Ever been embarrassed and feel your face redden? Or does the thought of wearing a wool turtleneck make you itch? The science behind why your skin reacts to something your mind generates is studied in a field called psychodermatology.
Psychodermatologists are different from regular dermatologists in that they treat the skin the way a psychotherapist treats behavior. So in a way, they are “derm shrinks” or “skin shrinks”, to use the term coined by the New York Times.
Psychodermatologists attempt to delve into the more psychological reasons for a skin condition. They study effects that behavior has on different skin conditions and offer therapies such as hypnosis, biofeedback, relaxation techniques or meditation to treat them.
Ted Grossbart Ph.D. is one such practitioner. He is a clinical psychologist and psychodermatology expert, and the author of the book “Skin Deep” which you can download for free at his website.
According to Grossbart, “As many as 60% of people who seek a doctor’s help for skin and hair problems have significant life stress. Emotional issues can trigger many problems, and keep the most sophisticated medical treatments from working.”
Grossbart helped Mary O’Leary, a surgical nurse who had chronic plantar warts on her foot that was not responding to conventional treatment.
O’Leary told the NYT, “I spent months learning self-hypnosis.” She visualized her immune cells fighting off the virus and imagined healthy skin replacing the warts. “It’s bizarre and amazing, but it worked.”
Harvard health describes three basic areas that psychodermatologic disorders usually fall into. Some may overlap each other.
These are conditions that have a physiological cause but can be made worse by stress or other emotional factors. Examples are acne, alopecia areata (hair loss), eczema, herpes, hyperhidrosis (excessive sweating), itching, psoriasis (skin scaling and redness), rosacea (skin flushing and eruption), hives and warts.
However, it is important to have any skin problem first evaluated by a medical professional before assuming that the problem is psychological. These skin eruptions may be due to other medical problems, or a drug reaction that needs regular medical treatment.
2) Secondary psychiatric
This is an emotional response to something that is disfiguring or causes the person to feel that they are socially stigmatized. Some examples of this type of skin condition are burns, vitiligo (loss of skin pigment) and genital herpes.
These problems can cause challenges to a person’s self-esteem and can bring on feelings of shame or humiliation. Harvard Health said that research has linked skin disorders and depression, and even suicide, in some people.
3) Primary psychiatric
These are conditions that cause the person to do harm to themselves because of imagined events (fear that bugs are attacking them), preoccupation with a real or imagined defect they have, or stress relief causing self-destructive behavior (chronic hair-pulling or trichotillomania).
Dermatologists can treat the skin damage that develops, but people with these conditions need psychotherapy, and sometimes psychiatric medications.
There is no guarantee that seeking the services of a psychodermatologist will help heal a difficult skin condition that has been resistant to traditional therapies.
However, there is anecdotal evidence that such treatment has helped many people besides O’Leary achieve improvement in their chronic skin condition when medications, eating a better diet, or getting more sleep alone were not enough.
Harvard Health Publications Harvard Medical School. November 1, 2006. Retrieved Feb. 24, 2015.
Skin Deep. A New Mind Body Program for Healthy Skin. Dr. Ted Grossbart. Accessed Feb. 24, 2015.
Michele is an R.N. freelance writer with a special interest in woman’s healthcare and quality of care issues.
Edited by Jody Smith