Tanya Trevett, of Boston, has been battling severe atopic dermatitis for more than 15 years, trying what felt like countless treatments to alleviate her symptoms, with little to no relief. But, it wasn’t until about 10 years after she was diagnosed with this form of eczema that she began to address the mental and emotional toll of the condition.
Trevett turned to mind-body therapies after she was diagnosed with breast cancer and her daughter, who also has severe atopic dermatitis, was diagnosed with depression and anxiety. “I knew I had to address the stress in my life that was contributing to the inflammation in my body,” she explains. Now, “Meditation and mindfulness practices allow me to manage stress and anxiety.”
What surprised Trevett was that her physical eczema symptoms began to improve after she started meditating. “I no longer have patches of eczema on my face or eyebrows,” she says. “I now feel in control of my body, mind, and overall health.”
Mind-body therapies have been used for quite some time to alleviate stress, anxiety, pain, depression, and more. But, recently, these therapeutic interventions have also been employed as treatments for chronic conditions such as eczema, when used along with traditional prescription medications.
“We’re starting to see a lot more physicians incorporating these mind-body therapies into their patients’ treatment plans,” says Viktoryia Kazlouskaya, MD, PhD, a dermatologist at Dermatology Circle in New York City. “There are three types of interventions that can work: psychological, behavioral, and educational. It’s all about figuring out which one works for you.”
The itch-scratch cycle that often occurs with severe atopic dermatitis — feeling an itch and scratching the affected area, which in turn causes more itching — can cause stress, affect your mood, and lead to mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression. Having a variety of mind-body therapies on hand to combat those emotional factors can help lessen the impact of the itch-scratch cycle.
Everyone is different, but there are several mind-body tactics you can try that may help alleviate the emotional toll of eczema. Here are some.
Mindfulness meditation has been shown to provide some degree of relief for dozens of medical conditions, including pain, depression, anxiety, sleep disorders, and more. So, there’s little surprise that it’s also been shown to lessen the symptoms of chronic conditions such as atopic dermatitis.
If you have eczema, there are areas of your brain that are overactive, which causes the release of the stress hormone cortisol. One small study from Emory University found that meditation helped reduce the urge to itch by deactivating those areas of the brain.
“Mindfulness meditation is about noticing that your body is feeling the urge to itch, recognizing that feeling, but then retraining your body to focus on something other than the urge to itch,” says Tania Elliott, MD, a spokesperson for the American College of Allergy, Asthma & Immunology and a clinical instructor in the department of medicine at NYU Grossman School of Medicine in New York City. “It can really help alleviate those eczema symptoms.”
For Trevett, meditation has been invaluable in combating atopic dermatitis. “I use meditation every day,” she says. “Whenever I feel anxious or stressed, I stop and meditate or use skills like tapping or controlled breathing to manage my response to anxiety or stress.” (Tapping involves tapping your fingers on certain points on your head, hands, and torso, according to Kaiser Permanente.)
The more you know about atopic dermatitis, the more confident you may feel about your ability to manage it. Case in point: A study published in 2021 found that educational interventions reduced eczema severity in 21 people with the condition.
Talking about eczema may also help you control your symptoms: Another study published in 2021 found that adults with eczema who received internet-based therapy — access to a therapist via written messages for 12 weeks — in addition to traditional self-care and medication instructions saw significant reductions in itch intensity, perceived stress, sleep problems, and depression.
Dr. Kazlouskaya believes people who are educated about severe eczema can better manage it. “Patients are often unaware of the mechanism of the disease,” she says. “They’ve only been taught how to treat the itching and symptoms, but they don’t actually understand why their body is reacting a certain way. I’ve found that when patients have a better understanding of what’s happening physically to their bodies and why, they start to understand their condition” and their triggers better.
Another way to reduce stress with atopic dermatitis is yoga, according to Kazlouskaya.
“Eczema patients are more susceptible to the effects of stress due to their weak skin barrier,” she explains. A small study found that adults who participated in a three-month yoga and meditation retreat experienced an increase in a specific anti-inflammatory protein and a decrease in pro-inflammatory proteins that cause conditions such as eczema. This was on top of a significant reduction in anxiety and depression.
Hypnotherapy has been used for decades to treat a variety of conditions, including atopic dermatitis. It’s a form of psychotherapy that uses relaxation and concentration techniques to achieve a heightened state of mindfulness, resulting in a positive change during a state of unconsciousness.
A small study published in 2020 found that 26 of the 27 participants who used hypnosis saw a significant reduction in their eczema symptoms.
Biofeedback has become a popular option in pain, stress management, and mental health. It’s also been shown to help people with chronic conditions such as atopic dermatitis.
Biofeedback is designed to help you control the connections between the body and the brain, Kazlouskaya says. It works by measuring different functions, including muscle contractions, heart rate, and breathing, with electrical sensors attached to the body.
That information is analyzed by a biofeedback provider, who can then teach you how to use mindfulness techniques, such as meditation, to calm areas triggered by itching and scratching, Kazlouskaya explains.
A study published in 2021 found that biofeedback can lower stress, an eczema trigger. You can find a certified local practitioner on the Biofeedback Certification International Alliance’s website.