Your skin and emotions are connected, even though you might not readily consider how what you feel affects your skin. Think about what happens when you are nervous, scared or stressed. You might blush, sweat or break out in hives. Being in love is commonly associated with glowing skin. For people with chronic skin conditions, such as psoriasis, eczema or acne, stress can be a contributing factor to flares.
The skin/mind connection
The skin releases chemicals called neuropeptides to help protect it from infection and trauma. When released, they can cause inflammation, numbness, itching, sensitivity or tingling, according to Dr. Richard G. Fried. During times of stress, the release of these chemicals can cause a flare of existing skin conditions, such as psoriasis or eczema. The neuropeptides can also travel to your brain, changing the chemicals in the brain that help regulate emotions, leading to more feelings of stress, which in turn can lead to more skin problems.
Stress can also break down the skin’s outer layer, or skin barrier function, making it more sensitive and reactive. This can also mean that your skin is more susceptible to irritants, allergens and bacteria.
Emotions, especially negative emotions that can lead to distress, anxiety and depression, can also affect not only the course of an illness but also the effectiveness of treatment. Stress can interfere with your immune system, affecting the skin’s capacity to heal, according to Harvard Health.
The field of medicine that looks at the skin/mind connection is called psychodermatology or pscyhocutaneous medicine. The first clinic for psychodermatology in the United States started at Stanford University in 1972. Although growth in this field has been slow, there are now a number of clinics in the United States. You can find a psychodermatologist through the Association for Psychoneurocutaneous Medicine of North America.
Considering stress when treating skin conditions
There isn’t any universal reaction to stress. What might seem stressful to one person is “no big deal” to another. And we might each have a different reaction: some people might be irritable, others might not sleep, while others have a physical reaction, i.e., nausea, headaches, stiff muscles or skin problems. For some people who have psychological causes or triggers to skin conditions, treating both might be helpful, according to Harvard Health. Stress reduction techniques are meant to make a person feel more empowered and more able to cope with daily stressors. They work best when used on a daily basis, reducing overall feelings of stress. However, many can also be used during times of high stress.
Relaxation techniques include mindfulness meditation, yoga, deep breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, exercise, listening to music or participating in a favorite hobby. Relaxation strategies can usually be practiced individually and incorporated into your daily life. When done on a regular basis, many people indicate their overall stress levels decrease and they find they are better able to handle difficult and stressful situations.
According to Harvard Health, hypnosis through a therapist or self-guided can help to decrease stress and anxiety, reduce pain and inflammation, control sweating and itching, speed healing and reduce destructive behaviors such as pulling hair, scratching lesions or picking at sores.
Psychotherapy is helpful for some people. Specific types of therapy, such as cognitive behavioral therapy, help to replace negative thought patterns that can increase stress or interfere with medical treatment with more realistic thoughts. Some people find talking with a therapist about life’s problems helps relieve stress and can improve skin conditions.
If you have a skin condition that is not responding to traditional treatment, looking into the skin/mind connection and working with a therapist or stress reduction might help.
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Eileen Bailey is a freelance health writer. She is the author of What Went Right: Reframe Your Thinking for a Happier Now, Idiot’s Guide to Adult ADHD, Idiot’s Guide to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Essential Guide to Overcoming Obsessive Love, and Essential Guide to Asperger’s Syndrome. She can be found on Twitter @eileenmbailey and on Facebook at eileenmbailey.