It’s never fun to have your skin get all itchy and red — but when you’re already stressed out to the max, having an eczema flare-up can be particularly agitating. It might not be a coincidence that your high levels of tension seem to be throwing off your skincare game. Figuring out why anxiety can cause an eczema flare-up can be an important factor in keeping your skin healthy.
What Is Eczema?
Typically, talking about eczema doesn’t mean just one condition or skincare concern. “Eczema is a non-specific term for a red, itchy, scaly rash,” says Dr. Anne Allen, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist. While the word can cover a pretty broad range of conditions — from contact dermatitis (due to allergies) to dyshidrotic eczema (blister-y rashes) — they all have a basic component in common. “All are primarily caused by a compromised skin barrier, allowing water out and irritants and bacteria into the skin,” Dr. Allen explains. That can translate into itchy, red rashes on different parts of your body.
How Can Anxiety Cause Eczema?
If you’ve ever felt like your eczema flares up at exactly the wrong time, it might be your body’s way of responding to your pre-big-presentation-at-work tension. “Any type of stress, whether physical or mental, can worsen just about every skin problem,” Dr. Allen tells Bustle. “Eczema is no exception.”
That doesn’t mean your anxiety has created your eczema, Dr. Allen explains — but if you’re already predisposed to it, stress can definitely cause a flare-up. You might be likely to have it, she says, if you have a family history of eczema, dry skin, or are being exposed to cold temperatures and low humidity.
Why does stress impact your skin like this? It has to do with your immune system and all those stress responses your body has. “Eczema may be a response to a compromised immune system due to the excessive release of stress hormones, triggered by your body's prolonged fight-or-flight response to stress,” says board-certified clinical psychologist Jenny Yip, Psy.D. In other words, when your entire week is thrown off-kilter by that ill-advised trip through your ex’s social media page, your body becomes hypervigilant against perceived danger, cuing eczema.
How Can You Ease Anxiety-Related Eczema?
First things first: you’ve got to figure out whether your anxiety is, in fact, likely to be exacerbating your eczema. “Keep a diary of your anxiety and eczema and see if they correlate,” Dr. Allen suggests. That way, you’ll be able to better keep track of what might trigger your flare-ups.
If you think your eczema might be related to anxiety, it’s important to tend to both your skincare and your mental health. Make sure you’re paying extra attention to giving your skin the kind of love it needs. “Preventing and treating eczema is all about repairing and protecting the skin barrier,” Dr. Allen says. Keep your skin nice and moisturized, she advises, using unscented products. “Consider a humidifier in your bedroom, drink plenty of water, and consider using less heat and AC as both are drying,” she adds. If the itchy patches are getting worse (i.e., if your skin is red and very itchy, blistered, painful, or swollen) after a week or two, consider seeing a dermatologist, who can evaluate the type of eczema you might be experiencing and create a treatment plan.
As for your anxiety, place a premium on caring for your mental health. “Reducing anxiety is not a cure for eczema, but it can certainly decrease its severity,” Yip says. To put yourself in the best position possible, Yip recommends practicing self-care, getting regular exercise, focusing on getting good sleep, and seeking help from a mental health professional if you need to. “I also recommend working to identify the negative thoughts and mind traps that fuel your anxiety,” she tells Bustle. By approaching your skincare holistically — with your mental health at the top of your mind — you’ll stand a better chance at reducing your stress-related eczema flare-ups.
Dr. Anne Allen, M.D., board-certified dermatologist
Jenny Yip, Psy.D., board-certified clinical psychologist