I had no idea Mum was a closet aromatherapist.

A fan of the seldom seen (but effective) treatment for the flu, popular in the late ’60s, she used to rub Vicks onto the soles of my feet, put some woolly socks on me, and send me to bed with the cat. Aromatherapy is not really New Age.

Frankincense has been used since Adam was a boy to calm the mind and create a meditative atmosphere. Vicks Vaporub, the stalwart of Aussie homes, utilises the essential oils of eucalyptus, cedar, nutmeg and thyme.

Essential oils, the working tools of aromatherapy, are aromatic substances derived by distillation from various parts of plants including the flowers, leaves, fruits, roots and bark. Research into aromatherapy has found inhaled fragrance compounds are able to cross the blood-brain barrier and stimulate the brain cortex and limbic area, the seat of emotions. This explains the two-fold effect of smell on both body and mind.

To make an aromatherapy massage oil, add a couple of drops of a specific essential oil such as lavender (calming), grapefruit (stimulating) to a ‘base’ oil such as almond or olive oil. Essential oils can also be rubbed neat on to the body, but take care to use only a drop or two. Many people burn the oils in purpose-built aromatherapy vaporisers. Clary sage or jasmine will increase mental alertness and vigilance, ylang ylang is the reputed oil of seduction. If you have a headache, massage one drop of rosemary or lavender oil into each temple. There is nothing cooler on a hot day (or for menopausal flushes) than to soak your feet in a peppermint oil foot-bath.

Whatever you do, don’t overdo them. Apart from reeling from the smell, excessive amounts of essential oils can cause a nasty rash, headaches and nausea. It is also possible to be allergic to certain oils. As little as 5mL (one teaspoon) of essential oils, if taken internally, is toxic and may cause liver damage. I nearly had an essential-oil inspired heart attack one year. As a Christmas gift, I gave my patients tiny bottles of essential oil to add to their baths. My coronary nearly came about in January, when a favourite patient returned after the holiday break. She said ‘Thank you for the gift, Mim, but I must say, it was a little strong for my tastes’!