“STOP SCRATCHING!” shouted everyone who has ever cared for me or just got annoyed with me over the years, either as a genuine plea for me to stop damaging myself or just because they didn’t want flakey, dead eczema skin all over their sofa. And they’re right of course. Scratching. It is solely responsible for the perpetual broken, weeping, bleeding skin and the devastating damage that stops eczema from having any chance of healing. So how do you stop? It’s not easy, but I’m going to tell you how I broke the cycle and it’s not how you might expect.
Eczema: why we scratch
Stop scratching. Sounds so simple doesn’t it? I’m going to let you in on a little secret that everyone with eczema keeps very well hidden. Tearing deep into the flesh, searching, digging and clawing for the source of that bone tickling, mind bending, evil monster of an itch is actually an experience that is as close to euphoria as I have ever known. My mind floats above my body as it is freed from the all consuming torment. For a few seconds/minutes not only is it a relief, it’s a deep and guilty pleasure. But, like all intense highs it is followed by a cataclysmic crash.
When the frenzy comes to an end, you remove your hands and stare down helplessly at the devastation you have caused. You realise that you have gouged your nails deep into your skin leaving you bleeding and brutalised. But even then the pain is preferable to the itch. The pain is a different sensation – you have taken back control. What follows though is utterly devastating. Like any flesh wound, it will now need time to heal. It is open to the risk of infection. It looks horrendous.
The itch-scratch-itch cycle (like you’ve never seen it before)
And here’s the bit of the itch-scratch-itch cycle that the doctors don’t talk about. By scratching that itch – one of the most natural and automatic impulses in the world – you feel like a failure. Your skin looks horrendous, so you stop participating. You might choose not to put your hand up in class, you make excuses not to go out, you might even turn down a job interview. Do you see where I’m going with this? Your shame and your misery at the state of your skin has stopped you from getting on with your life. So you hide away, you’re lonely and depressed. You get more stressed. You do more secret scratching – especially when you’ve removed yourself from company. You hate your skin, you just want to close your eyes and have it all disappear. So you don’t care for it, you neglect it. You neglect you. You scratch more. And then it begins again and it’s even worse this time. The cost to you is enormous.
How to stop scratching your eczema
So how do you stop? First, bear with me. I’m going to tell you a quick story. I have a tendency to slump my shoulders, so I tried reading all sorts of advice about improving my posture. But the one thing that stuck was this: “imagine yourself naked”. That’s it. Immediately, you suck in your tummy, tuck in your tail bone and stand as tall and as slim as you can muster, thrusting your shoulders back. And it’s as simple as that. One striking visual image changed the way I managed my terrible posture.
Now I’m going to tell you another story. For 30 plus years I lived on that itch-scratch-itch merry-go-round above. That was the pattern of my eczema and my life. So what changed? Again it was simple, I had a baby boy who was born with eczema.
I watched him battle all of the same demons and I watched him as his tiny fingers waged the same devastating war on his own delicate and beautiful little body. So I did what any parent would do – I gathered an arsenal of weapons and fought it with love. I slathered him lovingly in creams and washed him delicately in warm emollient. I found him cool cotton clothing that covered his hands to save him from himself in the dead of night. And when that didn’t work, I firmly held his hands all through the night as he twitched himself to sleep.
So here it is. Here’s the image that I want you to picture in your mind. The image that will change everything. Can you imagine me as a mother tearing into the flesh of my baby’s skin with my sharp nails? When his skin was so dry that it fell off in flakes, can you imagine me raging at his skin, neglecting it, just ignoring all the advice and leaving the tub of moisturising cream unopened? Can you imagine me closing the curtains and hiding away from the rest of the world in shame at the state of his red and swollen skin. No of course you can’t. It would be unthinkable. And yet, this is how we treat our own skin everyday, this is the cycle and the feedback loop that we need to break.
Self-care and self acceptance
So the first thing you need to do is give yourself a bit of a talking to. It’s important to accept that your eczema is an incurable skin condition. At its most powerful it CAN stop you going about your daily business, you might not be able to bend your fingers or your knees. You are different and you do need to take care of yourself. There are no miracle cures, no miracle creams, potions or elixirs no matter what you read in the papers or online. The boring truth is this. It is a commitment and the sooner you get used to that the better. You have to feed, nourish, care for – and above all – love your skin and train yourself not to damage it. Meet your beautiful new baby, it’s time to reverse the habit of a lifetime!
Reversing your scratching habit
So you are going to have to teach your hands new habits. We are making your skin your new baby. (p.s. please have a read of Caitlin Moran’s words when she needs to remind herself to treat herself with kindness and love – she imagines herself as her own pet, called Eric!)
Value yourself enough to stop brutalising your own skin. Become hyper-aware of the itching and your scratching – put yourself in control of what your own hands are doing to your body. Instead of scratching, try placing a gentle but firm hand on your skin then squeeze your own hands and help and guide them to stop. Do it for 30 seconds, close your eyes and try and imagine something amazing. (Try as I might, my image is always a giant pink donut with sprinkles – don’t ask me why.)
Try it. 30 seconds is a lot longer than you imagine and it has an incredible effect if you really do it.
Have a read of the life-changing work of Dr Christopher Bridgett at the Westminster and Chelsea Hospital who can explain the techniques of habit reversal in full and how he and his colleagues help patients move out of a life-time of misery towards the freedom to allow their skin to mend and heal.
Skin care routine
Find the right products for your skin. And here’s the most important bit. USE THEM! Slather that stuff on as if you’re preparing for a cross-channel swim and then be prepared to deal with the grease. Sleep on a beach towel, wear cotton gloves at night to help the creams soak in and to save yourself from hands that haven’t been trained to take gentle care of your skin yet. Keeping your skin hydrated will help it heal, protect it and help stop the itch.
You are going to have to do this for the rest of your life so you might as well try and make it a joy. Find some products that you enjoy using and and make it a pleasure. If you get on with a cream from a high end luxury brand and you enjoy visiting the department store to pick it up (and can afford it!) – why not, if it makes you feel like you’re treating yourself you’re more likely to apply it and ultimately improve the health of your skin. Especially if, like me, you’re locked out of the fun of the make up counter – you still get to indulge the shopper in you and you may find the perfect emollient for your eczema. Let’s face it, Estée Lauder probably has more advanced scientists and dermatologists working on their skin-care products than British research hospitals.
It’s likely that you can’t use scented products – so light a scented candle in the bathroom instead. I have bought beautiful glass jars to store some of my products and have rolled up my cotton muslins that I use to wash my face and stacked them in a beautiful old wooden box that once belonged to my dear departed dad. Do anything that will remind you just how much you matter and how important it is that you take care of yourself. Lovingly smooth creams over your body and face and treat yourself to a rest and a cup of tea. Stop and breathe and relax. Never underestimate the power of sitting and just taking a few moments of stillness and relaxation.
Have the courage to take your eczema out of the house
Finally, admit to yourself that there will be times when your skin will be flaring, sore and very visible. All I can say is get out there – believe me, the pay off will be huge. You are a three dimensional, living, breathing human being and believe it or not, not everyone is staring at your eczema, they’re all too worried about how they look today. You’ll be less likely to scratch or become more morose and much more likely to have a laugh and feel better about yourself – stopping that cycle dead in its tracks. Have a read of my ten ways to take on the world with a face full of eczema if you’re struggling.
But above all, remember that you are very special. You have an incurable skin condition – a new baby that you need to take time and effort to take care of. You are going to break that cycle with the most powerful weapon you have at your disposal – self-respect and self-love.
Good luck and let me know how you get on?
Here’s wishing you happy skin xoxo
(p.s. If this post meant something to you then please do check out the incredible Ruth Holroyd’s What Allergy post on Mindful Scratching – it’s a great read with some very solid ideas about understanding why we scratch and making attempts to get to the root cause, which can be both physical and as a result of unconscious habit.)