If you have eczema, you’re not alone: It’s a very common condition that affects up to 15 million Americans. A form of dermatitis — a term that means skin inflammation — eczema makes your skin more sensitive. That means your skin might look red or irritated; develop scaly, leathery patches or bumps; or become dry and itchy.
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You can develop eczema for many reasons, and many factors influence whether the condition will get better (or worse).
However, stress is also one major cause of an eczema flare-up.
“If you wrote down what you were doing when you had an eczema flare-up to figure out, ‘What are my triggers?’ or ‘What was I experiencing or going through?’ you’ll probably be able to find stress as a common factor,” says family medicine specialist Saadia Hussain, MD. “Something was going on in your life at the time when the eczema was probably at its worst.”
What is the connection between stress and eczema?
Doctors have long known that stress isn’t good for your health. “What is stress not connected to?” says Dr. Hussain. “Many chronic medical conditions and mental health conditions are affected by stress.” This includes skin conditions like eczema. “The more stressed you are, you do tend to get worse eczema breakouts. There’s a connection there.”
What’s challenging is that stress can be difficult to measure. “Stress isn’t quantifiable — it’s not something we can do a test for like we do for diabetes or blood pressure,” says Dr. Hussain. “But stress affects pretty much everything in your body, including how quickly you heal after surgery or how quickly you respond to medication. It’s very subjective.”
However, doctors do know the link between stress and eczema has something to do with hormones. “The feel-good hormones, your endorphins, tend to be suppressed when you’re in a state of stress,” says Dr. Hussain. “When you’re in a fight-or-flight mode, your heart rate tends to go up, your blood pressure’s going to respond accordingly, and your body is going to release other hormones.”
When you’re stressed out, these hormones (which include cortisol) protect you. However, being in fight-or-flight mode constantly can be detrimental to your health, Dr. Hussain notes. “It’s definitely not good for you. And that’s when you can get an eczema outbreak.”
Ways to keep your stress and eczema in check
Keeping your stress levels low is one way to help your eczema symptoms under control. Here are a few options to try:
Exercise causes you to release endorphins, the hormones that cause feelings of calmness and happiness. “Exercise, exercise, exercise — I can’t encourage that enough,” says Dr. Hussain. “That’s the only natural way that your brain releases endorphins.”
She adds, however, that not all forms of exercise are created equal. “When we say exercise, that’s your heart rate going up to a high enough level consistently for 15 to 20 minutes three times a week,” Dr. Hussain says. “That’s what it takes to get those good hormones released in your brain and in your body, and for these to be helpful at reducing your stress levels.”
Heart rate-increasing exercises Dr. Hussain recommends include:
- Fast walking.
- Cycling on a stationary bike.
- Working out on an elliptical machine.
A healthy, well-balanced diet full of vitamin- and nutrient-packed foods is another key part of reducing stress. “That ensures you’re getting enough nutrients so your body can release those feel-good hormones,” Dr. Hussain says. “If you’re living off of a carbohydrate-rich and sugar-rich diet, that’s not going to help your stress.”
Sleep is another surefire way to help keep your stress levels in check. However, Dr. Hussain notes that every adult needs a different amount of sleep to feel rested. Some people absolutely need 8 hours a night, while others are awake and rested after just 5 hours. “It really depends on the quality of your sleep,” she says. “How good is your sleep environment? How long are you in REM sleep?”
Practicing meditation and mindfulness can help you feel more relaxed, centered and in touch with your inner self, all of which can reduce your stress levels. Deep tissue massage therapy is also a good way to relax while practicing self-care.
Although these methods aren’t evidence-based, things such as acupuncture, cupping and dry needling can help reduce stress for some people.
Having one-on-one sessions with a therapist can identify what’s causing your stress — and help you develop coping mechanisms.
Above all, don’t keep your stress bottled up inside. “Your body manifests stress a certain way,” Dr. Hussain says. “Some people have a very high-stress level — maybe because of the line of work they do, or they’re going through something in life, like a divorce, or they have a child who’s sick. They may not be open about expressing stress, and it’s not apparent or obvious.”
That’s when health problems like eczema start to flare up, she adds. “When you internalize that stress, your body is still experiencing it — and then has to manifest itself in some way or another.” In short, that’s why having an outlet for your stress is crucial. “Whether you like talking to a friend, a sibling, or a therapist — or exercising, reading and listening to music — there are a lot of different ways to de-stress or get your mind off of what’s causing you stress.” Your eczema will certainly thank you later.