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Stress can affect your skin

Published:Wednesday | April 4, 2012 | 12:00 AM

Stress is a physical, mental or emotional response to pressure. There is an important link between stress and the skin, partly due to the fact that the skin and the brain are both affected by similar hormones and chemicals in the body. The skin is the largest organ of the body and has many important roles.

One role that may be underappreciated is the importance of the skin in our socialisation with others, from babies to adults. Many individuals with certain skin diseases find that stress can worsen their skin problems and that the skin problems can also cause stress.

There are three main ways in which the relationship between stress and the skin can be seen.

First, while stress cannot be blamed as the cause of all skin diseases, it can indeed trigger or worsen some skin conditions like atopic eczema, acne, hair loss, premature ageing and psoriasis.

Second, some individuals who are under stress or suffering from psychological problems may abuse their skin or have incorrect perceptions regarding their skin. For instance, some may pull out their hair (trichotillomania), excessively scratch or pick their skin (psychogenic excoriation) or deliberately harm their skin (dermatitis artefacta). Some people may have a false belief that insects or worms are crawling under their skin (delusions of parasitosis) and some may be obsessed with their appearance and convince themselves that everything is wrong with their bodies (body dysmorphic disorder).

Emotional problems

The third way in which stress and the skin are linked is where the individual has emotional problems as a result of their skin disease. This is extremely common. It may manifest in low self-esteem, work- and school-related problems, problems with relationships, anxiety, depression and even suicide. Several clinical studies have shown that skin problems can lead to emotional problems which can significantly affect a person's life.

For example, the effect on the quality of life for children with the itchy-skin disease, atopic eczema, was shown to be greater than or equal to that of asthma or diabetes. Acne affects more than 85 per cent of teens and has been found to have psychological effects comparable to arthritis, epilepsy, diabetes and asthma.

Long-term skin disease

People suffering from long-term skin diseases often suffer from rejection, feeling flawed, guilty and ashamed. These individuals need to be treated with greater sensitivity and empathy. Children and teens in particular can be severely affected by harsh comments, teasing and bullying. It has been shown that their stress and emotional problems can be reduced when their skin conditions are effectively treated and vice versa.

It is estimated that about one in five visits to a doctor is due to a skin problem. Skin disease is more than a minor cosmetic concern. It can cause serious stress and impaired social functioning. It is therefore important that the relationship between skin and stress be recognised and treated appropriately.

Dr Arusha Campbell-Chambers is a dermatologist and founder of Dermatology Solutions Skin Clinics and Medi-Spas; email: yourhealth@gleanerjm.com.