Aromatherapy Support for ADHD/ADD and Anxiety
By Haly JensenHof, BS, MA, LPC, RA
We know that ADHD/ADD has been diagnosed for decades; however, do we really understand these pervasive diagnoses? We know that ADHD is Attention Deficit with Hyperactive behavior, and that ADD is Attention Deficit on its own, but do we really know the root cause of these disorders? There are many theories circulating about what causes ADHD/ADD such as chemical imbalance, faulty neurological wiring, food allergies, but I propose that a lot of ADHD/ADD is due to severe anxiety. Seldom is ADD diagnosed without the addition of hyperactivity. Therefore, for the purposes of this discussion ADHD will be the diagnosis. During my twenty years as a mental health professional working with children, I observed hundreds of children diagnosed with ADHD, and an equal amount of children diagnosed with an Anxiety Disorder. Many times both diagnoses were given to the same child.
To the casual observer, and to the professional mental health provider, the symptoms of both ADHD and Anxiety Disorders are one and the same. Many of the symptoms observed in ADHD are the same as those found in Anxiety Disorders. These symptoms include: inability to concentrate, being fidgety, difficulty going to sleep or staying asleep, irritability and emotional outbursts, inattentiveness; restlessness, moving from one activity to another without completion of tasks, poor academic performance, and poor interpersonal relationships. Because of these similarities in symptoms many questions arise, such as: Which diagnosis fits best, or do both fit? What should the treatment protocol be? What psychotropic medications should be prescribed, and is that the preferred course of action? It can certainly be very confusing to parents, teachers, and the mental health professional. To further complicate the matter, both ADHD and Anxiety Disorders are typically diagnosed between the ages of six and seven years, both diagnoses must have duration of symptoms for approximately six months, and both have symptom severity fluctuations depending on settings.
I have always held it is easier to diagnose Attention Deficit Hyperactive Disorder than it is to diagnose an Anxiety disorder. It is easier to ask the parent if the child’s behavior falls into the diagnostic profile of ADHD than it is to take a deeper look into the child’s environment, social and domestic situations, and internal dialogue. Because ADHD is typically diagnosed at approximately the same time the child is entering school, I believe the picture is clouded even further. For example, a child is being asked to enter into a foreign environment filled with peers and adults he doesn’t know and adhere to a new, strict, regimented schedule. He is asked to leave his primary caretakers, the familiarity of his home or daycare setting, his “comfort items,” like a favorite stuffed animal, blanket, toys, and his more relaxed, enjoyable daily schedule. Now, if an adult is asked to leave the comfort of his or her home/work setting, diminish daily contact with family, friends, or coworkers, leave behind the cell phone or laptop and begin following an unfamiliar schedule, wouldn’t a level of anxiety and distress follow? However, there is a difference between the child and adult; the adult has learned skills and methods of dealing with anxiety, the child has not yet learned these skills. The adult can verbalize her anxiety, while the child can rarely state what is upsetting him.
Other anxiety provoking factors also need to be investigated, such as: Is there a chaotic, abusive, toxic home environment? Is the primary caretaker an anxious or depressed individual? Is this the first time the child is being separated from the primary caretaker? Have there been changes in the home, e.g., addition or loss of a family member or beloved pet, or a move? What has the child’s exposure to peers been in the past? All of these questions need to be asked before a definitive diagnosis can be made for ADHD or an Anxiety Disorder. All too often it is easier to diagnose ADHD based upon the surface symptoms and prescribe a psychotropic medication than it is to delve into the psychosocial factors influencing a child.
What should you do once your child has been diagnosed with ADHD and/or an Anxiety Disorder? There are play therapy and talk therapy approaches, but these take months, if not years, to show marked improvement in behavior and cognition. There are conventional psychotropic medications like Ritalin, Concerta, Adderall, and Stratera, all of which have unpleasant side effects and take time to reach therapeutic levels. But fortunately, there is also Aromatherapy. This can show improvement immediately, has no detrimental side effects, costs much less and, in my opinion, is a much more pleasant experience for the child and the primary caregivers.
The first Aromatherapy approach I would suggest would be to address the issue as if it were an Anxiety Disorder. There are several essential oils that can be utilized. Some of the essential oils effective for anxiety include: Benzoin (Styrax benzoin), Celery Seed (Apium graveolens), Myrtle (Myrtus communis), Orange (Citrus sinensis), Palmarosa (Cymbopogon martinii), and Petitgrain (Citrus aurantium).
All of these essential oils help instill a sense of calm which is needed by the child feeling constant anxiety. If the child responds positively to the use of these essential oils it is then likely that the symptoms are related to an Anxiety Disorder and not necessarily ADHD.
Essential oils that are most commonly used to assist with anxiety are also listed as being useful for ADHD. In fact, during my research on ADHD and essential oils I have not found any essential oils that address ADHD symptoms without also being effective for anxiety. If the child has a dual diagnosis of ADHD and an Anxiety Disorder there are essential oils that are listed as being helpful for both conditions: Basil (Ocimum basilicum), Bergamot (Citrus bergamia), Cedarwood (Cedrus atlantica), Chamomile (Chamaemelum nobile and Matricaria chamomilla), Dill Seed (Anethum graveolens), Eucalyptus (Eucalyptus globulus), Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia), Lemon (Citrus limon), Marjoram (Origanum marjorana), Peppermint (Mentha piperita), and Vetiver (Vetiveria zizanioides). The essential oils can be used singly or in a blend.
If the goal is to promote restful sleep, the selected essential oils can be diffused in the child’s room with an ionic diffuser. A linen spray of distilled water and essential oils can also be used on the bedding and stuffed animals. A room spray, made in the same manner as the linen spray, can also be sprayed into the child’s room. After determining contraindications, calming baths before bedtime using a single oil or a blend can also be utilized to help prepare the child for sleep. Calming massage blends can also be used during times when a child needs a soothing influence.
During the daytime, perhaps on school days, the child can wear a terra cotta pendant or other aromatherapy jewelry infused with essential oils to provide continual support throughout the day. A personal inhaler, which can be carried by the child and used during times of distress, could also be provided. If the child happens to be in a more progressive school that allows the diffusion of essential oils the teacher could diffuse a single oil or blend of oils into the classroom. It would be helpful to the child with ADHD or anxiety, as well as benefitting other children in the classroom. These are but a few of the methods with essential oils that can help a child suffering from ADHD and/or anxiety experience more calm, gain clarity of thought, be more grounded and centered, and have improved emotional and behavioral health.
Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 4th Edition; Washington, DC; (1994); American Psychiatric Association; 1994.
Battaglia, Salvatore; The Complete Guide to Aromatherapy, 2nd Edition; Brisbane, Australia; The International Center of Holistic Aromatherapy; 2009.
Lawless, Julia; The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Essential Oils; Rockport, MA; Element Books Limited; 1995.
Sellar, Wanda; The Directory of Essential Oils; London, UK, Vermillion; 2005.
Haly is a formally trained Clinical Aromatherapist who received the bulk of her training from Shanti Dechen at Aroma Apothecary Healing Art Academy. Haly specializes in individualized therapeutic blending to assist clients with physical, emotional, and spiritual wellbeing.
In conjunction with her aromatherapy skills, Haly also uses her skills as a mental health therapist to assist each client to gain a healthy balance and regulate and maintain overall health.
Prior to becoming an aromatherapist, Haly was a psychotherapist and clinical case manager at a residential treatment facility for children. Haly has also been an adoption therapist and taught college level psychology courses. In her work at the residential treatment facility, Haly helped children and their families overcome severe emotional and behavioral disruptions. It was through the use of diffusing essential oils in her office that Haly became more and more interested in the practice of aromatherapy. This interest resulted in Haly leaving her active mental health therapy practice and pursuing her education in aromatherapy. Haly is a Professional Member of NAHA and the NAHA Regional Director for Wyoming.
Haly lives in a small town in Wyoming with her husband and three active terriers.
To learn more about Haly, please visit her website: www.yourhealthscents.com
Visit the NAHA website to purchase Haly’s NAHA Teleconference recording on: Aromatherapy Support for ADD/ADHD and Anxiety.
Note: Articles appearing in the NAHA e-newsletters, e-journals and other published materials fall under the NAHA publishing rights and are published with the author’s permission. Copying, reposting or publishing these articles without written permission from NAHA constitues an infridgment of copyright law. You are welcome to post a link to the NAHA Blog which includes past articles.