- Alexandra Townsley, Rajani Katta MD
Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Programs (MBSR) May Help Some Skin Conditions
Although it’s rare for stress to cause skin conditions, stress can often make skin problems worse.
Stress can be linked to skin health in several ways:
In some cases, stress can trigger nervous habits that can damage the skin, such as increased picking or scratching at the skin that can make eczema worse.
Stress also causes changes within the body that can cause skin damage.
For example, multiple studies have found that psychological stress can impair your body‘s ability to heal from wounds.
What are some of the skin conditions that may get worse with stress?
In just one example, researchers found that patients who described increased stress went on to develop more severe acne.
But there are certainly many more. Skin conditions that can be triggered or made worse by psychological stress include:
Chronic urticaria (hives)
Since stress might make my skin condition worse, what can I do about my stress?
Depending on how severe your stress is, there are several actions that you can take to help reduce the damaging effects of that stress.
Recognizing that stress has serious health implications, many people have found working with a mental health professional to be very helpful.
I have referred a number of my patients to psychologists, psychiatrists, or other mental health workers to talk about stress reduction strategies or coping strategies.
Other patients have incorporated stress reduction strategies and coping strategies into their daily lives.
There are several strategies that anyone can start using. There are multiple courses and online resources available that can teach you about these strategies and how to easily incorporate them into your daily routine.
My doctor recommended I take an 8-week mindfulness-based stress reduction course. What is mindfulness? Is this the same as meditation? Will it help reduce my stress?
Some people refer to meditation as a practice of “intentional attention training“. There are different approaches to meditation.
In general, meditation practices can be considered as falling into two main groups
Concentrative meditation: In this type of meditation, patients are asked to focus their attention on an object, image, or word. For example, patients may be asked to focus on their breath, a sound in their environment, or a repeated phrase in one’s mind.
Mindfulness meditation: In this type of meditation, you are asked to be mindful of the present moment and pay non-judgmental attention to your thoughts and feelings. If your mind wanders away, you are encouraged to gently redirect your thoughts back to the present moment.
Different programs and practitioners may incorporate meditation into their overall approach. For example, some mindfulness-based stress reduction programs offer a structured 8-week program that includes mindfulness practice along with other techniques.
Sometimes physicians recommend these courses, and other times patients decide to sign up for them on their own because they have heard that they can be helpful in dealing with stress.
In the remainder of this post, I will outline some specifics about mindfulness-based stress reduction programs (MBSR programs).
What is a mindfulness-based stress reduction program?
This program was developed by the researcher Jon Kabat-Zinn to help treat those whose chronic pain and mental health had not been helped by traditional treatment methods. This program was found to be effective at both reducing pain scores and increasing well-being scores on standardized psychological tests.
This program is now available through multiple providers. Anybody can sign up to take the program.
The program includes an 8-week course along with home practice. The core of the program centers on three main practices:
Guided body scan
The course is focused on teaching you…
Meditation is a big part of MBSR because practicing meditation provides a great way to feel more connected to your thoughts and feelings so that it eventually becomes easier to alter your reactions and reduce your stress. There are many different ways that one can practice meditation, such as guided meditations.
Guided Body Scan
Guided body scanning is one method of meditation that is important in MBSR because it allows you to connect your inner mental experience with your physical body. In a guided body scan you are paying non-judgmental attention to your body and any physical sensations you are experiencing. This is especially helpful for breath work, which is where you can help reduce your stress by controlling and slowing your breathing.
Yoga is often used in mindfulness programs since it offers a great way to combine both of these above practices of mindfulness. Yoga is an ancient practice that combines physical poses, breathing techniques, and meditation. Several studies have shown the benefits of practicing yoga, including decreased stress and increased feelings of calmness. Yoga has also helped increase adaptability to stress for mental health practitioners, children, and veterans with PTSD.
Where can I find an MBSR course?
Courses may be offered in person and include those offered through university programs or through other centers. A few examples include:
Courses are also available online. A few examples include:
Are there risks to taking an MBSR program?
One of the primary physical risks associated with an MBSR program is with mindful yoga exercises. It is important to listen to your body and not push yourself too hard. Remember, the goal is to improve your mental health and skin health, not to become a world-class yogi.
There may also be some other risks to focusing mindfully on your emotions. You may notice some negative feelings like depression or anxiety that you have never noticed before. If you find yourself struggling with these thoughts or emotions, it is important to talk to someone trained to help, such as a mental health provider.
Can I try this stress reduction program before I start taking medications for my skin condition?
I always emphasize to my patients that stress reduction programs are most helpful when used in addition to medical treatments.
That’s because there are certain risks when delaying medical treatment of skin conditions. For example, sometimes delaying treatment of eczema means that the skin inflammation from eczema can increase the risk of skin infections and sleep disturbances. Also, delays in treatment can mean a worsening of eczema, making it harder to treat.
That's why I recommend that stress reduction therapies be used in conjunction with medical therapies in order to get the best results.
Has mindfulness ever been studied for the treatment of skin conditions?
Several research studies have found mindfulness programs to be helpful in the treatment of skin disease, although it’s important to emphasize that these are small studies.
In one study, researchers looked at the effects of an MBSR program in patients with moderate to severe psoriasis. Some patients received phototherapy, in which medical grade light treatments are administered to the skin. Other patients received the same light therapy, but also listened to an audio tape during these treatments for 13 weeks. In the group listening to the MBSR program via audio tape, they noticed their psoriasis cleared faster.
In another study, patients continued their usual therapy, but some patients also completed an 8-week mindfulness program. The patients who completed the program reported greater improvement in their psoriasis and quality of life as compared to the group who did not complete the program.
Although these are small studies, I find the results promising, especially when considering the benefits of stress reduction programs in terms of overall mental and physical health.
Why would a meditation program help in the treatment of skin disease?
There is still a lot that we do not understand about how meditation is able to affect the body. Having said that, a number of research studies have shown that these practices can actually cause physical changes in the body, including changes in hormone levels, inflammatory cells, and the functioning of the immune system.
For example, one study showed that patients who participated in mindfulness meditation had lower levels of stress related hormones in their blood.
The Bottom Line: Mindfulness-based stress reduction programs, used in conjunction with medical treatments, may help improve certain skin conditions
There are several ways in which stress may worsen skin conditions like acne, psoriasis, and rosacea. Luckily, there are scientifically proven techniques that you can use at home to reduce your stress and possibly help your skin condition.
One of these techniques is the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction Program, or MBSR. This is an 8-week program based on mindfulness meditation: a practice where you nonjudgmentally focus on your emotions, thoughts, and feelings. MBSR programs will teach you how to use mindfulness meditation, yoga, and body scans to help you reduce stress. There are a variety of classes both in-person and online that allow you to learn these techniques.
Since these are low-risk programs that have multiple benefits for physical and mental health, patients with certain skin conditions may find that they are useful additions to medical treatments.