Dermatologists (skin specialists) would like to persuade us that the skin rather than the eye is the mirror of, if not our soul, then man’s basic emotions. There is good reason for linking the skin and our emotions, for both the skin and the brain develop from the same cells in the developing embryo. A few years ago over 100 dermatologists were asked at a meeting if they found that psychological factors were important in the development of skin diseases. All but one answered in the affirmative.
This response does not mean that all skin diseases are brought about by excesses of stress and nervous tension. Developmental faults, chemical and physical factors, the influence of drugs and bacterial and nutritional problems are all background factors in skin disease. What does come to light, however, is that anxiety, stress and the skin are intimately linked. The automatic (autonomic) nerves of the skin originate in the same areas of the brain as are located the centres involved in the management of the relaxation response. Because these autonomic nerve fibres influence such important functions as skin temperature, sweating and hair erection, it would indeed be strange if skin problems and stress problems were not closely related.
If we look at the skin with special reference to the emotions and stress, the link is plainly seen. Blushing, flushing and sweating are common stress reactions known to us all. For the majority they are transient phenomena of no serious import. But if they occur too easily or are too long maintained, they result in an over-flushed skin (as seen in the skin disease rosacea) or an over-sweaty skin (giving the symptoms of hyperhidrosis). It also seems likely that too frequent stimulation of the skin’s autonomies is involved in the production or maintenance of dermatitis, eczema and the condition known as pruritus. (Pruritus means, in Latin, ‘to itch. And so when you go to the doctor and complain of an itchy rash and he learnedly diagnoses pruritus he is really saying ‘you itch’ which isn’t so very helpful.)