It’s not always external irritants that cause the rashes associated with eczema and other chronic skin problems; sometimes the trigger is psychological rather than physical.
We investigate what’s going on with anxiety-related rashes.
Troubled Times, Troubled Skin
Both dermatologists and psychologists know very well that life’s trickier moments can have a bad effect on the skin. Distressing events, bereavement, stress at work, financial problems and psychological challenges can all result in flare-ups.
So what’s going on?
Stress hives (also known as stress urticaria) can result from chronic or temporary stress, anxiety or tension and appear as intensely itchy, inflamed, bumpy, red and swollen patches of skin anywhere on the body.
This isn’t eczema, but the result of your body sending out hormonal distress signals when you’re scared, worried or under extreme stress. These are picked up by the immune system, which acts as if the body is under attack and goes into defence mode. It sends out histamine to try to fight off the attack, and this causes both general inflammation in the body and localised inflammation on the skin in the form of hives, redness and rashes.
The hives can last for a short time (acute hives) or drag on for weeks (chronic hives) but if the cause of the stress is a long-term issue - ie unresolved stress at work or financial difficulties - it’s important to find strategies to manage the situation.
Worsening of Existing Conditions
The chemicals your body produces when it’s under stress make your skin more sensitive and reactive, so even if you’ve been managing your eczema well with diet and emollients, a sudden stressful event can cause flare-ups and result in the worsening of chronic skin conditions such as eczema, dermatitis, psoriasis or rosacea.
Effects On Self-Care
Sometimes being under a lot of pressure, working long days, being anxious or depressed means that you’re not looking after yourself as well as you could be. Your diet suffers, you eat more processed or sugary food, you forget to drink enough water or emolliate regularly throughout the day. All of the carefully-managed strategies for keeping on top of your eczema can start to crumble under pressure, and that can have a bad effect on your skin.
Sweat Hives Or Rash
If anxiety causes you to sweat, the minerals and salts in sweat irritate the skin and cause intense itching. Unfortunately, one episode of sweating can cause a rash that lasts days.
Increased Focus On The Itch
When you’re stressed or anxious you’re likely to suffer more from any itch, rash or flare-up than if you weren’t anxious. An itch becomes impossible to ignore; a visible rash dominates your thoughts, making you self-conscious and causing yet more anxiety, creating a vicious circle of inflammation and anxiety.
What Can Be Done?
Here some strategies for calming down anxiety-related skin issues:
- De-stressing techniques (mindfulness, breathing techniques, meditation)
- Avoiding or preparing for stress triggers in advance
- Use a cooling topical application, such as Skin Salvation Cooling Cream
- Putting cool - not too cold or too hot - water on the area, either compresses or cool showers
- Using a fan to cool skin down in the moment
And do remember: if hives result in the swelling of any part of the throat or face, or cause restricted breathing, seek immediate emergency treatment.