09 Oct Stress, the skin and World Mental Health Day
October 10th is World Mental Health Day, making it a great time to focus on the importance of your mental wellbeing. Mental health problems affect as many as one in four people every year and they don’t just affect the mind. Mental health disorders can impact your psychological, emotional and physical wellbeing, causing problems with the healthy function of your body and your skin.
What is Mental Health?
Mental health is defined by the World Health Organisation as:
‘A state of well-being in which every individual realizes his or her own potential, can cope with the normal stresses of life, can work productively and fruitfully, and is able to make a contribution to her or his community’.
Stress and the body
Stress is part of normal everyday life. Whether we’re at work, home or on the road, we all have to deal with daily difficulties and tensions. However, sustained psychological stress can affect your mind, body and emotions.
When we’re under pressure, the body responds with a primitive reflex called the fight-or-flight response. Stress hormones are released to help us rapidly react to challenging situations and survive attacks. The chemicals include catecholamines and cortisol to boost the pulse, increase blood pressure and improve respiratory function, allowing us to run, fight and focus more effectively.
This primitive response was perfect when we were cavemen fighting sabre-tooth tigers; the stress hormones would have been burned off whether we stayed to battle or ran for cover. However, the sustained psychological pressures of modern life can leave the body in a persistent state of ‘fight or flight’ that can make you feel emotionally overwhelmed and physically depleted.
Stress and the skin
If you’ve found that your skin suffers during times of tension, you’re not alone. Spots, rashes and skin flare-ups can be aggravated by stress. The stress chemicals affect the body from top to toe. They alter blood flow to the skin and can suppress the immune system, which can trigger skin problems including psoriasis, eczema, acne, itching, and redness of the skin.
Stress, eczema and dry skin conditions
A number of different factors can trigger itching and eczema. For many people, psychological stress can cause a flare-up or aggravate their skin condition. Eczema can make you feel stressed, and stress can make your eczema worse; it’s a frustrating vicious cycle that can seriously affect your quality of life.
Stress has effects on the body’s immune response and the skin’s barrier function, which can increase the risk of an eczema flare. Stress can also make you more likely to scratch that itch. Adam Friedman, Professor of Dermatology at George Washington University said that stress can increase the urge to itch:
‘We know that when people are stressed, there’s an increase in nerve signalling that causes itch. That can cause people to scratch or pick at their skin.’
The problem is, scratching can further damage the skin’s protective barrier, making it inflamed, irritated and increasingly itchy. So, it’s important to learn how to cope with stress, break the itch-scratch cycle and soothe your skin.
Stress-reducing techniques can help you manage when the going gets tough, improve your skin and boost your wellbeing. It’s difficult to get rid of all of life’s pressures and pitfalls, however making a few small changes to your routine can make a big difference and help you cope with your daily challenges:
If traffic or time-management trigger tension, try and find ways to reduce pressure. Setting off earlier or limiting time on social media may help you feel more in control.
Exercise is an excellent stressbuster, helping to protect against the negative effects of stress in many ways: sport offers distraction from tensions, physical exertion can dissipate the biochemical changes caused by stress hormones and stimulate the release of endorphins, the body’s feel-good hormones, and physical fitness can protect the body from stress-related diseases.
Take time for yourself
It’s easy to focus on friends, family or work – but make sure you also make space for the things that you love to do. Whether it’s reading, relaxing or socialising, schedule ‘me-time’ into your diary.
Staying in the moment by practicing mindfulness meditation can help ease symptoms of stress. You focus all your attention on an object in nature, the floor beneath your feet, or the air flowing in and out of your lungs. This can help you let go of negative thoughts.
A problem shared can be a problem eased, if not actually halved. Research shows that people with close friends can benefit from emotional support that protects against stress and can help them through difficult times.
Skin protection and treatment
Stress scratching can inflame, irritate and damage the skin. By moisturising and controlling inflammation you can break the itch-scratch cycle and prevent scratching becoming a habit:
Regular use of an emollient like AproDerm® can form a protective layer over the surface of your skin, maintain skin moisture and smoothness and help break the dry skin cycle.
Soap strips the skin of natural oils, and some soaps and shower gels may contain fragrances and colourants that may sensitise the skin. Instead use soap substitutes like AproDerm® Colloidal Oat Cream or AproDerm® Emollient Cream to gently cleanse without irritating your skin.
Protect your skin from harm
If itching is becoming a habit, try cutting your nails, filing away any rough edges, or wearing soft cotton gloves to stop you damaging the skin.
See your doctor
If stress is affecting your wellbeing or if your skin is thickened, inflamed or weeping, go and see your doctor. They may be able to prescribe medication, arrange for CBT (a special type of counselling that focuses on identifying and modifying negative ways of thinking) and help you get your skin flare-up under control.