Stress Awareness Month is officially over (see ya, April). But since we suspect that, for the 7.5 million Americans living with psoriasis, “stress awareness” is pretty much part of every month, we think it's high time for a report on how anxiety can be especially threatening to someone living with this chronic autoimmune skin disease. Emotional stress, in fact, has been shown to be the most common trigger for psoriasis flare-ups. Additionally, psoriasis sufferers beset with stress are even more vulnerable to developing other diseases for which they are already at risk. We offer simple strategies to those living with psoriasis to help keep angst—and psoriasis complications—at bay.
A normal immune system protects the body by destroying bacteria. It responds to injury and infection by sending out chemicals that cause inflammation and help heal a wound. According to the National Psoriasis Foundation, in people with psoriasis (and those with psoriatic arthritis, which affects more than 30% of psoriasis sufferers), the immune system over-responds, sending out too many of those chemicals, says John Koo, M.D., professor of clinical dermatology at the University of California, San Francisco, on the foundation’s website. With psoriasis, the compromised immune system fights its own tissues in the skin and joints, triggering flare-ups among other reactions. Dr. Koo suspects that the immune system responds similarly to mental stress.
Stuck in a Stress Loop
A survey conducted by the American Institute of Stress in recent years showed that health was one of the top three stressors for Americans—73% of them reported experiencing psychological symptoms. Psoriasis, while considered genetic, can be triggered by stress, according to the American Academy of Dermatology. In turn, those flare-ups can cause even more anxiety, leaving those living with the condition caught in a vicious cycle in which cause and effect are nearly impossible to determine.
Will this fabric irritate my skin? When will my symptoms get worse? Can my joints handle these stairs today? Will insurance cover this new medication? This constant questioning keeps angst front and center for someone with psoriasis. “I know stress is my biggest disease trigger,” says Jaime Lyn Moy, an advocate for people living with psoriasis who runs A Spot of Hope website. Moy kickboxes to keep that anxiety in check. “Nothing like hitting the heavy bag” while anticipating a formidable challenge, she says.
Because your body responds to stress with inflammation, the reaction poses many serious health risks for those living with psoriasis or psoriatic arthritis. Chronic inflammation can threaten your cardiovascular health, for example. While there’s no definitive proof that stress alone can cause long-term high blood pressure, according to the Mayo Clinic, the surge of hormones your body produces when it reacts to it can cause your heart to beat fast and your blood vessels to narrow—an important reason for some psoriasis patients to closely monitor their blood pressure.
Psoriasis also increases the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. According to recent research from the University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine in Philadelphia, the inflammation associated with psoriasis causes insulin resistance and increased insulin production. Depression, anxiety, obesity, and Crohn’s disease are among the other diseases considered comorbidities of psoriasis, all of which may be helped by regulating stress.
Stress-Busting Tools for Psoriasis Treatment
You’ve got to move.
You can help maintain a healthy body weight and lower your risk of heart disease and type-2 diabetes with regular exercise. The American Heart Association recommends at least 150 minutes or 2.5 hours of heart-pumping physical activity per week. Exercise can ease your stress levels, too, according to the Mayo Clinic. And, for the desk-bound, the National Psoriasis Foundation recommends doing ankle rolls, heel/toe raises and knee lifts every hour to help circulation.
Exercise is even more effective when it’s done outdoors. Walking or other activities outside can positively affect mental and physical well-being. Sunlight boosts the release of serotonin and endorphins, hormones associated with feelings of calm and happiness, according to Michael F. Holick, M.D., director of the Heliotherapy, Light, and Skin Research Center at Boston University Medical Center.
Take a deep breath.
Deep breathing can lower blood pressure and slow your heart rate. Harvard Medical School reports on the benefits and practice of deep breathing here. And to help maintain cardiovascular health, try these breathing exercises.
A study at John Hopkins University found a relationship between mindfulness meditation and the reduction of symptoms of anxiety, depression, and chronic pain. Moreover, a study at Ohio State University monitored meditation’s effects on elderly patients and concluded that one month of mindfulness exercises helped boost patients’ lymphocytes, the white-blood cells that improve the immune system.
Shine a light.
According to a recent study, phototherapy, or light therapy, treatment has been shown to both relieve stress and effectively treat the symptoms of psoriasis, though the side effects of ultra-violet light should be discussed with your doctor.
Get your shut-eye.
Sleep fortifies the immune system in addition to alleviating stress. The National Sleep Foundation’s Scientific Advisory Council recommends sleep ranges for different groups based on age, but the council also acknowledges individual variability in appropriate sleep duration. It suggests healthy sleep tips, including monitoring your sleep patterns to evaluate your response to different amounts of sleep.