Growing up, my super sensitive skin was always acting up. Of my many skin issues, eczema was by far the worst.
I received a diagnosis for the skin condition when I was 5 months old, and it became a constant enemy that would ravage the crooks of my arms, my neck, and lower back for no apparent reason for years.
For a while, I didn’t understand my skin and especially my eczema. Flare-ups seemed to come out of nowhere, and the medications I tried either weren’t very effective or had scary side effects.
It wasn’t until I realized the connection between my mental state and my eczema that I began to make headway managing the skin condition.
My early 20s were a time of both extreme stress and chronic eczema flares.
I felt alone and stranded in college in the United States, thousands of miles away from my family in Kenya.
Money was also a major stressor that caused me to experience frequent panic attacks. My parents were in the middle of an expensive divorce. My part-time job barely paid enough to cover rent. My financial challenges became an obsession.
It all came to a head during finals week in my senior year of college. My mom and I were going back and forth with the university’s financial aid office to restructure my tuition payment plan. My lease was ending, and I wasn’t sure where I was going to move. My stress levels skyrocketed.
All the while, a doozy of an eczema flare left my arms, neck, and back covered with dry patches. I’d itch constantly during my work shifts, classes, and meetings with the financial aid office. The discomfort exacerbated my stress, which seemed to make my condition worse.
Could the stress be connected to my eczema? I wondered.
So, I decided to conduct a little experiment. Instead of treating my eczema with the usual go-to topical solutions, I decided to leave it alone and see how my mental state affected my skin.
As my stress persisted, so did my eczema. But when I found an apartment, finished finals, and had a new tuition payment plan locked down, both my stress and my eczema calmed down.
With the help of an ultra-hydrating moisturizer, that flare-up was finally over.
That flare marked a turning point in my journey with eczema. I reflected on the worst flare-ups I had in my life and noticed they all happened during times of high stress and anxiety.
It showed me that yes, external factors could trigger a flare-up, but so could mental ones. I knew I’d need to find practices to support my emotional well-being.
And so began my next experiment: integrating stress relief into my healthcare routine.
I started with yoga — the first thing that came to mind when I thought about relaxing activities. It came with the added bonus of being a great practice for diabetes, which I was also managing.
There was a lot I liked about yoga… and a lot I didn’t. The parts of class that relieved stress and focused on moments of gratitude proved restorative. And having a regular period of time blocked off my calendar to ignore screens and reconnect with myself helped keep my stress and eczema symptoms under control.
However, yoga classes often made me sweat, which would sometimes irritate my skin. I also struggled to afford the $30 to $60 a week for classes.
I ended up abandoning yoga and, at the recommendation of my mom, turning to meditation instead. But, sitting cross-legged with my eyes closed, I was never sure if I was doing it right. My mind would often wander to anxious thoughts, and I’d move on to another activity after just a few minutes.
Weeklong eczema flare-ups were still the norm. In retrospect, I should have given my mind and body more time to get accustomed to meditation, but I was frustrated and impatient, so I gave up on that technique.
With yoga and meditation a bust, I decided to look inward and approach stress management by considering what makes me feel best.
That meant taking short walks every day — a practice that both my mind and my skin loved. My flare-ups occurred less frequently and, when they did happen, they didn’t last as long as they used to.
I also practiced a more mindful way of eating. I started taking time out of my day to make meals with fresh ingredients I really enjoyed. My blood sugar levels improved, which helped reduce my stress and improve my skin.
And more recently, I’ve started practicing mental rest — a practice in which you stop engaging with the mental chatter of your mind and give it space to slow down, process information and emotions, and get some much-needed downtime.
For me, mental rest looks like lying down or sitting outside with my eyes closed while listening to instrumental music for 5 to 10 minutes. The music helps me get out of my head and experience genuine mental relaxation.
The stress-relieving trio of talking walks, mindful eating, and mental rest has become a game-changer for my eczema. While I still have flares once in a while, and turn to hydrocortisone cream and petroleum jelly for additional relief, taking a more holistic approach that addresses stress and eczema at the same time has really helped me feel more in control of the condition.
I encourage others with eczema to add stress management techniques into their daily routine. The ways you find relief might look different from mine, but once you find activities that work for you, you may find that a happy mind leads to happy, healthy skin, too.
Kui Mwai is a writer who covers culture, health, and beauty. Her work has appeared in Bustle, Refinery29, Cosmopolitan UK, ELLE UK, and more. She’s committed to telling stories of those who are typically underrepresented in the media, especially within the Black community and African diaspora. Keep up with Kui on all the social media sites at @kuiwrites_.