Unsurprisingly, my introduction to Eucalyptus oil is tangentially related back to music journalism.
For a story, I took a yoga class at a studio in Williamsburg called Modo, drawn to the place largely because it was co-founded by violinist Sarah Neufeld, a core and touring member of the Canadian indie rock collective Arcade Fire (a longstanding favorite of mine), and intrigued, on a separate level, that the new construction space was one composed entirely of green materials. From the living wall stretching the length of the lobby, to the green-focused products in the shower, this studio incorporated so many familiar elements that reminded me of growing up in Portland, Oregon — it felt like home.
Something else made it feel that way, too. After class, the teachers would sprinkle a cleansing oil on their towels, and wave them throughout the space, or, if there was time, come around and press a bit of this fiery, woodsy oil right into our temples as we laid in Savasana. I soon came to associate this scent, Eucalyptus oil, with the rush of relief and calm that comes from finishing a yoga class, and found myself craving that feeling at home, or in other times of stress. So I bought a bottle on Amazon, and began using the oil on my own, primarily to help manage a growing stress response to a couple other stories I was reporting that were triggering some old, buried trauma.
The physical stress response I was experiencing at that time will probably sound familiar to many: tightness in my chest, increased heart rate, shortness of breath, slight dizziness, forever fidgeting and an inability to sit still or focus. All that, coupled with an overall insomnia and a low-level, constant state of alarm was slowly driving me to the brink. When I practiced yoga, that helped calm me down, but practicing more than once a day was almost impossible, schedule-wise, and also expensive and untenable in other ways.
Growing up in a household where plants and holistic, naturopathic solutions were always sought before pharmaceuticals, my first instinct was to begin using the oil in these times of extreme stress. So I self-medicated: I began to rub a couple drops on wrists and neck, like perfume, until the scent hung around me, and I could breathe it in. Whether it was from association with yoga classes, the oil itself, or both, this miraculously worked to calm my nerves, and help me function at work and in my social life, the areas where I was having the most trouble.
Eucalyptus oil, as it turns out, has been used as an analgesic (pain reliever) for centuries due to the compound it contains, eucalyptol (or 1,8-cineole), which is antimicrobial, or stops the growth of bacteria and fungi, and antiviral. Aboriginal cultures identified and used the Eucalyptus plant as a tool to fight illnesses like malaria, and its use as an anti-inflammatory is well-documented. There are hundreds of species of Eucalyptus, but the one most commonly used to distill the oil is called Eucalyptus globulus, and it actually isn’t the same as the main one we use for decoration, Eucalyptus cinerea.
The therapeutic ways this oil can be used are almost too many to name, from treating colds and flus, to muscle and joint pain, relief for asthma and sinus congestion or allergies, healing topical wounds, reducing fever, intestinal health, fungal infections, skincare, and even dental health. Research also shows it can help mental exhaustion and improve brain function, so my instinctual prescription proved correct. Once I had the oil around, it became a multi-purpose tool to remove stains and clear smells (I was a smoker, at the time), and even worked as aromatherapy in the bath.
One thing about my experience with using Eucalyptus that stands out to me: I trusted my instinctual, physical reaction to the oil, intuiting that it would help me, and acted on that. I think our overall disconnect from the natural world has reduced the number of times we trust the way our sense of smell, taste, and touch might be pointing us toward a simpler solution. I’m sure if I’d taken a pharmaceutical drug for my anxiety at the time, I would’ve been justified, and I support anyone who chooses that path wholeheartedly. But I also don’t know how else that would’ve impacted my mental health, and it feels like an understatement to say that the negative effects of these drugs are often on par with, or potentially even greater, than their helpfulness.
Finally, you can usually get a bottle of Eucalyptus oil for under $10. That’s certainly not the case for pharmaceuticals, or even the yoga classes where I discovered the practice of using the oil (for those interested, they run about $25, a bit less if you buy in bulk). The overall accessibility of homeopathic remedies is another downplayed element of their usefulness. And while Eucalyptus oil might not work for everyone’s anxiety or stress response, investigating alternative, holistic solutions to issues of mental health can be an empowering first step. And if all other anxiety cures fail, may I recommend another tried-and-true home remedy: turning up the volume and pressing play on Arcade Fire’s 2007 album, Neon Bible.