What’s the link between stress and itchy skin? It’s a complicated connection, but it certainly exists! We take a closer look at how atopic dermatitis can be both triggered and aggravated by stress - and how, in turn, eczema can itself be the cause of stress and anxiety!
Dermatitis in all its forms is basically irritation of the skin; it’s characterised by dry, itchy, inflamed patches that can become really sore. The most common kind of dermatitis, atopic dermatitis, also known as eczema, is a chronic condition which is thought to be partly inherited and partly environmental; flare-ups of atopic dermatitis can be really uncomfortable and distressing, as well as leaving sufferers more vulnerable to infection, permanent damage from scarring and hyperpigmentation, and of course psychological distress.
So it’s definitely worth finding out what’s causing your dermatitis, and avoiding it if at all possible!
While some of eczema’s triggers are physical - ie irritant substances such as dust mites, pet dander, perfume, chemicals, detergents etc. - some are psychological.
It might be hard to see how worrying, for example, can result in itchy skin, and it’s certainly something that research scientists have been working on explaining for a long time, but there’s well-established evidence for a direct link between stress and dermatitis.
How can that be? Well, to get all technical for a moment, skin is involved in the communication between immune, nervous, and endocrine systems; there are biochemical links between brain, behavior, and the immune system, which have effects on the skin. There’s even a name for the field of study that connects the dots between the different disciplines: psychoneuroimmunology.
But how does stress in particular affect the whole body and what results does that have on the skin? The body’s reaction to psychological stress involves the release of various hormones, including adrenaline and cortisol, which affect the functioning of mast cells and other cells that are responsible for generation and regulation of immune responses. A major manifestation of this immune system response is itch: one study explains the problem like this:
“When patients with inflammatory skin diseases feel severe itch, particularly in the setting of stress, they have difficulty refraining from scratching, which subsequently worsens their dermatitis and creates more itch. This contributes to an itch-scratch cycle that perpetuates a state of high anxiety, leading to decreased quality of life.”
And don’t eczema sufferers know it! Stress-related itching creates more itchiness, more damage to the skin, more stress, and then more itchiness and inflammation, in a horrible vicious circle that can feel almost impossible to break. Not only does stress trigger dermatitis, but the effects of dermatitis can in turn cause stress, including sleepless nights, and other symptoms of chronic anxiety.
So if you’re prone to eczema, how can you prevent stress from affecting your skin, and vice versa?
Well, that’s a very hard question, but understanding the link between stress hormones and flares is at least a very good first step to managing both your stress and your skin condition, even if it’s impossible to eradicate either stress or eczema from your life entirely!
Here are some suggestions for looking after both your skin and your mental health, so you can begin to improve your overall well-being.
Become more aware of your mental health and well-being
Check in with yourself: if you’ve been experiencing symptoms of anxiety or stress for more than two weeks, seek support from a health practitioner. Symptoms include: feeling sad, hopeless or anxious; losing interest in activities; decreased energy; feeling exhausted; not being able to concentrate; increased restlessness; insomnia; loss of appetite; losing or gaining weight; thoughts of self-harm or suicide
Stress management techniques
Different things work for different people, so try a few and see what you find most useful! Effective stress management strategies include things like drawing, knitting, walking in nature, mindfulness, meditation, singing, yoga, caring for a pet, reading, exercise, swimming, baking.
Getting a good night’s sleep is underrated as both a stress and an eczema management technique!
Eczema management techniques
Triggers: Identifying and avoiding your own particular triggers is key to coping with eczema; keep a trigger diary if you are uncertain of what affects you, and if necessary, ask for a referral to an allergy specialist.
Nutrition: Look at your diet: there’s evidence that some foods aggravate inflammation, some ingredients directly cause flare-ups, and that certain nutrients (e.g. essential fatty acids) can actually help build skin resilience!
Holistic health care: eczema can be managed holistically - treatment isn’t just with drugs and emollients, although they can make a big difference to your symptoms! Ask your GP about all options for treatment, and for referrals to other healthcare experts if you need them: nutritional experts and psychologists for example. Find supportive online communities, check out the resources of the big eczema charities, so you can make informed decisions about your own health and well-being.
Skincare: keeping eczema-prone skin well hydrated is the foundation of eczema-management! Applying emollients frequently can help support an imapried skin barrier function to work as it should to lock moisture in and keep irritants out. Always moisturise within three minutes of bathing! Avoid irritant toiletries and emollients; instead switch to gentle, unscented emollients (like the Balmonds range) that both protect and nourish your skin.
Anti-scratch techniques: sufferers find all kinds of ways to avoid scratching the itch, to minimise skin damage and mental distress. Yours might include pressing cold compresses or gel packs to itchy skin; using a fan to cool skin rather than scratch; distraction techniques, such as knitting or doodling; wearing acrylic nails; patting not scratching; applying calming emollients; wet wraps.
Recommended products for stressed skin:
Balmonds Skin Salvation
with hemp and beeswax
Balmonds Daily Moisturising Cream
with shea butter and calendula
Bath & Body Oil
with lavender, hemp and olive
If you require medical advice we recommend you always contact your healthcare professional.
If you or someone you are caring for seems very unwell, is getting worse or you think there's something seriously wrong, call for emergency services straight away. For general medical advice, please contact your healthcare professional, this article does not contain or replace medical advice.
Do not delay getting help if you're worried. Trust your instincts.