TikTok is full of health hacks, but you might scroll for a long time before you find one that actually works for you — and that health professionals can sign off on. So when I saw an anxiety-busting TikTok hack that involved Vick’s VapoRub, of all things, I was a bit skeptical, but also intrigued. How exactly could an ointment designed to relieve cold symptoms like cough and congestion help with symptoms of anxiety, and what do mental health experts have to say about it?
The TikTok, posted last month by creator Mr Impulsive, recommends applying Vick’s VapoRub at the base of your throat when you’re feeling symptoms of anxiety or an anxiety attack (think: racing thoughts, elevated heart rate, shortness of breath). The idea is that the sharp smell and cool touch of the ointment diverts your thoughts back to your body and away from your spiraling thoughts. “It gets you to start breathing and controlling your breathing… it can calm you down and it can help ground you through an anxiety attack,” he adds.
This hack is simple and accessible, not requiring a doctor’s prescription or a hefty bill (always a plus), and multiple commenters attested to its effectiveness. But what’s behind this Vick’s VapoRub trick, and can it actually work to calm your anxiety?
According to the experts SheKnows spoke to, this hack is on to something, even if it’s not backed up by any scientific studies. There are a few reasons why you might find anxiety relief from using Vick’s VapoRub, and one of them stems from aromatherapy. Vick’s VapoRub “contains camphor, eucalyptus, and menthol,” says psychotherapist Patti Sabla, LCSW. These essential oils are included for their decongestant properties, she explains, “but if the scent is soothing to someone, then it could provide some calming relief.” Clinical counselor Amy Braun adds that the strong scent of Vick’s VapoRub “can create a sensory experience that distracts individuals from their anxious thoughts.” Plus, the cool, tingling sensation “can lead them to believe that the product is actively working to alleviate their anxiety, even though its ingredients are not designed to have a direct impact on psychological stress.”
That leads us to our second possible explanation behind the Vick’s VapoRub hack: the placebo effect. As Sabla explains, the hack may be effective for some people simply because they believe it’s effective. As long as the practice isn’t harmful in its own right (unlikely for a gentle medicine like Vick’s VapoRub), it can be counted as an effective way to deal with symptoms. “It doesn’t matter if eating grapes actually cures my headache or I think eating grapes cures my headache,” Sabla says, by way of example. “Either way, I no longer have a headache.”
Many people experience shortness of breath and an elevated heart rate as symptoms of anxiety. The strong menthol smell of VapoRub may help to counteract that by forcing you to slow down your breathing, says psychologist Nicole Prause, PhD. “Breathing rate is the component of the stress response that is most easy to alter intentionally, which is why we use slowed breathing in so many acute anxiety interventions,” she explains (like taking a deep breath when you want to calm down). “The rub may remind you to slow [your] breathing and force you to, as quickly inhaling Vick’s may actually be uncomfortable as menthol may become too intense.”
There’s also the fact that a strong sensory experience like the VapoRub can have a grounding or distracting effect when applied. The cool touch and strong smell of the ointment essentially forces your mind to turn its attention to sensory stimuli, explains Dr. Prause, who calls it “a very reasonable approach to encourage grounding and distract from spiraling thoughts.” These kinds of mindfulness techniques often focus on activating your physical senses, adds therapist Stephanie Baldwin, LCSW, with a focus on “connecting to the breath and the present moment” in order to ground and regulate your nervous system. Such soothing techniques, which include using cold sensations, “can help signal safety and well-being to the brain by triggering the vagus nerve.”
Note that this kind of distraction-oriented technique isn’t a long-term solution for anxiety, but can be “very effective when a person is simply overwhelmed in the moment,” Dr. Prause says.
That goes for the Vick’s VapoRub hack as a whole, too. Think of it as a short-term solution; applying a bit of VapoRub might help you break out of an anxious spiral when it’s happening, but you may need a broader treatment plan to find long-term relief and address the root of your anxiety. “Self-regulating and coping with anxiety symptoms is only part of the recovery process,” Baldwin explains. “Most people benefit from gaining psychological insight through therapy to better understand the origins of why they might have had an onset of anxiety or panic attacks, as well as what can trigger their anxiety so they feel better equipped to proactively manage it moving forward.” If you find yourself struggling with anxiety on a day-to-day basis, consider seeing a therapist who can help you develop a long-term treatment plan.
The good news: this cheap, accessible Vick’s VapoRub anxiety hack can serve as a complement to the rest of your mental health routine, and our experts say there’s no harm in giving it a shot.
Before you go, check out these accessible and effective mental health apps: