How Atopic Dermatitis Can Harm Your Mental Health

How and why you need to address the complicated emotions that often accompany a chronic skin disorder like atopic dermatitis.

Medically reviewed in April 2020

Atopic dermatitis, often referred to as AD or eczema, is a skin condition that affects nearly 18 million adults and over 9 million children in the United States.

The most common symptom of AD is a red, itchy, inflamed rash on the skin that often appears on the hands and feet, wrists and ankles, chest and neck, eyelids and inside the elbows and knees. Flare-ups of the rash are triggered by exposure to environmental factors, such as irritants and allergens, as well as triggers like anxiety and stress.

While AD is a chronic condition and there is no cure, there are many treatment options available that can help patients control the condition, ranging from topical creams to light therapy and injectable medications. Working with a dermatologist to find a treatment that works, sticking to a skincare routine, avoiding known irritants and maintaining an overall healthy lifestyle can help minimize flare-ups.

The emotional and mental burden of AD
Unsurprisingly, atopic dermatitis—which requires time and effort to manage—can be an emotional and mental burden. Feelings of shame, embarrassment and frustration are common, and research has shown that people with AD are diagnosed with depression and anxiety in higher numbers than those without AD. One study that looked at Health-Related Quality of Life (HRQL) in patients with atopic dermatitis found that the disease had an impact on a person’s mental health and social functioning. And to make matters worse, stress and anxiety can trigger AD flare-ups. This results in a vicious cycle, where emotional stress triggers flare-ups, which cause more emotional stress.

Taking care of yourself, mentally and emotionally
Finding effective methods for reducing mental and emotional stress should be a part of every treatment plan for atopic dermatitis. If you don’t know where to start, try one of these scientifically-backed stress relievers:

  • Yoga. The deep breathing in yoga has been shown to ease symptoms of stress and anxiety.
  • Meditation. One of the world’s oldest stress-busters, meditation is shown to reduce stress and improve emotional wellbeing.
  • Exercise. Physical activity is shown to reduce stress in numerous ways, including boosting endorphins and improving self-confidence.
  • Take a walk outside. One study shows that spending time outdoors in nature (or even looking at pictures of nature!) can reduce stress.
  • Sleep. Napping has been shown to reduce levels of the hormone cortisol (sometimes called “the stress hormone”).
  • Laugh. Laughter has been shown to improve mood and immune system function, and to relieve pain. And at least one study has shown that watching funny cat videos can lower stress.
  • Counseling and support groups. Some people with AD find sharing their experiences with others is effective for relieving the mental and emotional burden of the condition.

It is also important for anyone diagnosed with AD to recognize the symptoms of depression. Depression is a serious illness, and one you are at a greater risk of experiencing if you have AD. Symptoms of depression include persistent feeling of sadness, anxiety, hopelessness and worthlessness; loss of interest in normal activities and hobbies; feeling tired and fatigued; difficulty sleeping; a change in appetite, weight loss or weight gain; and thoughts of death or suicide. If these symptoms persist for two weeks or longer, speak with your healthcare provider. If you are having thoughts of suicide or harming yourself, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.

Remember, you are not alone. Atopic dermatitis is a condition that millions live with every day. Work with your healthcare provider. Find treatments that work for you. Find ways to reduce stress and feel happier. Find support where you need it.

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