Where the Mind meets Skin - the Health Connection
Skin. Where your inside meets the outside. A defense against the external world, but also a way to explore new sensations and to caress what we find desirable.
So, what is the connection between mind and skin?
All parts of your body react to your emotions. The skin it’s the border between the inside and the outside and it is responding to all internal changes in your body & to all external factors that you come across. Skin is the only suit we never take off.
By understanding the close relationship between the your mind and your skin, you will be better equipped to manage expectations and have better results.
What is Psychodermatology?
Psychodermatology is a new medical subspecialty that merges two major medical specialties: psychiatry and dermatology. Psychiatry treats mental processes manifested internally, while dermatology treats skin diseases manifested externally. In medicine, there are four main categories within psychodermatology.
1) Psychophysiological disorders; 2) Primary psychiatric disorders; 3) Secondary psychiatric disorders and 4) miscellaneous conditions like neuroses.
Psychophysiological disorders include skin disorders such as eczema and acne, that are triggered or worsened by emotional stress. This is the category most common.
Primary psychiatric disorders refer to problems that arise in the mind but result on the skin. For example, a habit frequently seen is skin picking, where the picking makes the acne lesion worse, causing even more distress. But the picking, scratching or pulling (as in the hairpulling disorder, trichotillomania) is anxiety-driven, and is ultimately a compulsive behavior that is ideally corrected with psychiatric intervention.
Secondary psychiatric disorders are diseases of the skin that cause so much distress, they can trigger a significant psychological problem such as clinical depression and anxiety. The very visible skin disorders, such as psoriasis and vitiligo are particularly stressful for an individual, and rates of depression and anxiety are higher among them. Despite being ‘skin diseases,’ psychiatric intervention with anti-anxiety or anti-depressant medications may be prescribed in a medical setting.
Finally, there are miscellaneous conditions that include neuroses, such as feeling ‘bugs’ crawling on the skin. These are primarily treated in a psychiatric setting.
These categories are not mutually exclusive. For example, stress can trigger a breakout but acne can also cause social anxiety and depression due to visible scaring.
From stress to acne to eczema, it is all about dealing with chronic inflammation, as this poses a great threat to your health and wellbeing. Many people quietly suffer with from these conditions, like the overworked mother that will likely get a facial or a massage to deal with her stress level rather than seeing a physician. Or a teenager with acne will use over-the-counter products, but finds they are not “working”.
Sometimes, your skin needs you to take a vacation
It is well known that for a person with psoriasis or eczema, stress tends to make the problem worse. Learning to manage every day stress has a big impact on how results are achieved long term. The same happens with people having cold sores – they have flare ups during high stress times. The reason is that stress alters immune system responses. The herpes virus responsible for cold sores is present all the time, but under normal healthy state, the immune system has it under control.
Acne flare ups are notorious before a big date or a special event. This might be linked with high cortisol levels. One recommendation is to exercise regularly to keep the stress down, especially when you have an event planned.
Feel emotions in your heart
Skin problems might be intimately linked to emotional issues you are dealing with. If you are overwhelmed, maybe you are a new mom, or you are raising children on your own or have little help from others around you, all the skin symptoms you experience show up as a body poetry, a physical metaphor to show what you go through in your heart. It is a way of expressing on the outside of the loneliness, frustration, dis-satisfaction you experience in your life. All emotions you manifest in your heart, will show on skin.
How and whether you express these emotions will depend on your particular situation. First, feel what you feel, acknowledge it. Experience it and know that you do not have to go through this alone. There are options and people that can help should you choose to reach out.
One way to deal with these emotions is to use mind-body techniques, forming mental images of a safe, nurturing environment. Because your brain and your skin are closely connected, your body responds to an imagined situation as if it is real. If you picture yourself sitting by the fire, your toes and hands get warmer. Visualizing an image of sunlight or cool moisture may help you skin feel more comfortable.
Or keep a Gratitude journal and write down every day 3-5 things you are thankful to have in your life – keep focusing on the positive side of things. Easier said than done, yet the first step is the harder one. Create this new habit and life will bring you more of the good things if you believe.
Other options to keep emotions at bay are massage, aromatherapy, breathing techniques, exercise, counselling.
The power of touch
With touch, we induce hormonal signals carried via the skin to our brain’s cognitive and emotional centers, resulting in positive behavioral changes. During a massage, slow nerve fibers are activated, which will result in positive feelings, reduce levels of the stress hormone - cortisol, and increase oxytocin. Oxytocin reduces the stress response, including cortisol levels.
Psychologists have a term for the feeling of deprivation and abandonment we experience: ‘skin hunger’.
“To touch is to give life” – Michelangelo
Regrettably, some cultures are pretty touch deprived. Of course, there are plenty of good reasons why people are inclined to keep their hands to themselves. But research shows that we lose many health benefits when we hold back too much. There are studies showing that touch signals safety and trust, it soothes. A warm touch calms the cardiovascular stress. It activates the vagus nerve, which is connected with our compassionate response.
Feel free to reach out for support and remember: Happy brain, Healthy skin!