Fortunately most skin conditions are not life threatening, but dermatologist have known for a long time that patients with hereditary or acquired skin problems can become deeply depressed or emotionally disturbed over their appearance. Conversely, when someone has a cosmetic procedure to eliminate unwanted signs of aging or a dermatologic treatment to correct an embarrassing skin disorder, their sense of self-esteem is often boosted. After all, it’s just human nature to want to restore one’s vanity. But is it possible for your anxieties to exacerbate your skin condition?
According to a recent study posted on the Mayo Clinic website, chronic stress can wreak havoc on your body and left unattended, can put your health at risk. The fact that our bodies are hard-wired to react to “fight or flight” situations is well documented. When the brain perceives a threat, real or imagined, the hypothalamus sets off an alarm through a combination of nerve and hormonal signals. Suddenly the body’s stress hormones take charge as the heart rate goes up, palms become sweaty and nonessential functions and processes start to shut down.
Does the brain control our mood, motivation and fears?
Once a threat subsides, signals from the brain return to normal and bodily functions resume their regular activities. Unfortunately, the body’s natural stress responders have not evolved as quickly as the environment in which we live. Even though it is highly unlikely that you will be chased by an aggressive predator, the brain is still ultra sensitive to perceived threats and remains in direct communication with processes that control mood, motivation and fear. Scientists may not know exactly how these mechanisms worsen skin conditions, but we all know how stressful situations can impact our own lives.
If you have ever looked in the mirror the morning after studying for an important exam or staying up late to prepare for a big meeting, you’ve probably noticed that your hair and your complexion seems to be stressing right along with you. Even worse, you may have noticed a “glowing red” pimple that decided to erupt at a disfiguring location on your forehead or cheek. Then, everything is made worse as you constantly pick at your skin while you wait for your meeting or exam time. So whether it is biting on your finger nails, tugging on a lock of your hair or picking at an annoying skin condition, most of us have some kind of reaction to stressful situations.
Is there a connection?
Although not everyone’s sense of self confidence is as tightly wound to their appearance, a lot of us do seem to have a real connection between our stress response and our skin condition. So it’s probably not just your imagination. In fact, there is a relatively new subspecialty that specializes in the interaction between the mind and the skin. But, most dermatologist already practice psychosomatic treatment of skin disorders for several dermatologic conditions, such as psoriasis, atopic dermatitis, hives, skin allergies, herpes simplex virus, acne, hair loss and excessive skin picking.
As the largest organ in the human body, the skin seems to have a complex connection with our endocrine and immune systems, and our brain seems to react to many intrinsic conditions in our world every day. Researcher still don’t believe that skin disorders like acne are caused by stress but most doctors have long suspected that stress can worsen the condition. Fact is, understanding the social and occupational context of skin diseases may be critical to the developing new treatment plans for managing many problems; and learning healthy ways to cope with stress may save your life.
Building a strong doctor-patient relationship
Using techniques like relaxation, hypnosis, meditation, biofeedback and cognitive therapy, patients are already learning to control the activation of the stress-response system that can disrupt the body’s processes and lead to many unwanted cutaneous conditions. Although we may never learn how to relax our facial muscles with the same success as Botox injections, we can take proactive steps to control our stress level. In addition, today’s dermatologists are already well versed in the psychology of good skin health and take the time to build a trusting relationship with their patients.
There are very few medical specialties where a physician is treating a life-threatening skin disease in one patient’s room and discussing a patient’s goals for cosmetic improvements in the next. That’s why dermatologists are required to have an in-depth understanding as to how emotional triggers may impact an individual’s condition and vice versa. Thus, the field of psychodermatology is probably not as new as it might sound. After all, this is the doctor and surgeon that you will need trust for years to come with your deepest fears, anxieties and moments of self-doubt.
If you need cosmetic, medical or surgical dermatology, be upfront and honest with your physician. A key to healthier skin and a happier you likely lies in the strength of your patient-doctor relationship.