustration, being critical of yourself or others, control issues, an inability to express your feelings, feelings of not feeling heard, not feeling loved, not being recognized or appreciated. You can inhale, apply over the liver or around the ankles as this is often an area where we hold resistance to moving forward in life. Start at the back of the ankle and apply under the ankle bone around to the front and back under the other ankle bone, all while allowing yourself to release challenging emotions
Large Intestine Support™ helps you surrender and release past hurts and negative emotions so that you can move through transitions or changes in life course. Large Intestine Support™ contains grounding oils like Cedarwood, Cypress, Sandalwood, and Myrrh. Cedarwood helps address feelings of disconnection and loneliness and inspires our sense of belonging. Myrrh provides a connection to the Earth and helps ground both your physical and spiritual energies. Sandalwood also helps us ground and calm agitated emotional states. To help surrender and ground, apply Large Intestine Support™ on the bottom of the feet or over the large intestine.
Heart™ can helps calm any intense or overwhelming feelings by redirecting you back to a space of love and gratitude. Feelings of love and gratitude can help you pivot out of the intensity of sadness and grief and act as an instant reset. In fact, an NIH study correlated a focus on gratitude with increased blood flow to the hypothalamus and a reduction in the stress hormone cortisol. Apply 2-3 drops of Heart™ directly over the heart (left side of chest). During times of intense stress and fatigue, use as often as is needed (every 20 -30 minutes). During times of normal stress, use 2-3 times daily to calm and uplift the heart and the body. Read More about Essential Oils for Gratitude HERE.
I detail how to use Kidney Support™ to release fear, Small Intestine Support™ to support healthy boundaries and of Large Intestine Support™ to release control in my 5 tools for navigating uncertainty post.
Read More about Releasing Negative Emotions with Essential Oils HERE.
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Subscribe to Vibrant Blue Oils and receive weekly information on oils and how to use them. As a bonus, we’ll send out Beginner’s Guide to Essential Oils to your inbox immediately!