How the inhalation of Bergamot (Citrus bergamia) helps reduce feelings and symptoms of burnout
In my studies and application of aromatherapy, I have been interested in the relationship between the olfactory system and stress management. Many clients come to me for specific issues and not all of them point to stress factors but rather describe the stressors in their daily lives. Almost all clients report back that they found a relationship with the essential oils that allowed them to make a ritual or habit with aromatherapy and all described their sense of well-being as more relaxed.
I originally became curious about essential oils because of how our sense of smell can trigger emotional responses. The past few years living in the COVID-19 pandemic only magnified the cultural context of work culture and our relationship to stress management. Before we quarantined, I would say many of us were already in advance stages of burnout. The pandemic either added layers to existing burnout or magnified my already exhaustive state and I quickly noticed how my established self-care rituals were no longer relevant and only left me feeling even more depleted. Self-care felt like one more thing on my to-do list when I had little time or interest.
As a practicing aromatherapist, I had the luxury of having many essential oils on hand to support my wellness during this time and was luckily reacquainted with Bergamot (Citrus bergamia). I began diffusing Bergamot (Citrus bergamia) in a water-based diffuser throughout the day because I wanted something bright and cheerful at first. I started to notice small shifts in my mood and everything did not feel so overwhelming, all the time. I read more about the benefits of Bergamot (Citrus bergamia) but what struck me the most was the powerful effects that inhalation of Bergamot (Citrus bergamia) has on reducing stress and more specifically, burnout.
I will first define burnout and examine its history and roots within the context of contemporary society mainly within the recent COVID-19 pandemic that inspired this study. Then I will briefly note the olfaction system and inhalation as the method of application. I will then outline the complex profile of Bergamot (Citrus bergamia) and discuss relevant case studies that support the inhalation of Bergamot (Citrus bergamia) to relieve symptoms and causes of burnout. The intention of this examination is to show the contributions of Bergamot (Citrus bergamia) essential oil in helping to reduce feeling and symptoms of burnout.
The term “burnout” was coined in the 1970s by the American psychologist Herbert Freudenberger to cases of physical or mental collapse as the result of overwork. Freudenberger notes the physical signs of burnout being “a feeling of exhaustion and fatigue, being unable to shake a lingering cold, suffering from frequent headaches and gastrointestinal disturbances, sleeplessness and shortness of breath”; while the behavioral signs being “quickness to anger and his instantaneous irritation and frustration responses”; and describes the person’s thinking to that of “a closed book” – becoming “excessively rigid, stubborn, and inflexible” and “blocks progress and constructive change” (Freudenberger, 1974). Fredudenberger used this term to describe the “consequences of severe stress and high ideals in “helping” professions” or as he frankly puts, “the dedicated and the committed” (Freudenberger, 1974).
The terms exhaustion and burnout are difficult to define and are at times used interchangeably. Petersen distinguishes them as: “Burnout is of a substantively different category than “exhaustion,” although the two conditions are related. Exhaustion means going to the point where you can’t go any further; burnout means reaching that point and pushing yourself to keep going, whether for days or weeks or years” (Petersen, 2020, p.xix). This is a key distinction to understand the relevant state of our workforce and that we work to achieve continuous productivity even at the expense of our own health and wellness.
In 2019, the World Health Organization (WHO) included burnout in the 11th Revision of the International Classification of Diseases (ICD-11) as an occupational phenomenon. WHO defines “Burnout is a syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed. It is characterised by three dimensions:
1) feelings of energy depletion or exhaustion;
2) increased mental distance from one’s job, or feelings of negativism or cynicism related to one’s job; and
3) a sense of ineffectiveness and lack of accomplishment.”
Burn-out refers specifically to phenomena in the occupational context and should not be applied to describe experiences in other areas of life” (WHO, 2022). As Peterson describes it, “burnout isn’t just a temporary affliction. It’s our contemporary condition” (Petersen, 2020, p.xx).
A Gallup survey noted that two-thirds of full-time workers experience burnout on the job and it comes with a personal and organizational cost: ‘Burned-out employees are 63% more likely to take a sick day and 2.6 times as likely to be actively seeking a different job. And even if they stay, they typically have 13% lower confidence in their performance and are half as likely to discuss how to approach performance goals with their manager” (Wigert and Agrawal, 2018).
In March of 2020, 2.6 billion people went into lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic. “This sudden shift did what little else had been able to accomplish before: expose how thinly stretched and worn down we all were — and had been for a while” (Moss, 2021). With the addition of the COVID-19 pandemic, the lines between work and life became more blurred and increased burnout rates among every sector. Extreme burnout started to settle as we did not adjust expectations around our work including workloads, workplace flexibilities, and the increased screen time and Zoom meetings.
We started to realize that there was no work and life, it was all the same and even in a global pandemic, we were threatened to achieve productivity at not only the same rate but even more. It’s no surprise something needed to change, a dramatic shift in workplace culture towards full- time remote work, reduced hours, and even the Great Resignation is the result of many people realizing that they no longer were willing to live in a perpetual state of burnout.
The COVID-19 pandemic magnified many of our already existing burnout states, if not exacerbated them. I want to note that burnout is not the only measurement to describe our culture. In 2021, Adam Grant wrote about another feeling during the pandemic that was not classified as burnout but rather languishing. “Languishing is a sense of stagnation and emptiness. It feels as if you’re muddling through your days, looking at your life through a foggy windshield” (Grant, 2021). He describes is as the absence of flourishing or rather the “absence of well-being” (ibid). This article resonated with many of us as we attempt to put words to what we are feeling and experiencing right now.
This examination is very much informed by my own experience of burnout working in corporate America as a millennial while also attempting to continue to hold some self-awareness of how stress shows up in my body and ways to prevent burnout. I’ve attempted to add the experiences of other sectors of work including the medical field and teachers as part of this examination to show the widespread nature and structural conditions we have built within our systems of work. The more I learn about burnout and the complex layers this phenomenon has, there is not a one- size fits all solution but it’s important to acknowledge that anyone can experience burnout.
Burnout symptoms ignored or unaddressed can have significant consequences to overall health including insomnia, heart disease, high blood pressure, and vulnerability to illnesses to name a few.
The importance of reducing burnout is critical to maintain better health. In combination with better sleep practices, exercise, family and community support, and mindfulness, aromatherapy can be added to the list of tools that can help relax and reduce symptoms of burnout.
Bergamot (Citrus bergamia)
In order to further examine how to beat burnout with aromatherapy, I decided to focus on one essential oil and its effects on stress management that can alleviate burnout symptoms. Through my personal experience with Bergamot (Citrus bergamia) in relieving my own symptoms, it was an interesting starting point to understand how one essential oil can have so many therapeutic benefits.
In this examination, I realized that Bergamot (Citrus bergamia) is also a lesser known essential oil among those new to aromatherapy but possibly because of its unique aroma and additional education is needed for application. I first want to outline the basic profile of Bergamot (Citrus bergamia):
Common name/s: Bergamot
Accepted name: Citrus limon (L.) Burm. fil.
Latin name: Citrus aurantium var. bergamia (Risso) Brandis
Synonyms: Citrus ×aurantium L. ssp. bergamia (Risso & Poit.) Wight & Arn. ex Engl. syn.
Citrus bergamia Risso
Country of origin: Calabria, Southern Italy, Sicily
Part of plant used: Peel/zest of fruit
Extraction method: Expression from the fresh peel of the nearly ripe fruit or distilled zest
Color of oil: Emerald green – olive green
Core Therapeutic Applications for Bergamot (Shutes, 2022):
- Nervous system: insomnia, stress, nervous tension, depression, anxiety, reduces irritability, minimize symptoms of stress-induced anxiety
- Psyche and emotion: insomnia, emotional instability (mood swings), anxiety, depression. Bergamot is uplifting and calming depending on what you blend with it. Clary sage and Bergamot together would tend to be calming whereas Bergamot with eucalyptus could be stimulating.
- Other: Stress-related digestive issues, PMS, sluggish digestion, lack of appetite
In the sixteenth century, Bergamot (Citrus bergamia) essential oil production was solely based in Italy. Even today, Italy is still the most significant producer of Bergamot (Citrus bergamia). It is a lesser known essential oil compared to the bitter orange but its contributions supersede. The fruit of the Bergamot (Citrus bergamia) tree is not edible but the oil is widely used in perfumery and flavors added to common tea and foods. The aroma as described by renowned perfumer Mandy Aftel “an extremely rich, sweet lemon-orange scent that evolves into a more floral, freesia-like scent, ending in and herbaceous-balsamic dryout” (Aftel, 2008).
Worwood does a beautiful outline of Bergamot (Citrus bergamia) and how it’s profile can attribute to feelings: “Character: Joyous, Refreshing, Uplifting, Encouraging; Use of these Positive Attributes: Concentration, Confidence, Balance, Strength, Joy, Motivation, Good cheer, Harmony, Completeness.; Use to Counteract these Negative Attributes: Depression, Anxiety, Helplessness, Apathy, Bitterness, Burnout, Despondency, Emptiness, Exhaustion, Grief, Hopelessness, Sadness, Loneliness, Stress, Tension, Emotional imbalances” (Worwood, 1996, p281).
When using Bergamot (Citrus bergamia), it is important to note that it is a cold pressed oil and contains furanocoumarins or constituents that are implicated in phototoxicity (Rhine, 2012, p206). Essential oils with high phototoxicity should not be used on the skin and with exposure to sunlight. This deters users from really experiencing these types of oils for fear they will misuse them but it only strengthens my case for why inhalation methods are preferred with Bergamot (Citrus bergamia). It allows users to enjoy the full benefits of the oil profile without creating more stress.
The chemistry of Bergamot (Citrus bergamia) contains “major components of alcohols (45-60%) including linalool, esters (30-60%) including linalyl acetate, and monoterpenes including limonene, a- and B-pinene and y-terpinene” (Rhine, 2012, p212). Researchers have suggested in many studies that Bergamot (Citrus bergamia) may have antibacterial, antiviral, antiseptic, antispasmodic, and sedative properties. Bergamot (Citrus bergamia) is complex and has a versatile profile that makes it one the “most useful aromatherapeutic essential oils” (ibid).
Method of Application: Inhalation
With the five senses, smell becomes what Porteous calls ‘immensely meaningful to humans…it is primarily a very basic, emotional, arousing sense” (Porteous, 1985). The olfactory system is impacted by aroma from essential oils and benefits the brain, while inhalation tends to benefit the respiratory system and the emotions part of the brain (Shutes, 2022).
Inhalation of Bergamot (Citrus bergamia) is the preferred method of experiencing this essential oil by using a water-based diffuser when we are attempting to target emotions. There may be some apprehension to how purely inhalation could have benefits to the mind/emotions. As we will discuss, the application of aromatherapy by inhalation can have significant benefits to the emotional and physical body including reducing or alleviating stress and anxiety, relieving pain perception, helping induce sleep or relaxation, and/or increase alertness and overall performance.
Multiple studies have demonstrated that the inhalation of essential oils may provide a “cost- effective, safe, and appropriate therapy for some mental disorders’ (Han, et al, 2017). The major components of linalool, limonene, and pinene components in particular have suggested to contribute to anti-anxiety and anti-depressant effects. Bergamot (Citrus bergamia) is characterized as containing high content of limonene, linalool, and linalyl acetate and suggests they could have anxiolytic and anti-depressant effects as well. Several clinical studies have shown significant effects on anxiety reduction, depression reduction, and blood pressure and heart rate reduction from the inhalation of Bergamot (Citrus bergamia) essential oil. One study in particular and outlined below, concluded that the inhalation of Bergamot (Citrus bergamia) “may have potential therapeutic benefits including improving overall mental health and anxiety” (ibid).
Volatile oils like Bergamot (Citrus bergamia) present specific neuropharmacological effects demonstrated on the endocrine and immune systems. Volatile oils are also shown to be especially effective in the therapy of chronic pain, depression, cognitive disorders, insomnia, and stress-related ailments. A volatile oil component inhaled using aromatherapy can pass from the alveoli (tiny air sacs at the end of the lungs) into the capillary blood vessels, quickly affecting the entire central nervous system (Brooker, et al, 2011). This is particularly important as we are attempting to disrupt certain patterns of negative mood and feelings in order to block the stressor to raising our overall cortisol levels (stress hormone). Bergamot (Citrus bergamia) effectively helps support balancing cortisol levels so that when our natural survival instinct kicks in, we can naturally manage and relieve symptoms.
Smell can also be a memory-based response. As I was writing, I took a short break to roll on a Jasmine essential oil diluted with Fractionated Coconut Oil on my wrists. There is snow on the ground outside here but as soon as I inhaled the aroma of Jazmine on my skin I was transported to my summers in California as a kid; swimming in the neighbor’s pool and the bees on the Jazmine flowers. That is the power of scent.
It is important to note that while I have a positive association and memory to Jazmine, others might have negative associations related to memory of Jazmine. Perceptions and responses to aroma are highly unique and learned through experience. The best way to understand and interpret aromas is by experiencing them individually and noting what you feel and why.
Essential oils are a great way to experiment with this process.
If we have this sense of smell superpower, why not use it to support and maybe at times highjack or divert our emotional well-being as needed. We can use aromatherapy to anchor into the aromas that chemically predisposition us towards thoughts and feelings that uplift, encourage, and comfort. While there is still more research to be specifically on burnout, we can review case studies that examine how to reduce stress, anxiety, lower cortisol that all counteract feelings and behaviors that lead to burnout.
- A study was done on the inhalation of Bergamot (Citrus bergamia) essential oil and its primary use on the parasympathetic nervous system and related cortisol levels that relate to psychological stress and anxiety and its physiological effects. The study was conducted on 41 healthy females aged 21-23 years. The volunteers were exposed to 3 experimental setups: 1) rest, 2) rest + water vapor, and 3) rest + water vapor + Bergamot (Citrus bergamia) essential oil for 15 minutes each. Immediately after each setup, salivary cortisol levels were gathered and analyzed. The volunteers also completed a questionnaire concerning their mood, feelings, anxiety, and fatigue. The results showed that the rest + water vapor + Bergamot (Citrus bergamia) essential oil setup showed significantly lower levels of salivary cortisol compare to the rest setup and volunteers reported indicators that negative mood had also decreased. The study concluded that Bergamot (Citrus bergamia) could be used as a “relatively simple form of stress reduction, which might be useful in our modern society plagued by chronic stress” (Watanabe, et al, 2015).
- A pilot study was done using Bergamot (Citrus bergamia) essential oil aromatically with diffusers in a waiting room of a mental health treatment center with 50 participants (women aged 23-70 years). The trial lasted for 8 weeks: weeks 1, 3, 5, and 7 were periods using a Bergamot (Citrus bergamia) essential oil diffusion; while weeks 2, 4, 6, and 8 were diffusion periods of distilled water. Participants were instructed to sit in the waiting room for fifteen minutes and the diffusers were turned on fifteen minutes before the first patient arrived and kept running at half speed throughout the day. The trial resulted in improved participants’ positive feelings after Bergamot (Citrus bergamia) essential oil exposure compared with the control group (17% higher) (Han, et al, 2017).
- Researchers in Taiwan conducted a study to observe the physical effects of aromatherapy using Bergamot (Citrus bergamia) in alleviating work-related stress on elementary school teachers. Twenty-nine elementary school teachers participated in this study. To document their findings, researchers measured heart rate variability to evaluate autonomic nervous system activity before and after aromatherapy exposure. Participants were exposed to aromatherapy intervention for approximately 10-20 minutes and the control group was either resting or inhaling from an empty diffuser. The study concluded that there was a significant response to the Bergamot (Citrus bergamia) essential oil and had a relaxing effect and documented a significant change in the automatic nervous system response (Liu, et al, 2013).
- A study was done in 2012 on 109 patients in Taipei Medical University, Municipal Wan Fang Hospital, selected at random, aged 18-65 and without previous experience of surgery. Patients were asked to complete a State Trait Anxiety Inventory (STAI) and their vital signs were recorded. In the preparation room, they were exposed to the experimental (Bergamot (Citrus bergamia) essential oil aromatherapy) or control (water vapor) condition for thirty minutes and completed the STAI a second time and vital signs were again recorded, then they proceeded to surgery. The study concluded that regardless of previous surgical experience, “patients exposed to Bergamot essential oil aromatherapy were less anxious than controls. Aromatherapy may be a useful part of a holistic approach to reducing preoperative anxiety before ambulatory surgery” (Ni, et al, 2013).
What these four case studies have in common is the quantifiable data where relaxation helps reduce symptoms that lead to burnout. The noticeable component of each study was the inhalation of Bergamot (Citrus bergamia) to assist in relaxation. More studies are noting the power of aromatherapy inhalation to take care of our mental and emotional wellbeing.
There are considerable studies available that I did not include in this paper that have researched the use of combining essential oils like Lavender and Bergamot (Citrus bergamia) that have antispasmodic and sedative properties. This would be interesting to further explore the synergy of essential oils based on their therapeutic properties to support stress management and relieve burnout symptoms.
These case studies show us the tangible benefits of the inhalation of Bergamot (Citrus bergamia) essential oil has on our mood, feelings, resilience, self-care strategies, and stress reduction – all factors that contribute to helping reduce feelings and symptoms of burnout. We see a pattern in the workplace where more prescriptions of using self-care to relieve burnout rather than addressing the real organizational and societal issues. As we all know work related stress is real and shows up in our bodies in a slow burn and there is no quick fix for any of the burnout we face today. It seems like a challenge bigger than myself to start to change the burnout culture but it is worth considering how we can manage our own feelings and symptoms with better tools.
Aromatherapy is simply another self-care tool. I realize I can’t journal, skin care regime, green tea, and avocado toast my way out of burnout but rather understand the ways of supporting my daily wellness as a means for burnout prevention. If the studies show that the inhalation of an essential oil is able to even slightly shift thoughts, feelings, actions, and/or energy towards burnout prevention or relief, Bergamot (Citrus bergamia) is a lovely place to start.
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If you would like to read more articles like this one you can check out the Aromatika Magazine, where this writing appeared in the summer of 2022 issue.
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