If you have recently experienced a highly stressful or traumatic event, you may have noticed that your skin has flared up badly. It could be very dry, scarring more easily or you could find yourself with acne or rosacea. This in itself can be a very frustrating and challenging experience, often having a huge impact on your self-confidence and feelings of self-worth.
However, did you realise that there is evidence to show that post-traumatic stress disorder can cause skin issues? According to The National Rosacea Society, emotional stress is reported to be one of the most common rosacea triggers. The mind and body connection is very much real, and when you start to suffer mentally, your physical wiring also starts to short-circuit.
As research into post-traumatic stress disorder and dermatology shows, there are many connections between the two and how they can manifest themselves, from numbness in the skin to cutaneous self-injury, skin-picking disorders to eating disorders (which can have dermatologic effects), direct physical injury to the skin to stress-reactive inflammatory dermatoses, such as psoriasis. As studies indicate, elevated levels of inflammation and impaired functioning in the skin have been reported by those experiencing sustained psychological stress and sleep deprivation. Researchers note that PTSD should be considered an underlying factor in chronic, recurrent or treatment-resistant skin conditions.
The Science Behind The Brain-Skin Connection
In some of the latest research, many people are now exploring the relationship between a psychiatric condition called ‘alexithymia’ and acne in order to understand the connections between mind and body. The former is a type of personality trait in which you have difficulty expressing, describing or understanding emotions. It’s not so much about repressed emotions, but more about people not knowing how to communicate them or understand them. It has long been known that this inability to express emotions can lead to all kinds of illnesses, from lower back pain to asthma, allergies to irritable bowel syndrome, fibromyalgia to nausea. However, scientists have recently discovered there is a connection with acne too.
In the case of people who have alexithymia, researchers have found that the psychological symptoms are often combined with physical symptoms. This may include overly-activated nerves, especially those connected with controlling voluntary movements. It can cause the heart to beat faster, but pump less blood, meaning the tissues all over the body then receive less oxygen. The skin also becomes a better conductor for electricity, which means any kind of stress within the skin is then felt more quickly and intensely. The skin also reacts to stress more powerfully.
Even for those who don’t have alexithymia, the body starts to react in the same way. The skin can be seen to have its own ‘brain’ – and as the largest organ in the human body, it’s hardly surprising that the skin behaves this way. In the same way that the brain will release a stimulating hormone chemical known as ‘corticotrophin’ when it senses stress, thereby releasing stress hormones through the adrenal glands, the skin also releases a corticotrophin-stimulating hormone when stress is sensed.
This will then send a message to the cells within the skin that are storing the inflammatory chemical ‘histamine’ to break open, releasing histamine into the nearby skin cells – the same as if they were harboring a splinter or infection. As a result of this chemical process occurring, the skin then becomes redder and itchier, and can also break out in bumps. This is all due to a heightened sensitivity within the nervous system.
When it comes to dry skin, this can result from your body’s stress response system drawing water away from your outer layers of skin, potentially as a way to keep your body hydrated in an emergency situation. If you are in constant fight-or-flight, this can become a continued issue, which then results in a chronic skin condition. The skin becomes less able to repair and regenerate itself, and also becomes more prone to scarring.
Treating Chronic Skin Conditions And PTSD
It is important to seek early intervention when looking to overcome post-traumatic stress disorder, as this can have a positive impact on how quickly you are able to overcome the associated symptoms. You should also look to treat your skin conditions at the same time, as left unchecked, these can start to cause further problems, such as social anxiety or depression.
When speaking to your dermatologist, you should discuss PTSD and the impact this may be having on your skin. They will then be able to suggest an appropriate course of treatment.
Research has also suggested that those who consume foods containing probiotic bacteria tend to suffer less anxiety, less depression and less acne. This natural therapy may help to relieve both the skin condition and the PTSD symptoms, although may not always be effective for everyone. For many, this will be a complementary method of healing, alongside more rigorous methods such as working with a trained practitioner. It can help to ease symptoms while waiting for PTSD treatment though, which can put you in a better position for when it starts.
NICE guidance from 2005 and 2011 recommends the use of trauma focused psychological treatments for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder in adults, specifically the use of Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprocessing (EMDR) and trauma focused cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).
You can find out more about physical symptoms of PTSD here.
Photo by Charles Deluvio