Medically reviewed by Kristin Hall, FNP
Written by Our Editorial Team
Last updated 1/10/2021
Weird things happen when you’re stressed out. You might get a headache, a rash, or just want to go to sleep and pretend it’s not happening.
The mind is a powerful force, and can trigger symptoms in our physical body. One of these symptoms: skin rashes.
Emotional stress can be difficult to manage, but when you start experiencing physical symptoms of being over stressed, it’s time to pay attention.
Stress can cause skin disorders and skin disorders can cause stress. It’s a vicious cycle, according to the American Psychological Association. In much the same way that chronic stress can lead to skin aging, daily stress can also cause or exacerbate shooter-term conditions and symptoms.
Nerve pathways from your skin to your brain and back again are in constant communication, and just like your brain registers you touching a hot pan as a burn and sends messengers to speed healing and cause inflammation, it may send signals to your skin when you’re under mental stress.
Psychodermatology is the field of study that combines psychology and dermatology, to look at precisely these connections between the skin and mental health. Yes, there’s an entire field of study dedicated to the topic. And medical professionals in this field might treat skin conditions caused by stress or other emotional situations, emotional or psychological problems caused by skin conditions, and psychiatric disorders that manifest themselves through the skin.
Stress can exacerbate or trigger numerous skin conditions including psoriasis, eczema, acne, various types of dermatitis, alopecia, itching (pruritus) and more. So in short, yes, your rash may be caused by stress.
If you have a preexisting dermatological condition like psoriasis, your “stress rash” may be a flare-up. However, typically when people use the term stress rash, they’re referring to an outbreak they wouldn’t otherwise normally have — often hives or urticaria.
Hives are raised, puffy red welts that typically itch. They’ll often initially appear as individual bumps, but grow into patches. They’re similar to the welts you get when you have an allergic reaction to something, and most commonly develop on the face, neck, chest and arms.
But other things can cause hives too, so recognizing a stress rash takes some self-reflection to rule out other causes. For example, you could be having an allergic response to a new laundry detergent or body lotion. However, if you can connect your outbreak directly to a period of high stress, it’s not unrealistic to think your body is responding to your mental turbulence in a physical way.
Hives generally resolve themselves within a 24 hour period, and require very little to no treatment to do so. That said, if the hives are itching and driving you nuts, there are a few things you can do to soothe your skin.
An antihistamine such as Allegra® or Benadryl® can stop the formation of new hives and are safe to take for a few days, or until the hives are gone. Cold compresses can soothe the itching and burning associated with your rash, as can a topical steroid cream like hydrocortisone.
But perhaps the most important treatment for stress rash: Managing your stress. This should be taken as a red flag that you’re under too much pressure and need to find ways to destress.
The American Institute of Stress recommends getting regular exercise, meditating, keeping a journal, listening to music, developing hobbies, playing with pets, getting massage or acupuncture, or even talking with a professional therapist or counselor about the issues that weigh heaviest on your mind.
If your stress rash is recurrent, talking with a dermatologist and a psychologist about your options may be the most helpful route to recovery.
Ultimately, there are numerous things that could be causing your stress rash. And while hives are the most likely culprit, there are others that could indicate an undiagnosed and perhaps chronic skin condition.
Two relatively common, chronic conditions include:
Psoriasis is a chronic skin condition that causes plaques or large inflammatory patches to appear on your elbows, knees, and scalp. Both it’s onset and flare-ups can be triggered by stress.
Atopic dermatitis or eczema is characterized by smaller, scaly patches that itch severely. It's common for stress to trigger eczema flare-ups.
If you’re concerned the stress rash you have is not just hives, but a sign of one of these or other chronic conditions, a healthcare provider can be helpful in diagnosis and prescribing effective treatment.
True stress rash is a temporary response to mental distress. It may result in itchy hives that resolve over a 24 hour period.
Once you’ve experienced a stress rash and it’s subsided, look for ways to prevent it from happening again. Managing your stress levels with proper self care isn’t only good for your skin, but your entire body.
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