Aromatherapy As An Adjunct Therapy For Sexual Assault and Rape Victims

Every 98 seconds, someone in the United States experiences sexual assault. (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, 2018).  This daunting statistic leaves many feeling overwhelmed and helpless in how to effectively help victims.  This paper will discuss how aromatherapy professionals are equipped with tools that when combined with other healing modalities can help victims progress through their trauma and find the strength to reclaim their lives.  

The term sexual assault refers to sexual contact or behavior that occurs without explicit consent of the victim.  Rape is considered a form of sexual assault but sexual assault is not necessarily rape.  The FBI defines rape as penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim. (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, 2018)  One out of every three women worldwide finds themselves the victim of sexual assault as does one out of every five men. (Futures Without Violence)  Reports indicate that 63,000 children were victims of sexual abuse between 2009 and 2013. (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, 2018)  

aromatherapy for sexual assault, aromatherapy for rape, aromatherapy for rape victims

Why are these numbers so important? Beyond the realization of the enormity of this problem, they are important because no matter our race, religion, sexual preference, political affiliation or economic status, we all have been touched by sexual assault.  Even if you are fortunate enough to not have personally experienced this type of trauma, someone you know, someone you care about has.  On a more hopeful note; these numbers also show us how far reaching our assistance can be.

Sexual violence affects victims psychologically, emotionally and physically.  Symptoms may begin in the first days to weeks following the assault but can continue for years, especially for those who do not report their assault, did not seek treatment or did not have much need support from loved ones.  Symptomologies commonly experienced by victims include: depression, flashbacks, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), the desire to self-harm, sexually transmitted infections, substance abuse, dissociation, drug and alcohol abuse, eating disorders, sleep disorders and suicidal ideations. (Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, 2018; Laura P. Chen, 2010)

Inhalation and The Effects of Odor-evoked Autobiographical Memory

With every inhalation we take, tiny odor molecules are brought in through the nasal passages and stimulate millions of olfactory receptors that send signals to the olfactory bulb and limbic system.  This stimulation brings on a myriad of effects: delight, disgust, euphoria, hunger and so on.  In recent years, we have learned that smell and disorders related to olfaction have a great impact on one’s quality of life.  (Hummel, Landis, & Hüttenbrink, 2012)  In fact, olfactory dysfunction is a marker for neuropsychiatric diseases including autism, ADD/ADHD, eating disorders, depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder and schizophrenia as well as an early biomarker for neurodegenerative diseases. (Field, 2015)  While discussing the effects that the odor has on one’s well-being, it is important to discuss and consider odor-evoked autobiographical memory.  

Odor-evoked autobiographical memory (OEAM) occurs when an odor triggers the recollection of a meaningful past personal episode. (Herz, 2016)  OEAMs are said to be our most primal of memory triggers.  OEAMs require less thought and provoke more vivid memories as well as a stronger emotional response than autobiographical memories triggered by other modalities. (Arshamian, 2013)  

While literature shows that odor-evoked autobiographical memories produce more positive memories, they can also elicit unpleasant, negative emotions related to trauma and are therefore potent triggers for those who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). Case studies of PTSD sufferers have shown that odors associated with a traumatic event do evoked flashbacks.  A study on aversion memories in healthy college students demonstrated that students who were asked to recall scenes from a traumatic documentary (which had been previously paired with olfactory, visual or auditory cues) whose experience was paired with an olfactory cue had more arousing, detailed and unpleasant memories than those whose cues were auditory or visual. (Herz, 2016)

This information is vital for aromatherapy professionals who take on sexual assault cases or any clients with a traumatic past to ensure that aromatic choices improve a client’s overall well-being while avoiding the possible negative psychological effects triggered by OEAM.  

Aromatherapy’s Role In Sexual Assault

citrus oils, citrus oils for sexual assault, citrus oils for rape, antidepressant

In addition to its effectiveness, the utility inhalation provides aromatherapist to treat the psychological and psychosomatic effects associated with sexual assault is the discretion that aromatic jewelry, inhalers and diffusers provide.  Many victims wish to maintain their privacy when dealing with the after-effects of their trauma and these administration methods support that choice.  Inhalers are small and easily fit into one’s palm.  They are easily carried and used without drawing attention to oneself.  The growing popularity of aromatherapy jewelry assures a variety of styles which blend seamlessly with other jewelry one might wear.  Aromatherapy has become so mainstream in recent years that you can purchase diffusers almost anywhere and if one simply says they are diffusing “because it smells good,” no one will second guess the reasoning.  Inhalers offer an additional benefit of being a relatively cheap treatment option which is an important consideration for those clients who are displaced or starting their life over as a result of their assault.

While we are just beginning to scratch the surface of treating Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) in aromatherapy, this should not stop professional aromatherapist from reaching out to sexual assault victims. Aromatic plants and aromatherapy have been used extensively in the treatment of addiction, anxiety, depression, sleep disorders and stress.  Essential oils to consider for sexual assault clientele include: Citrus oils (Bergamot (Citrus bergamia), Lemon (Citrus limon), Lime (Citrus aurantifolia), Sweet Orange (Citrus sinensis), Yuzu (Citrus junos), etc.), Clary Sage (Salvia sclarea), Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia), Neroli (Citrus aurantium var amara), Rose otto (Rosa damascena), Vetiver (Vetiveria zizanoides) and Ylang ylang (Cananga odorata).  

Citrus oils are a mainstay in aromatherapy.  They are relatable, cost-effective, bright, uplifting, bring about positive emotions and are enjoyed my most individuals.  It’s difficult to not smile when inhaling the aroma of fresh citrus.  These characteristics make them a perfect addition to any formulation for mental wellness.  Citrus oils are made up of primarily monoterpenes and more specifically, limonene.  Monoterpenes are known for their uplifting and energizing properties. (Boyton, 2017)  Anecdotal evidence and scientific research shows us that citrus oils are anxiolytic, antidepressant and uplifting while calming to the nerves. (Holmes, 2016)  Citrus oils have also been shown to help restore stress-induced immunosuppression. (Komori T., 1995)   Several citrus oils are phototoxic due to the existence of furocoumarins, while this is not generally a concern with inhalation it is important to understand the severity of phototoxicity of each oil if the client will be utilizing aromatic jewelry that may cause the aromatics to come into direct contact with the skin.

Clary Sage (Salvia sclarea) is considered one of the most important aromatics employed by aromatherapist. (Mojay, 1997)  Clary Sage is considered a classic remedy for stress-related conditions, including: chronic fatigue, insomnia, depression and anxiety. (Holmes, 2016)  One animal study showed that a 5% concentration of Clary Sage had the strongest anti-stressor ability and suggested its use as a medication to treat depression. (Rhind, 2012)  Clary Sage’s properties are due to its high ester content. (Price, 2012)  The ester, Linalyl acetate, can make up 74% of the oils total composition. (Tisserand & Young, Essential Oil Safety, 2014)  Esters are known to regulate the sympathetic nervous system, providing a balance between its uplifting, calming and sedative properties while protecting the body through its adaptogenic properties. (Boyton, 2017)  

Lavender (Lavandula angustifolia) is arguably the most popular essential oil on the market.  Its affects are widely known and well-studied.  Even individuals who are not interested in aromatherapy know of Lavender essential oil.  Lavender’s benefits come chiefly from the monoterpenol, Linalool, and the ester, Linalyl acetate.  Beyond the understood benefits of esters as mentioned above, Linalool is also sedative and helps to relieve pain. (Boyton, 2017)  Linalool has also demonstrated anti-depressive properties. (Guzmán-Gutiérrez SL, 2015)Several animal and human investigations have demonstrated Lavender’s anxiolytic, mood enhancing/stabilizer, sedative, and neuroprotective properties for lavender. (Koulivand, Ghadiri, & Gorji, 2013; Rhind, 2012) One study comparing Lavender essential oil to the anxiolytic drug, Chlordiazepoxide found the anxiolytic effects of Lavender essential oil to be similar to Chlordiazepoxide. (Koulivand, Ghadiri, & Gorji, 2013)  

Neroli (Citrus aurantium var amara) is produced from the flowers of the Bitter Orange (Citrus aurantium) tree.  Neroli consist of primarily monoterpenols and monoterpenes specifically, linalool and limonene.  Mojay describes Neroli as, “ideal for the emotionally intense, sometimes unstable, individual who is easily alarmed and agitated” (Mojay, 1997) suggesting that this could potentially benefit sexual assault victims, especially in the acute stages following their assault.    Neroli is also said to having the ability to re-establish the mind-body connection. (Mojay, 1997)  Neroli is an incredibly expensive essential oil.  This is likely the reason we do not have a lot of research available to demonstrate its touted effects.  The studies available show the effectiveness of sedative and anxiolytic properties.  In the anxiolytic study; the effects of Neroli were measurable to that of Xanax (the control). (Buckle, 2015).           

Rose otto (Rosa damascena), though there is debate over who was the first to declare the Rose the “Queen of the Flowers” there is no debate over the reverence it has seen since ancient times for its scent and its therapeutic properties. (Dickerson, 2001; Mojay, 1997)  Rose is one of the most complex essential oils known, consisting of more than 300 constituents. (Battaglia, 2002) The primary components in Rose otto essential oil are the monoterpenols, citronellol and geraniol.  Rose essential oil is said to be uplifting and comforting, soothing and bring about a general sense of well-being as well as being benficial for insomnia and nervous anxiety. (Rhind, 2012; Mojay, 1997) In his book, The Healing Intelligence of Essential Oils, Kurt Schnaubelt decribes Rose as a nerve tonic and recommends it as part of a blend for insomnia, shock and grief.  While cost has likely prohibited the study of Neroli, our love of roses has appeared to supersede the cost of researching its therapeutic benefits.  Studies by Mach and Ting (1921), Rovesti and Columbo (1973), Hongratanaworkakit (2009) and Jahangir et al (2008) have sucessfully demonstrated the sedative properties of Rose. (Buckle, 2015)  A study on the anioxyltic effects of rose demonstrated that its effect was similar to non-benzodiazepine anxioltyic drugs. (Battaglia, 2002)  Rose was also shown to have an hypnotic effect on the centernal nervous system in two separate studies. (Boskabady, Shafei, & Amini, 2011)        

Vetiver (Vetiveria zizanoides) is known as the oil of tranquility in Sri Lanka giving us a clear indication of its traditional usage. (Battaglia, 2002)  Vetiver is made up primarily of sesquiterpenes, giving it grounding properties. (Boyton, 2017)  Vetiver is said to be relaxing for those individuals who experience stress, anxiety, depression or insomnia.  It is also recommended in the use of exhaustion related to burnout. (Battaglia, 2002)  The main action of vetiver is said to be on the nervous system.  It is sedating and strengthening in effect. It is excellent in the treatment of depression, nervous tension, insomnia and other stress-related diseases. (Chomchalow, 2001)  While there is not a lot of research currently available on Vetiver but there is a lot of anecdotal information based on traditional use of the herb as well as the current use of the oil to guide our formulating.  

Ylang ylang (Cananga odorata) essential oil is considered one of the most important oils in perfumery. (Battaglia, 2002)  Beyond its striking aroma, it offers important therapeutic properties to aromatherapy.  Ylang ylang is said to be balancing, calming and sedative.  All of these properties coincide with the therapeutic actions attributed to its ester and linalool content. (Rhind, 2012)   Ylang ylang is anti-depressive and provides a feeling of well-being. One study showed evidence that the use of the oil significantly altered the self-esteem of the test subjects. (Ali, et al., 2015)  Further studies show that Ylang ylang decreased systolic and diastolic blood pressure in human volunteers as well as demonstrating relaxing and sedative effects and reducing autonomic nervous system arousal. (Tan, et al., 2015)   

In her article in The International Journal of Professional Holistic Aromatherapy, Karey Shane, C.A. discusses her first-hand experience with the use of aromatics and hand massage at a drop-in shelter for victims of sex trafficking and the profound transformation she witnessed in these individuals as these therapies helped them relax and feel at peace. (Shane, 2016)  Utilizing this first-hand knowledge, anecdotal/historical evidence of aromatics and ever increasing scientific research on essential oils and their components as well as the profound effect the olfactory system has on the mind, body and spirit paves the way for aromatherapy to be an integral part of the recovery process.     

Beyond Aromatherapy

aromatherapy for sexual assault, aromatherapy for rape, aromatherapy for rape victims

It can be difficult maneuvering the subject of an individual’s sexual assault experience.  It is important that as professional we provide a place where clients feel they can share their experience so we know how to best assist them.  Consider the following:

*Believe your client.  It is the best thing you can do.  Sharing such an experience with a stranger can be incredibly difficult.  Often victims are ashamed and feel as though they will be blamed or not believed.

*Respect the client’s privacy.  They will share their experience as they are ready.  Do not push them to share more than they are prepared to reveal.  This can cause undue stress and anxiety to the client and they may not return.

*Put them in charge.  When appropriate allow the client to make informed chooses aromatics that will be utilized in their treatment.  This can be very empowering to someone whose world may seem complete upside down and out of their control.   

*Utilize useful phrases of reassurance with your client.  Words have power.  How reassurance is delivered can be helpful or harmful.  Avoid phrases like, “it could be worse” or “everything will be fine”.  Instead assure the client that they are not alone and that you are here to help them.

(Helping a Survivor of Sexual Assault, 2017; Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, 2018)

Zoe’s Story

Zoe is a bright and energetic 11-year-old.  She is an affectionate and loyal friend.  Her interests are extensive and eclectic.  To look at this bright-eyed, smiling child, one would not guess that she is the victim of sexual assault.  Beginning at the age five and continuing until the age of eight, when her mother walked in on her assailant, Zoe was regularly and horrifically assaulted by a man that she knew, trusted and cared for.  The primary officer on Zoe’s case referred to her assault as the most horrific he’s ever seen in 25 years as a police officer.  To add to this traumatic situation, she and her family have endured an additional three years of Zoe retelling her story over and over and waiting for the justice system to give them some form of closure.  A scenario that is all too common among assault victims.  In fact, many victims who report their assault never get the justice they deserve and must learn to find the closure they need on their own.  

While it is unfortunate that Zoe’s story is very much typical for child sexual assault victims, she is also beating many of the statistics that are associated with the aftermath of such trauma.  

So, how is Zoe coming out on top?  How is a child who went through so much able to live a life without fear and not become overwhelmed by her trauma?  

Zoe has been very fortunate in that she was removed from the situation immediately and believed by all who care about her.  Unlike most victims, Zoe’s story was not swept under the rug or hidden.  It was out in the open for all in her life to be aware of and process.  She was never shamed for what happened to her.  Her family also made sure to seek out all of the support and treatment options they could for Zoe so she could find a happy and healthy life after her trauma.  Though Zoe is recovering well, she still suffers from chronic symptomologies related to her assault including: sleep disturbances, anxiety, angry outbursts, oppositional defiance and PTSD tendencies.  Along with her weekly therapy sessions and prescribed medications, Zoe’s mother came to me to see what additional assistance aromatherapy could provide. 

After much discussion, we decided that we would focus on Zoe’s sleep disturbances (as good quality sleep is a key component of overall well-being) and decreasing her anxiety and outbursts during the day.  After choosing oils appropriate for the above situations, final oil choices were based on Zoe’s personal preferences.  After selecting a number of oils that were appropriate for her symptoms, Zoe was allowed to choose oils she personally preferred. Allowing Zoe a choice of oils helped her to re-establish a small measure of control over her life, as much of the time she had health care professionals telling her what she needed to do.  

Zoe was provided with an aroma-inhaler for daytime use consisting of: Yuzu (Citrus junos), Sweet Orange (Citrus sinensis), Clary Sage (Salvia sclarea), West Australian Sandalwood (Santalum spicatum), Balsam Copaiba (Copaifera officinalis), Rose Otto (Rosa damescena) and Neroli (Citrus aurantium var. amara) for anxiety and outbursts.    

For sleep disturbances, she was provided with a diffuser blend of: Sweet Orange (Citrus sinensis), Patchouli (Pogostemon cablin), Rosewood (Aniba roseadora), Ylang ylang, complete (Cananga odorata) and Ruh Khus (Vetiveria zizanoides).  

Zoe has been using the above blends for several months.  She and her family happily report that Zoe has fewer instances of sleep disturbances and a decrease in her overall anxiety and anger.  They are delighted in the progress that has been made as it is having a positive effect on her overall wellbeing.

Summary

Sexual assault is a daunting, global problem with after-effects that are complex and individualized. While aromatherapy alone would not be recommended as a treatment option; proper understanding of the impact the olfactory and limbic systems have on mental and physical health along with the understanding of the therapeutic benefits of essential oils provide aromatherapy professionals with the ability to add an additional layer to the treatment plan of a sexual assault victim that can potentially provide a more well-rounded, holistic healing experience.  As more research is published on essential oils and their individual components, we will be able to provide even greater care to not only victims of sexual assault but to all victims of trauma.

 

Chasa Cochran CPA

Chasa Cochran is a former licensed practical nurse who became interested in aromatherapy and herbalism after being told repeatedly by conventional medical practitioners that there were no further options in regards to the treatment of her asthma. Since beginning her journey with herbs and essential oils, Chasa has seen incredible changes in her own well-being as well in the well-being of family and friends with whom she has shared her ever-growing knowledge. Chasa has recently completed a course in Advanced Aromatic Medicine as well as become a Certified Aromatherapist through the aromatherapy certification program at Institute of Holistic Phyto-Aromatherapy. She is also an herbalism student through the school of Planetary Herbology.

 

Resources for Victims: 

1in6: https://1in6.org/

Bikers Against Child Abuse International: http://bacaworld.org/

Child Help: https://www.childhelp.org/

Darkness to Light: https://www.d2l.org/

Domestic Shelters: https://www.domesticshelters.org/

Futures Without Violence: https://www.futureswithoutviolence.org/

GLBTQ Domestic Violence Project: http://www.glbtqdvp.org/

Hot Peach Pages: http://www.hotpeachpages.net/

International Rape Crisis Hotlines: http://www.ibiblio.org/rcip/internl.html

Justice for Children: http://justiceforchildren.org/

Male Survivor: https://www.malesurvivor.org/

National Center for Victims of Crimes: http://victimsofcrime.org/

National Children’s Alliance: http://www.nationalchildrensalliance.org/

National Online Resource Center on Violence Against Women: https://vawnet.org/

National Organization for Victim Assistance: https://www.trynova.org/

National Sexual Violence Resource Center: https://www.nsvrc.org/

Not Well Behaved: https://www.facebook.com/notwellbehaved/

Pandora’s Project: http://www.pandys.org/

RAINN: https://www.rainn.org/

Sexual Assault Support and Help for Americans Abroad: https://sashaa.org/

Stop It Now: http://www.stopitnow.org/

Take Back the Night: https://takebackthenight.org/

 

References:

Arshamian, e. a. (2013, January). The functional neuroanatomy of odor evoked autobiographical memories cued by odors and words. Retrieved from Science Direct: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0028393212004617

Battaglia, S. (2002). The Complete Guide to aromatherapy. Virginia: The International Centre of Holistic Aromatherapy.

Boskabady, M. H., Shafei, M. N., & Amini, S. (2011, Jul). Pharmacological Effects of Rosa Damascena. Retrieved from National Center for Biotechnology Information: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3586833/

Boyton, B. R. (2017). Institute of Holistic Phyto-Aromatherapy, Course binder.

Buckle, J. P. (2015). Clinical Aromatherapy essential Oils in Healthcare. St. Loius: Elsevier.

Chomchalow, N. (2001, September). The Utilization of Vetiver as Medical and Aromatic Plants with Special Reference to Thailand. Retrieved from Pacific Rim Vetiver Network: http://www.vetiver.org/PRVN_med_aro%20doc.pdf

Dickerson, B. (2001). The Old Rose Advisor, Volume II. Lincoln: iUniverse.

Field, T. (2015, February 12). Smell and Taste Dysfunction as Early Markers for Neurodegenerative and Neuropsychiatric Diseases. Retrieved from Journal of Alzheimers Disease & Parkinsonism: https://www.omicsonline.org/open-access/smell-and-taste-dysfunction-as-early-markers-for-neurodegenerative-and-neuropsychiatric-diseases-2161-0460-1000186.php?aid=42383

Filipas, S. E. (2001, April). Predictors of PTSD Symptom Severity and Social Reactions in Sexual Assault Victims. Retrieved from National Center for Biotechnology Information: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3583013/

Futures Without Violence. (n.d.). The Facts on International Gender-based Violence. Retrieved from Futures Without Violence: https://www.futureswithoutviolence.org/the-facts-on-international-gender-based-violence/

Guzmán-Gutiérrez SL, B.-J. H.-C.-C. (2015, May 1). Linalool and β-pinene exert their antidepressant-like activity through the monoaminergic pathway. Retrieved from National Center for Biotechnology Information: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25771248

Helping a Survivor of Sexual Assault. (2017, April 4). Retrieved from Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center: https://sapac.umich.edu/article/47

Herz, R. S. (2016, September 6). The Role of Odor-Evoked Memory in Psychological and Physiological Health. Retrieved from National Center for Biotechnology Information: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5039451/

Holmes, P. L. (2016). Aromatica A Clinical Guide to Essential Oil Therapeutics Volume 1: Principles and Profiles . London: Singing Dragon.

Hummel, T., Landis, B. N., & Hüttenbrink, K.-B. (2012, April 26). Smell and taste disorders. Retrieved from National Center for Biotechnology Information: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3341581/

Komori T., F. R. (1995, November 20). Effects of Citrus Fragrance on Immune Function and Depressive States. NeuroImmunoModulation, pp. 174-180.

Koulivand, P. H., Ghadiri, M. K., & Gorji, A. (2013, March 14). Lavender and the Nervous System. Retrieved from National Center for Biotechnology Information: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3612440/

Laura P. Chen, B. M. (2010, July). Sexual Abuse and Lifetime Diagnosis of Psychiatric Disorders: Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. Retrieved from National Center for Biotechnology Information: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2894717/

Mojay, G. (1997). Aromatherapy for the Healing Spirit. Rochester: Healing Arts Press.

Price, P. a. (2012). Aromatherapy for Health Professionals. London: Churchill, Livingstone, Elsevier.

Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network. (2018). RAINN. Retrieved from RAINN: https://www.rainn.org/

Rhind, J. P. (2012). Essentiala Oils A Handbook for Aromatherapy Practice. London: Singing Dragon.

Shane, K. C. (2016). Aromatic Mindfulness for Victims of Sex Trafficking. The International Journal of Professional HHolistic Aromatherapy, 51-54.

Tisserand, R., & Young, R. (2014). Essential Oil Safety. London: Churchhill Livingstone Elsevier.

Watanabe E., K. K. (2015, February 19). Effects of Bergamot (Citrus bergamia (Risso) Wright & Arn.) Essential Oil Aromatherapy on Mood States, Parasympathetic Nervous System Activity, and Salivary Cortisol Levels in 41 Healthy Females. Complementary Medicine Research, pp. 43-49.