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Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.Allan Schwartz, Ph.D.
Dr. Schwartz's Weblog

Itching, Another Example of Mind-Body Interaction

Allan N. Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D. Updated: Oct 28th 2008

 "The American Journal of Pathology" recently published a report adding further evidence to support the fact that mind and body are not separate. In this case, the report discussed research findings that there is a direct relationship between stress and itching.

As the report explains, the skin forms part of the defense against invading infection. As a result, skin is loaded with white blood cells that attack bacteria that can harm the body. The immune system gears up its protective system by signalling the brain that something foreign has invaded the skin barrier. The brain then orders the immune system to send out its "soldiers" of white blood cells to surround and kill the dangerous intruder.

However, the immune cells in the skin can overreact resulting in inflammatory skin diseases such as psoriasis and dermatitis. It is stress that seems to cause this overreaction and this can either cause a skin disease to develop or irritate and already existing condition.

What is so interesting about itching is that it stands at the threshold between pain and pleasure. Upon first becoming aware of an itch, it usually feels good to scratch to make it go away. However, it is a common occurrence that the itch returns followed by more scratching. A point is reached where the scratching results in pain because the skin becomes injured.

What must be made perfectly clear is that the research Does Not Mean that itching is "in your head," or that skin disease are not real. Skin diseases are all too real and should be treated by a Medical Doctor. What the research does show is that, once again, stress can and does cause the immune system to operate in such a way that our health can be damaged.

I have seen a number of cases in which an individual experiences a sharp increase in itching accompanied by injury to the skin by constant scratching when the individuals were under severe stress in their marriage, at work or within their family. One becomes aware of this problem when skin sores appear.

Whether the individual with the chronic itch is yourself or someone who is close to you, the first thing to do, or to tell the other to do, is go to a Dermatologist. In addition to the medical visit, psychotherapy, particularly the Cognitive Behavioral type, is important as a means of learning how to reduce stress levels.

It is always a good idea to learn self help techniques in reducing stress. There is a self help area of Mental Help Net that is easily consulted. Activities such as meditation, deep breathing and muscle relaxation, yoga, etc., are all helpful ways to get your stress under control so that the experience of itching is brought under control.

Always see your medical doctor as the first line of defense of your health. Then, enter therapy and utilize self help methods. In fact, a person need not be in stress in order to use yoga, meditation, exercise and other stress busting methods. There is a lot to be said for prevention by learning how to maintain as low a level of stress as possible.

Your comments are welcome.

Allan N. Schwartz, PhD

Allan Schwartz, LCSW, Ph.D.

Readers who live in the Boulder, Colorado metro area, or in Southwest Florida may contact Dr. Schwartz for face-to-face consultation. He is also available for psychotherapy through Skype video for those who are not in Florida or Colorado. He can be reached via email at dransphd@aol.com for details.

Reader Comments
Discuss this issue below or in our forums.

Grandson Itching - Anne - Feb 2nd 2012

My 8 yr-old grandson has been itching since he was old enough to do so.  He has woken his mother every night since he was a baby with crying and itching.  He is allergic to almost everthing and also has psoriasis.  He has be on predisone, allergy meds and I don't know what all.  I have always said he is reacting to stress.  He is a very sensitive boy and even after his parents divorsed, he still is highly emotional about situations.

How do I tell his mother (my husband's daughter) that this boy needs more help than creams or pills?

itching - Sam - Nov 16th 2010

i recently had protected sex with an escort. I felt very guilty about it and have been worried alot. Basically ..i am scared that i could possibly have caught something  even though i know i used protection.

I have been so worried and now i am itching all over.

I don't know if i have caught  something because the itching started about  2 days later.

am i justed stressed out and over thinking about this , hence the itch or have i caught something

involuntary Itching - Chad Costanzo - Sep 20th 2010

I'm 18 and my itching started around 5 and a half weeks ago. It randomly occurs which is the worst part because there is no way to actually determine if zyrtec/benadryl is working. I recently went to an allergist and was perscribed to take pregnazone in 10mg tablets 3 times a day just to "see if the itching subsides or not". Well so far the itching has NOT stopped and it becomes so terible that I can't concentrate durring class. I had blood-work done by my local pediatrician and the results came back with abnormal tolellerances to: Milk/dairy, Peanutbutter, and Wheat. This struck me as odd because I have been eating peanutbutter and jelly my entire life for lunch and nothing even close to this occured. I've herd where people have radically changed their diets and have found relief. As of today I will not be consuming any dairy/peanutbutter/wheat. I can only hope that this could lend me some solace. I have also herd that itching can come from kidney/liver failure or something in that nature but I have little reason to believe that it could be this at such an early age. My uncle (mothers side) had similar symptoms but only, from what I believed, was his excessive drug use and diabetties.

although I will not know for sure untill within a few weeks what the allergy tests will yield I will not conclude anything. I have extreme sympathy for Don as I could not see myself going through with this for as long as he has.

 

(pardon the spelling, I was never very good at it.)

sincerely, Chad

Itching - Don - Jun 22nd 2010

It started when I was maybe 12 or 13.  Everytime I went swimming in the lake when I came out my skin would itch terribly.  The same when I perspired.

By the time I turned 48 my body itched from anything, walking, using my arms, doing nothing, sweating ...it would start somewhere and spread, legs, abdomen, back, torso, chest, jaw, head, shoulders, elbows, knees, thighs.  The only relief I get is to stand in scolding hot water several times a day and to pat my skin dry.  There are no visible signs of aggravation other than the burnt skin from showers.  Two weeks ago the water had to be shut off at the street by city workers.  It got so bad that I went out onto the third floor roof and was about to jump ...I stood for a minute, could not see past the need for scolding hot water ..it suddenly occured to me that I could go to a motel ...I drove as fast as I could to a motel, my body was screaming with the itching ..it had been almost one hour since it began ...I ran into the motel room shower, turned on the hot, not mixing any cold water ...the relief was undescribable.

itching can start if I scratch my skin where there is no itching ... the last in a long line of women once scratched my back while we were having sex ... it did not start itching until we were finished. 

I am a lawyer by profession.  When I have court out of town I have a hotel room booked for the day if I need to shower.  I'm not a clean freak or anything such as that ..exposure to scolding hot water on the affected area for 4-5 minutes results in complete relief.  Lorazepam, benadryl do nothing.  I am 51 now ... I can't foresee a healthy future for myself as I am having constant unhealthy thoughts about living.  What if I am confined to a bed for some reason, it is simply beyond my reasoning to be able to tolerate it ...I have on average 3-4 hot showers each day.  If I do not pat my skin dry with a towel, the itching begins again almost immediately. 

A specialist said that it was probably allergies however could not offer anything further.  A  7 year education was wasted on that man. 

so confused - Kimberly - Jan 7th 2010

I have been having itching mainly when I get sick and have to be on antibotics..I have mainly itching but not skin lesions. I have been on many antibotics and still itch. I have been battling with anxiety for a long time over many years. I find myself worring about having allergic reaction and it seems to make things worse. I seems to be I itch with most meds I take. I have been making myself sick worring about if it is truly a allergic reaction or anxiety about it being allergic reaction.  I am having stomach problems now and I know anxiety is the reason. I have been taking the generic form of prilosec and my itching is back and is worse.. Please help me..I am so confused and dont know where to turn.

Yes And No - Mark - Oct 12th 2009

The psychological connections between stress and chronic itching syndromes remain highly controversial. Notwithstanding some positive therapeutic outcomes from physiotherapy, I would emphasise that anyone with a chronic itching syndrome will inevitably suffer continual stress, and it's well understood by sufferers that many of us lose jobs, friends and family as a consequence - not a cause - of our condition.

The psychotherapeutic community has often been highly irresponsible, in my view, when moving in on the territory of poorly understood medical syndromes. This has been a major factor which has added enormously to the torments suffered by people with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome. Psychotherapists eager to establish new client bases have ended up giving an excuse to the medical establishment, allowing them to dismiss the medical reality of these syndromes, and as a result sufferers have had accusations of mysterious psychological disturbances added to our list of problems.

Now, at last, the mystery is solved, because despite the distortion of research in this area, one of the retroviruses that has been causing all these immune system disorders has at last been discovered. At long, long last it has been proved that we are sufferers of a genuine medical condition (one as debilitating as MS), not malingerers or hypochondriacs. And now that the truth is known, there are a lot of people who really should get busy apologising to those whose suffering they have exacerbated for so long. For my part, I can't see those people apologising, nor can I see myself forgiving my society for the narrowmindedness and lack of compassion which turned a viral infection into something which has destroyed so many lives and left us alone in our suffering.

Having wasted a year of my own life trying to solve my chronic itching through psychotherapy, I am well aware of the damage this treatment can cause - and yes I'm prepared to accept that it may be a relevant treatment for some conditions, but it should always proceed on the explicit assumption that there is also a real physical illness involved, albeit one currently unknown to medical science.

And it will be most interesting to see, when we at last start receiving medical treatment for our medical condition, whether psychotherapy for itching is still necessary...

Itching - Allan N. Schwartz, PhD - May 22nd 2009

Hi Tamika,

This is really something you need to consult your Gyn. about. Only your MD can provide you with a safe and reliable answer.

Dr. Schwartz

Being pregnant Am I suposed to itch this much? - Tamika Durant - May 22nd 2009

I am 8 months pregnant and my skin itches me. Why am I itching so much? I took a shower 2 nights ago. And I started back itching again. Why is that?

This happened to me! - laedladd - Oct 29th 2008
For the past few weeks I've developed itchy scalp and dandruff.  I couldn't understand it as it's never been a problem before and I haven't changed products or anything.  Only realised today that it might be stress - and then I saw this article.  Some coincidence!

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