Did you know that at one time or another 60% of adults report that they have felt ashamed of the way they look? Yes, you heard correctly, ashamed. I feel ashamed when I’ve let my kids watch three hours of telly on the trot so that I can read the paper, but the way I look? Well, that’s not so much within my control.
If you suffer from eczema, how you look each day is a little bit of a lottery, so to feel shameful about it is about as futile as a hedgehog feeling ashamed of its spikes. But, clearly there are lots of people who suffer from eczema (currently 6 million in the UK) who do.
Apparently, 20% of those with severe psoriasis are on anti-depressant medication and an All Party Parliamentary Group on Skin discovered that many sufferers of skin disease are likely to suffer from mental health problems as a result of their condition.
I wrote my first blog post on Beczema last week – ‘Feel the eczema and do it anyway’ – all about breaking the damaging link between looking good and feeling good. And I had such a warm and positive response from so many, but some have said that they will never get used to their facial eczema and will continue to hate the way they look. That’s totally understandable, especially in the severe cases of facial eczema that don’t get much public exposure, it’s not their fault they feel judged because of their appearance.
This obsession with our appearance has apparently intensified massively in recent years – according to yet another APPG report this time on body image, this is the fault of the media and the fact that we are ‘mis-sold’ an ideal of the perfect body. And people are responding by going under the knife, apparently cosmetic surgery has increased by an incredible 20% since 2008.
Professor Nichola Rumsey, Co-Director of the Centre for Appearance Research, told the enquiry that, “we are increasingly living in an appearance saturated society and that the value individuals place on their appearance is becoming greater and more disproportionate to other aspects of self-concept.”
So, who can blame sufferers of skin disease for wanting to hide away from the world. If folk with lovely stretchy, elastic, non flaky, non red skin are hiding themselves away because they don’t live up to the ideal – then, frankly eczema sufferers have a much better excuse.
Except, by withdrawing from the world, eczema sufferers are stirring up their eczema symptoms and creating a situation for themselves whereby their condition can only get worse.
Two dermatologists from the US, Dr Richard Fried and Dr Fran Cook-Bolden have looked closely at the the ‘Skin-Mind’ connection in the treatment of eczema, psoriasis, and other common skin disorders. They have evidence that, “many patients with skin diseases such as psoriasis, acne, or eczema, actually get worse when they are stressed, when they are under times of depression or anxiety.”
Not surprising to anyone who has had the inevitable flare-ups around exam time, interviews, wedding days! But, while the gradual withdrawal from public life might seem like the most comfortable option, the isolation that sufferers feel contributes significantly to longer term depression.
“This self-perpetuating negative interaction between stress and impaired skin function has been well-described,” says Dr Fried, “and often underlies the so-called ‘vicious cycle’ that exists between skin and negative emotional states.”
According to Dr Fried, the patients who make improvements under his care are able to look back and see how their response to the way they looked affected their lives. “Only after patients are improved do they look back and realize how much their psoriasis, eczema, or rosacea has robbed them of their interaction with life,” says Dr Fried.
I know it takes a huge amount of effort to get out there during an eczema flare-up – but every time you win that battle you confirm to yourself that it can be done. You don’t have to ‘rob yourself’ of anything. Unless your eczema is physically preventing you from ‘interaction with life’ – then you have an opportunity to break that negative cycle. To get out and enjoy yourself, to crush the bad habits of feeling anxious about the way your skin looks to others.
I’m not saying it’s easy, far from it. I have to give myself a pep talk before any public events when my eczema is at its worst. For example, this weekend I had a party to go to – a garden party in the middle of the grass-pollen season! Naturally, my skin allergies and resulting eczema showed up right on cue. The skin on my face was angry, red, and unbelievably itchy.
But, I put my best foot forward. Put a smile on my face and introduced myself to lots of new people – asked them questions about their lives and totally ignored the elephant in the room (well, the garden). And it worked. I didn’t allow myself to hide away in a corner like I might have done some years ago or make excuses for the state of my skin, I didn’t let it rule my life. Not only did the satisfaction from winning that particular battle feel amazing – I had a great time.
Professor Nichola Rumsey said, “by focusing too much attention on appearance, other important attributes such as intelligence, kindness and determination were seen to be becoming less important.”
We are in a unique position as eczema sufferers, sometimes we just can’t look good – so focusing on appearance is a bit of a waste of time. Instead, we are free to focus entirely on intelligence, kindness and determination. And all for the good of our health.