It’s not uncommon to feel itchy when we are experiencing anxiety or when we are stressed. Let me try to explain why this happens in simple words; our brain has a stress-activated pathway that causes release of some specific hormones and chemical mediators that drive inflammation in the body and the skin. Feelings of emotional distress and anxiety can lead to the release of a stress hormone called cortisol that can exacerbate existing skin disease (like psoriasis, acne and eczema) or can even cause some skin conditions. Itch is one of the manifestations of this process that can result through a number of mechanisms such as stress-mediated effects of disruption of the skin’s natural barrier, changes in blood flow in the skin and lack of production of protective factors in the skin. Although itching can affect some individuals during the times of stress, it does not mean that everyone who is stressed will feel itchy. Once the skin is scratched (to relieve the itch) individuals can get into an itch-scratch cycle.
Sometimes itch can occur for no clear reason at all. However, in many cases there may be clear triggers to itching such as anxiety, stress, low mood and some skin conditions like eczema or dry skin. In these cases you will need to identify the specific trigger in your case and work on controlling it. You may in some cases even need the help of a relevant qualified doctor for treatment such as dermatologist, psychiatrist and clinical psychologist. In case itching is triggered by stress, holistic stress management should be undertaken and may include a number of measures that will be tailored to your personal needs e.g. counselling, breathing and muscle relaxation exercises, meditation, mindfulness, talking to someone close to you.
What can I do to soothe itching skin?
- Apply a good quality moisturiser regularly throughout the day especially if your skin feels dry. The best time to apply the moisturiser is immediately after taking shower when your skin is still damp to lock in moisture and before going to bed.
- Cooling the moisturising creams in the fridge before applying will be even more effective especially during hot summer months.
- Wear loose fitting comfortable clothing.
- Use lukewarm water rather than hot water for shower.
- If your skin is excessively dry then use a moisturising soap substitute to wash rather than a soap. If you have to use soap to wash hands then apply a moisturiser afterwards.
- When your skin feels really itchy and you cannot control the temptation to scratch then try tapping or gently pinching the skin instead of scratching.
- Apply cool gel packs to itchy skin to soothe the feeling of itch.
- Sedative antihistamines can help at night if the itch is disturbing your sleep.
- Try habit reversal therapy if you have suffered with chronic habit of itching (you can Google online habit reversal and self-help websites).
- If your itch is due to anxiety or stress then try breathing exercises, any form of meditation or muscle relaxation exercises to distract your mind from scratching and to control the triggers.
- Drink plenty of fluids like water to reduce the effects of dehydration on the skin.
- Eat a well-balanced diet including good quality fats, carbohydrates and proteins. Also consider a probiotic supplement.
- Sleep at least eight hours a night to allow the skin time to repair itself.
- For itchy scalp use a medicated shampoo for dry itchy scalps.
If these simple measures do not seem to work then seek advice from a qualified skin specialist.