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Eczema and Mental Health

Can You Relate?

Have you felt like there is no end to the itching and pain of eczema? Have you lost sleep at night due to itching and discomfort? Have you felt alone, like no one understands the seriousness of your condition and how life-dominating it is? Have you ever felt incredibly frustrated/angry because a flare up came just when you thought your eczema was under control? Have you felt like you’ve tried everything and have no idea what to do next?

You Are Not Alone

If you have had these feelings or similar, you understand that eczema creates a great emotional/psychological burden as well as a physical one. And if you’ve had these feelings, you are not alone.There is a higher occurrence of depression and anxiety among those with eczema.

  • survey by the National Eczema Association of 545 people with eczema revealed that more that 30% had been diagnosed with depression or anxiety, as opposed to the estimated 7.6 of the general population of the US.
  • This 2018 study showed that those with eczema have a 44% increased risk of suicidal thoughts and 36% increased risk of suicide attempts compared to those without eczema.
  • One study found that children who suffered from eczema in the first two years of life, and especially those whose eczema was not resolved by the age of two, were more likely to develop mental and emotional health problems by the age of ten than those children who had not had eczema.
  • One woman shares her struggle about growing up with severe eczema.

What is the Connection?

The reason for the higher occurrence of mental health problems and eczema is multifaceted:

  • Emotional/Physical. The ever-present cycles of flaring and scratching, constantly living in discomfort, and losing sleep has a tremendous impact on stress levels. For those with severe eczema, the physical struggle can be overwhelming.
  • Psychosocial. It is not uncommon for those with eczema to struggle with work or relationships. Dealing with social embarrassment and isolation takes a great toll on mental health.
  • Physiological: Eczema is a condition of chronic inflammation. That inflammation in the body can affect the nervous system and lead to mental health disorders. For example, research shows that an increase in cytokines (inflammatory messengers of the immune system) has a relation to depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorders. Inflammation affects production of mood-influencing neurotransmitters like serotonin. This article states, “Studies have shown that people who attempt suicide have higher levels of pro-inflammatory proteins in their cerebrospinal fluid.”

Addressing each of these factors is important for mental health and eczema.

Caring for Your Mental Health

Reach out for Help. I want to emphasize that suffering from depression, anxiety and especially suicidal thoughts are serious issues which you should not handle alone. You may require help from a medical professional. If you are wondering about the symptoms of depression, anxiety or other mental disorders, see this helpful resource. There is no shame in reaching out to someone who cares and can help you. If you are having thoughts of suicide, please seek immediate help and call a suicide support hotline. You can find a local number for your area by searching “suicide hotline” on google.
Support Groups. A wonderful way to address the psychosocial side of eczema is to find a support group. Suffering from eczema can be a very isolating experience, so finding connection with those who are also struggling and understand can be incredibly helpful. One can find multiple groups on facebook where members share experiences and what is helping. You may find a local support group as well, with whom you can meet in person.
Exercise. Exercise is an effective way to reduce stress. Finding something you like to do within your comfort level is important, so that exercise does not aggravate your eczema. Walking, hiking, yoga, Pilates, or a similar low-intensity exercise can offer great benefits without overheating your body.
Sleep. Sleep deprivation is common for those with eczema and can become a vicious cycle. Losing sleep throws flames on the fire of eczema, which in turn can lead to more sleep deprivation. But sleep is incredibly important for mental health, so finding a way to get a full night of rest is vitally important. Creating a bedtime routine can calm your body and mind. Taking a warm bath, listening to quiet music, avoiding screens and bright lights, and breathing deeply can all help prepare the body for restful sleep. Wearing cotton or silk pajamas and using the same type of sheets can remove irritants to your skin. Wet wrapping is also a great option for providing relief to help you sleep. Talk to your doctor about using an antihistamine or other medication for bedtime, especially if you have tried various other modifications without success.
Diet. An anti-inflammatory diet is a powerful way to combat the effects of chronic inflammation. The “Mediterranean diet” is an example of a low-inflammatory diet. The diet is centered on lots of vegetables and fruits, health fats (like olive oil), legumes, lean meats, and some breads. Those with eczema need to be aware of allergens and trigger foods such as wheat, eggs, dairy, and nuts. Avoiding foods that trigger as well as sugar, processed foods, food with additives (color, preservatives), and trans fats (hydrogenated oils) is important for reducing inflammation. The Autoimmune Paleo diet and the GAPS diet are examples of highly anti-inflammatory healing diets.
Hold on to Hope. This is SO much easier said than done, but I speak from personal experience on this point. When my kids were struggling with severe eczema, having hope was so important. I believed that there truly was a way to heal from eczema, and I was determined to find it. I had read of others doing it and their stories inspired hope and drive in me for my kids. We were proactive about trying new (and not always easy) methods for healing. If you want to read our story of healing from eczema, you can find it here.