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Release Overwhelm with Essential Oils

by Jodi Cohen

woman outside in the cold warming hands

Overwhelm is defined as “be too much.”  Specifically, if something overwhelms you, it feels like too much, or almost too much, for you to manage.

Overwhelm occurs when your nervous system is stuck in freeze, or the dorsal branch of your parasympathetic nervous system. In response to danger, you nervous system primes you for survival by either fighting, fleeing or freezing.

These are 2 survival states are at complete opposite ends of the spectrum – ramp up v shut down.

Fight or Flight:  Your “fight or flight” response is controlled by the sympathetic branch of your nervous system, which releases hormones like adrenaline to prime you for battle. This can present as defiance, anger, aggression, fighting and rages.

If you assess a danger as something you potentially have the power to defeat, your body drops into “fight” mode.  If the danger is too powerful to overcome, your body prepares you to flee.  Your sympathetic “fight or flight” nervous system shifts resources to help you survive – heart rate and blood flow to the extremities increase, adrenaline kicks in, muscle strength increases, pupils narrow and sight is reduced to seeing only the “way out”.

All functions not critical to your immediate survival shut down (including digestion, detoxification, immune function, reproduction and rational thinking) so you can escape the danger at hand.

Freeze:  If you can neither defeat the dangerous opponent nor safely flee from it, your body drops into the self-paralyzing freeze response. Freezing is fight-or-flight on hold, where you further prepare to protect yourself. It’s also called reactive immobility or attentive immobility. It involves similar physiological changes, but instead, you stay completely still and get ready for the next move.

This can present as being temporarily unable to move, overwhelmed and shut-down – feeling shame, spaced out, depression, and low energy – 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”.   Your body releases 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 and survive the trauma.  If you can’t make a dangerous individual or situation disappears, you’re much better off “disappearing” yourself, by blocking out what’s much too scary to take in. A chronic freeze response is also closely related to depression.

The freeze response kicks in when the survival system has decided that whatever is facing us is too overwhelming.


Getting Stuck in the Freeze Response

Just like you can get stuck in “fight or flight” sympathetic overdrive, traumatic experiences can keep you stuck in a chronic freeze response, a condition known as dissociation, as it helps to numb you from feeling life’s pain so you can survive it.

In other words, the issue is not only that your sympathetic (stress) response is too high, but that your parasympathetic (rest and repair) system is inhibited because you are frozen or immobilized (physically, mentally or emotionally).

This freeze response shuts you down so you can avoid feeling the intensity of the pain, discomfort and fear surrounding the situation to allow you to survive it. This shuts you down both emotionally and physically.  It literally shuts your body down, storing unprocessed emotions in your body and your nervous system.

When animals in the wild survive danger – by either fighting, fleeing or freezing – they discharge the survival energy by physically shaking.  When you shut-down and fail to release stored trauma, it can get stored in the body. When you freeze in a state of terror or anger, that emotion gets frozen in a part of your body

Your nervous system attempts to compensate for this undischarged energy which results in imbalances in the nervous system over time.  These imbalances can present as a nervous system being both more reactive and more prone to shutting down in response to future stress.

In other words, your freeze response makes you more easily overwhelmed, triggering your nervous system to shut down to avoid feeling the intensity of the fear and discomfort and allow you to survive it.


Parasympathetic vs. Hyper Arousal and Shut Down (Freeze)

Your nervous system holds the key to processing and rewiring overwhelm.

Your Parasympathetic nervous system should be active 90% of the time, but high levels of arousal (Sympathetic Dominance) or low-level, shutdown levels of arousal (Freeze)  – also known as immobility response, shutdown state or dissociation – knock your nervous system out of balance.

Your survival brain prioritizes self-preservation and down-regulates executive function skills. In its attempt to keep you alive, the survival brain can make other cognitive functions feel much more difficult.

Overwhelm then gets stored in the nervous system.  Your nervous system attempts to compensate for the undischarged energy from the survival response that was triggered but shut down.  This shut down puts the nervous system in a numbed, dissociative, chronic freeze state.


Release Overwhelm with Essential Oils

In order to thaw the freeze and move out of stuck and shutdown, you need to begin feeling again beginning with feeling your body sensations which helps discharge stuck energy.

Connecting to your body is the key to thawing your freeze response.  Your cognitive brain becomes mostly disengaged during stress, when everything other than immediate survival is shut down, and can’t be accessed, so trying to think your way out of freeze or access your cognitive function becomes unavailable under high-stress states.

Your sense of smell and your other senses can be powerful tools to bring you into the present moment and into your body so you defrost the freeze.  Smell  can be used to as a trigger to stimulus the body to re-engage in its own self-defense mechanisms.

When you smell something strong, it’s very hard to focus on anything else.   Smell can be used as an anchor to help reorient you to the present to the here-and-now.

Essential oils are gentle tools which allow you not to overwhelm or overload your nervous system as you are attempting to calm the overwhelm and defrost the shutdown.  Gentle strategies are helpful for unpacking freeze as when you feel frozen feelings that you have been avoiding, it can make you feel worse.

Essential oils can be used as a behavioral prompt to help shift you out of your head and into your body, for a number of reasons. Your brain responds to smell based stimuli like essential oils within seconds.  In fact, research estimates your sense of smell to be 10,000 times more acute than your other senses. Once registered, scent stimuli travel more quickly to the brain than do either sight or sound.

Scent has direct access to the emotional center of your brain that controls your hormones and motivation levels, known as you limbic system.  On a physical level, only two synapses separate your amygdala from your olfactory nerve.  No other sensory system has this kind of direct and intense contact with the neural substrates of your brain’s emotional control center.  Your other four senses, including sound, sight, taste and touch must travel to other regions of the brain first, before reaching your limbic system. This makes essential oils an incredibly powerful prompt for triggering desired behavior.

Your sense of smell is also tied to you breathing.  Deep inhalations and exhalations both help you focus on your breathing, taking time to slowly inhale and exhale while helping connect to your mind and body in the present and remind you  that you are safe.



Essential Oils to Ground, Center and Shift Freeze

Essential oils can help you move out of these high states of hyper of hypo arousal (overwhelm, shut-down and dissociation) back into balance, back into equilibrium. They can help calm the nervous system to create a sense of relative safety. Feeling safe is the first step to being able to become aware of body sensations that allow you to move out of immobility and stuck places.



Grounding is known to calm your sympathetic nervous system and help balance your nervous system.

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.

Your nervous system is the key to unraveling overwhelm. Restoring your sense of safety by activating your parasympathetic nervous system can help you to feel calm and grounded so you allow yourself to experience your emotions and pause your avoidance strategies.

Topically applying Parasympathetic™ behind the earlobe on the mastoid bone can stimulate the vagus nerve where it is most accessible to the surface of the skin and turn on your safety response. We recommend applying  Parasympathetic™ to vagus nerve three times daily.

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).

Attention™ 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 grounds 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.

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.  A

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™ or Frankincense on the bottom of the feet and back of the neck to support grounding.

Heart Center

Once you are grounded and feeling safe, your heart can help you process through and discharge energy. Connecting to your heart helps you let go of any fears related to survival or power struggles, and allows you to process and re-integrate trauma.

Your heart helps you regulate high arousal states (both physical and emotional) and redistribute energy mobilized for life-preserving action, while freeing that energy to support higher-level brain functions, clear away mind chatter and improve your self-awareness.

Centering in your heart energy helps you uncouple from the fear from of immobility.  I just focus on intentionally moving awareness from the head or mental and intellectual focus to the heart and emotional center for love and joy.

Viewing situations through the lens of the heart allows the kindest, most genuine response and helps you access inner strength, resiliency, courage, integrity and authenticity. Your heart helps you feel safe and support feelings of self-acceptance, self-love, compassion, openness, and unconditional love of others.

Heart™  helps shift your heart into coherence and align with your healthy heart resonance. Apply Heart™ blend over your heart center, the area behind your breastbone, up toward the jugular notch, and back to between the shoulder blades.   This area encompasses your physical and emotional heart.

Smelling essential oils like Heart™  can help keep your body grounded and feeling safe as you process through scary territory like the freeze response.  Heart™ blend contains a proprietary blend of organic and/or wild crafted essential oils that helps you show love to others and yourself, including Blue Tansy and Jasmine.  A report in the Journal of Biological Chemistry examined the impact of hundreds of fragrances on the brain and found jasmine to be “as good as Valium at calming the nerves with none of the side effects.”


Once you are grounded and centered into your heart, it is easier to shift your body out of freeze. By shift, I mean release old patterns and replace them with healthy new patterns.  Intense feelings are painful to release and sometimes more manageable in small doses  – think eye dropper, not fire hose.

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.

Inhaling essential oils can help you gently micro-dose the release of intense emotions as you exhale.   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 freeze.

Just place the bottle under your nose and breathe deeply, fully inhaling the oil for 3 – 7 breaths. Try to extend the exhale and really allow yourself to release and shift.

READ THIS NEXT: Essential Oils to Shift Avoidance Strategies 

Some of my favorite essential oils to release intense emotions include:

Rose™  – Applying Rose™ over my heart was the fastest way to calm  emotional tidal waves and shift.  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 THIS NEXT: Essential Oils for Grief

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


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About The Author

Jodi Sternoff Cohen is the founder of Vibrant Blue Oils. An author, speaker, nutritional therapist, and a leading international authority on essential oils, Jodi has helped over 50,000 individuals support their health with essential oils.

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* These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration. These products are not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease.

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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!