Share on Pinterest
Anut21ng/Getty Images

It’s no coincidence that when I’m stressed, my eczema gets worse.

Moving apartments, starting a new job, exams: All these events are usually accompanied by flare-ups.

Anecdotal evidence on the link between stress and eczema has existed for a long time, but there’s been limited scientific evidence to support it. In recent years, researchers have begun studying the impact of stress on eczema in more detail.

The result? Scientists are realizing that the problem is more than skin deep. Stress, diet, and environment can all play a part in the appearance and severity of eczema.

But it’s really difficult to eliminate stress completely. Still, there are some steps I’ve learned to help me cope and reduce the impact that stress has on my body.

Research has shown that periods of stress can make eczema worse, triggering the release of hormones that can cause inflammation and disrupt skin barrier function. People with higher levels of perceived stress are more likely to have eczema.

One study looked at the impact the death of a partner can have on eczema symptoms. It found that when a significant other had a terminal disease, their partner had an increased risk for developing eczema.

Similarly, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has been shown to lead to dermatological symptoms such as psoriasis, hives, and eczema. Mothers who experience severe stress during pregnancy are more likely to have a child with eczema.

There’s further evidence that stress increases the chances of scratching, which then leads to a vicious cycle of itching and scratching that can make eczema symptoms worse.

The appearance of eczema itself can also be a source of stress for many people, increasing the likelihood that symptoms will worsen or reoccur.

I first developed eczema in my first year of college. The symptoms arrived suddenly and quickly started to get worse.

Over time I learned to manage the condition, but I still get flare-ups occasionally.

In my experience, periods of high stress increase the chance that my eczema will come back. The problem is, there’s not a lot I can do to eliminate stress from my life. There will always be situations when my stress levels start to rise and my body takes a hit.

I’ve found ways to cope with stress and minimize the effect it has on my health. These include:

Minimizing stress is hard. No matter how much you try to avoid stress, it’s pretty likely that you’ll find yourself in stressful situations through the course of a regular year.

What you can control is how you support your body through stressful periods.

I find that when I’m stressed, the “healthy” parts of my routine can get lost. I sacrifice sleep to get things done, I eat whatever I can that’s quick and comforting, and I forget to do the things that help me feel calmer.

By recognizing these habits, I’m able to reduce the impact that stress has on my life.

There are also some techniques I use to combat stress.

Take a break

Getting outside and giving myself some headspace can really help when I feel my stress levels rising.

To combat stress, try taking regular walks in nature. You can listen to calming music or just soak in the sounds around you.

Monitor your caffeine intake

When I’m stressed, I often overcompensate with coffee. This can make me feel more anxious and disrupt my sleep cycle. To avoid this, I try to limit the amount of coffee I drink and have rooibos tea instead.

If you find that you reach for coffee to keep your energy levels up during periods of high stress, you can opt for green tea. It contains caffeine, but has been shown to actively reduce anxiety.

Use breathing techniques

Breathing exercises and meditation can also help reduce feelings of stress by relaxing the body and redirecting your thoughts. The best part is, they can be done anywhere: at your desk, in line at the grocery store, or when you’re getting ready for bed.

One study found that hypnosis can be used to effectively treat eczema, demonstrating the effectiveness of relaxation techniques for managing symptoms.

Moisturize and massage

Moisturizing or massaging your body can help reduce feelings of stress and anxiety.

Though time is often limited during stressful periods, I find that taking a few minutes to moisturize when I get out of the shower can help me feel much calmer.

Self-massage can help with stress, anxiety, and pain.

Prioritize sleep

During times of high stress, one of the hardest things to manage is getting enough sleep.

I know that I have to prioritize sleep to help me manage my stress levels and prevent burnout. I make a conscious effort to get as much sleep as I can, even if I feel like I’ve got a million things to do.

If you find your mind is still racing when you’re in bed, make a list of everything that’s running through your head. Use a pen and paper. When you’re finished, put the list in a drawer or on the other side of the room so it’s out of sight and out of mind.

Keeping an eye on diet during periods of high stress can also help manage eczema symptoms.

When I’m stressed, I tend to emotionally eat, and I know many people are the same.

It might be chocolate, chips, pasta, or wine. Whatever it is, it usually involves large amounts of sugary or greasy foods that could aggravate eczema symptoms.

When I find I’m craving comfort food, I try to look for healthier swaps. Here are some ways you can support your body through your diet:

  • Instead of chocolate, try chocolate energy bites.
  • Instead of white pasta, bread, and pastries, try whole grain versions.
  • Try to limit alcohol consumption to one or two standard drinks, and drink lots of water.
  • Eat lots of fresh fruit and vegetables.
  • Keep healthy snacks handy.

I like to have snacks in my bag so I can grab something whenever my energy levels are dipping, like:

  • apples
  • carrot sticks
  • cucumber slices
  • almonds
  • dried apricots

Everyone’s experience of stress will be different.

For me, high stress situations can often trigger eczema symptoms. However, by supporting my body using relaxation techniques, sleep, and diet, I find it easier to manage the impact of stress.

It’s not foolproof, but it makes a difference.

Elizabeth Harris is a writer and editor with a focus on plants, people, and our interactions with the natural world. She’s been happy to call many places home and has traveled across the world, collecting recipes and regional remedies. She now splits her time between the United Kingdom and Budapest, Hungary, writing, cooking, and eating. Learn more on her website.