New Field, New Treatment Possibilities
"If appearance is impacted due to a skin condition, you can end up having to deal with self-esteem issues and social stigma, which, if unaddressed, can lead to depression," Mallin says.
"If they truly have depression or a diagnosed anxiety or psychological disorders, medication can be helpful and so can a brief course of cognitive behavioral therapy that works at changing reactions and behaviors," Mallin says.
Relaxation training can help as well.
One study at the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami showed that children's mood and activity levels improved, as did all measures of their skin condition including redness and itching, after massage therapy. Parents' anxiety also decreased.
Another potential solution is habit-reversal training.
"Say you pick at your acne or eczema and you get scarring and are actually making it worse, you need to be aware where your hands are," she says. "Being more self-aware of what your hands are doing and having alternative behaviors that take the place can help."
For example, every time your hand reaches above your neck, grab a pencil and write a sentence.
When children develop stress-induced skin conditions, the onus may be on adults to ask what kind of impact the skin disease is having on them and what kind of stressful events they are going through because very young children experience stress just like adults do, Mallin says.
"Maybe they are being teased or bullied," she says. A doctor or parent can ask about school and friends to find out if the child is socially connected or excluded form normal social activities," she suggests.
The mind-skin connection makes all the sense in the world to Shelley Sekula-Gibbs, MD, clinical assistant professor of dermatology at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.
"Studies that show that at least 30% of all dermatology patients have some underlying psychological problem that often goes unaddressed, at least on initial visit, but if addressed, it can have a very positive and powerful impact in improving the skin condition," she says.
[During development in the womb], the brain and skin are derived from the same cells, so there is a connection," she says. "And the other immediate relationship is that when people experience stress in life, quite frequently, their skin becomes a reflection of the stresses."
What to do varies depending on the condition and the cause, she says.
"If the condition is short-lived, such as a college student gets an acne flare during finals, there is not much to do because stressors are episodic," Sekula-Gibbs says." But if the stressors are more chronic, such as a difficult marriage or a person is unemployed and unable to find work, the dermatologist would be well served to try and address the social issues involved."