Scientists aren't exactly sure what causes eczema. Research seems to suggest that the condition is caused by a confluence of factors, including both genetics and environmental influences.
While stress doesn't cause the condition itself, it's a major cause of outbreaks. Eighty-one percent of eczema patients report that increased stress levels correspond with an increase in eczema symptoms.
How Does Stress Lead To Outbreaks?
One thing that eczema suffers have in common is an abnormal physical reaction to psychological stress.
Patients with eczema exhibit a "hyperacute" immune response to stress, while normal anti-inflammatory responses and even basic skin functionality become damaged.
These reactions all directly correspond with an increase in eczema symptoms and outbreaks. Many successful treatment methods focus on treating just one of these factors.
Excessive Immune Response
People with eczema produce more mast cells when they're stressed. Mast cells are a type of white blood cell that contain receptors for a chemical called serotonin.
Serotonin is an important chemical with a number of functions in your body, but one of those functions is causing itchiness.
This means that at the most basic level, these extra mast cells will report more itchiness to your brain.
Mast cells don't just report itchiness, however. They're part of your body's immune system. Think of them like cops: normally, they recognize and chase down intruders.
They don't always get things right, however. Having a bunch of over-achieving mast cells running around thinking there's something wrong is a key component in both eczema and allergies.
Managing stress levels to keep your mast cell count low can be a major factor in preventing and mitigating eczema outbreaks.
Reduced Skin Functionality
While stress affects individuals with eczema differently, it's bad for everyone's skin. One basic study compared the condition of med students' skin after having sticky tape applied and ripped off. After winter vacation and during spring break, the volunteers' skin demonstrated "improved barrier recovery kinetics".
Right before exams, the students' skin scored much worse. Larger differences in reported stress levels corresponded with a larger difference in skin function between the two tests.
In other words, everyone — not just people with eczema — has a general decline of skin condition when they're stressed. This means that non-sufferers still are more likely to get rashes and suffer from outbreaks of zits when they're stressed.
By reducing their stress levels, people with eczema can fight off these issues too and improve the overall condition of their skin.
Stress is Serious
Stress is very important when it comes to your health. Research suggests that stress may be the cause of up to 75% of all visits to a doctor and that stress is a major factor in most serious medical conditions.
Notably, stress is linked with an increased risk of depression, diabetes, and strokes in otherwise healthy patients.
Poor sleep habits not only cause stress, they also modulate the way stress affects your body. Making sure you're getting enough quality, uninterrupted sleep is one of the most important things you can do when it comes to reducing your stress levels.
Give yourself enough time to get a good night's rest (6-8 hours), try to maintain the same sleep schedule throughout the week, and have a regular bedtime routine involving reduced exposure to bright lights.
Shutting off your devices and reading a book for a half hour or so before bed is a great way to both reduce stress and ease yourself in to a good night's sleep.
You can reduce your stress levels during the day by pursuing a number of relaxing activities. Here are some of our favorites:
- Progressive relaxation
- Guided visualization
- Taking naps
- Playing with animals
- Keeping a diary
You probably won't do all of these things, but it's not too hard to hit the gym, go for a run, and write in your diary for a few minutes each day. Consider taking a yoga class or meditating a few times a week if you can find the time.
Studies show that getting a pet can have some pretty incredible health benefits and reduce your stress, so if that's a thing you're interested in, give it a shot!
Some causes of stress aren't going to go away when you take up running. Making changes to your lifestyle and living environment can have a pretty big impact on your stress levels and cause you to feel better about your life in general.
Make time to hang out with friends, perform activities you enjoy, and make sure your career makes you happy.
If you feel chronically overworked, feel like your job is unsafe or dangerous, or live in fear of being fired, you might want to consider looking for a job that leaves you feeling less stressed.
Reducing your stress levels doesn't just help with eczema. It can help stave off serious medical conditions and improve the quality of your life. It's almost certainly worth spending a bit of extra time each week to engage in some activities to keep your stress level down.
Some lifestyle changes can further help reduce the occurrence of eczema outbreaks. Avoiding certain foods, removing environmental stressors like cigarette smoke and allergens, and properly moisturizing your skin can all help to lessen your symptoms further.
Try meditating in a warm bath to combine a moisturizing technique with a stress-reducing one.
There are quite a few medicines that have been proven to reduce the occurrence or severity of eczema outbreaks. In addition to traditional treatments, consider having a conversation with your doctor about SSRIs.
In addition to their anti-anxiety effects, there's research that suggests that SSRIs are effective at combating eczema directly.
They come with some pretty interesting side effects (notably reduced sexual function) so you should make sure you listen to your doctor and consider both the upsides and the downsides.
Eczema is affected by stress, but its symptoms contribute pretty directly to your stress level.
Getting a handle on your eczema and reducing your outbreaks will cause a cycle of stress reduction. With fewer outbreaks to worry about, you'll feel better overall, reducing your stress and further reducing your eczema outbreaks.
The overall result can be quite positive. You'll still get occasional outbreaks, of course, but you'll almost certainly feel happier and more confident in your day-to-day life.