You’ve heard of wearing your heart on your sleeve, but have you heard about wearing your stress on your face or your anxiety in your hair?
Believe it or not, your body may be betraying your internal state as it’s been found that negative emotions can actually cause or aggravate a variety of worrying conditions like psoriasis, acne and hair-thinning. So, that pretty much torpedoes the expression, “put on a happy face!”
A recent study published in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology found that one in every 10 people with a diagnosed skin problem such as eczema, acne, psoriasis and/or skin infections were clinically depressed versus just 4% of participants with no skin issues. Additionally, roughly 17% reported experiencing anxiety, versus only 11% of subjects without skin problems. Even more worrisome, the researchers found that psoriasis, an autoimmune condition which leads to an excess of skin cells resulting in painful, irritated blotches, was linked to suicidal thoughts.
In fact, another study found that around half of subjects with psoriasis recalled the onset of their condition occurring at a stressful time in life, while approximately two-thirds reported their psoriasis got worse when they felt stressed or pressured.
Have you heard of alopecia? This is a condition in which the hair drastically thins or falls out. According to one study the vast majority of alopecia sufferers reported experiencing a stressful event within months of developing the condition.
As if we needed more evidence that internal stress affects our outward appearance, another study revealed that acne among female medical students worsened when their stress levels increased.
What all of these findings underscore is the delicate link between our mind and body.
But how and why does psychological stress get expressed via our outer physiological façade?
That a question that dermatologist Francisco Tausk, head of the Center for Integrated Dermatology has spent years trying to answer.
According to Tausk, norepinephrine is a main culprit. This is because our body responds to stress by producing large amounts of norepinephrine, a naturally occurring chemical in our bodies that can raise heart rate, alertness and arousal when elevated.
Norepinephrine is responsible for the flee or fight response, that uncontrolled reaction we have to danger which predictably results in a pounding heart and increased vigilance. High amounts of norepinephrine also result in inflammation such as that see in psoriasis.
Under normal circumstances, the body produces a hormone called cortisol that acts to control the stress response, thereby limiting inflammation. Synthetic versions of this hormone, known as corticosteroids, are used to combat and treat inflammation.
But those with inflammatory skin disorders such as psoriasis and other similar conditions oftentimes have low levels of cortisol that in effect are not sufficient to combat an increase in norepinephrine. The end result is a vicious cycle of stress-related skin problems.
There’s also another way that the mind-body connection betrays our inner most thoughts and feelings, in effect broadcasting our private life to the world.
Marla Deibler is the executive director of The Center for Emotional Health of Greater Philadelphia and she says that, “body focused repetitive behaviors” reveal our inner turmoil.
Examples of such behaviors are hair-pulling and skin-picking, symptoms that can manifest in some people with overwhelming anxiety. Behaviors such as these can also present themselves when we experience negative emotional states such as anger, frustration and even boredom.
Deibler describes these behaviors as, “self-grooming” actions, conduct that most of us engage in to some degree or another. But when we take this type of behavior, e.g. skin picking or hair pulling, to an extreme, the consequences can be problematic and severe.
According to Deibler, when we spend large amounts of time performing these actions, subsequently inflicting bodily damage, the behavior has moved from a bothersome habit to a clinical issue.
As a result, a vicious cycle of self-destruction emerges, one in which skin problems worsen mood disorders. For example, it’s common for adults with psoriasis to worry that others won’t want to touch them, while teenagers with acne commonly tussle with their self-image. As Deibler notes, “Because skin is visible and our largest organ, any skin condition, mild or severe, can produce,” adverse psychological effects.
For example, eczema is a chronic skin problem marked by itchy, red skin, and several studies have found sufferers to report co-occurring depression as well as suicidal thoughts.
With all of the knowledge available about the link between our physical appearance and our emotional state, you may be wondering if researchers have also found effective ways to address this mind-body conundrum.
The answer is that experts do suggest several simple things you can do to mitigate the toll that stress can take on our minds and bodies.
First of all, if you are prone to excessive hair-pulling or skin-picking, try to increase your awareness of when you are most likely to do so and then make it harder to engage in the behavior. For example, if you tend to pull your hair while at work, try wearing it up most days.
Practicing mindfulness can also be helpful in reducing unwanted behaviors. Mindfulness refers to paying attention to what is happening in the present moment, and such awareness can help keep you from engaging in destructive behavior. Meditation and yoga are excellent techniques for incorporating mindfulness into your daily routine.
Lastly, if you are struggling to remedy a problematic skin issue, it may be helpful to consult with a dermatologist for answers. And, if negative thoughts about your appearance or skin are interfering with your well-being, don’t hesitate to also consult with a mental health professional at the same time.
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