The Soothing Power of Mindfulness and Self-Compassion for Skin Conditions

Author: Mark Hudson

Date: Apr 2015

Skin conditions such as dermatitis, acne, and psoriasis affect around 54 per cent of the UK population over the course of a year, and commonly lead to emotional reactions such as anxiety, depression, and anger. These negative emotions can make skin problems worse, and lead to a vicious cycle which can affect people’s body image and self-esteem, and even lead to loss of earnings and thoughts of suicide.

The role of emotions in skin problems is different for each individual. For some people, skin problems are directly linked to emotional difficulties, whereas in others, stress acts as a trigger, or arises from the process of trying to adjust to the condition. Recent research has harnessed the power of mind training techniques for treating skin problems, which have been practiced in eastern cultures for thousands of years.

One such technique, called ‘mindfulness’ has been described as ‘Paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgementally’1. This involves learning to focus our attention on the breath, with an accepting attitude, and can lead to feelings of stillness and slowing down. Closely linked to this is self-compassion, which involves being open to our own suffering, generating the desire to heal ourselves with kindness, offering non-judgmental understanding to our pain, and recognizing that our experience is shared with others2.

Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, an Emeritus Professor of Medicine at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, has studied the benefits of mindfulness for people with psoriasis, which he described as “a beautiful example of the mind/body connection because you’re doing something with your mind and something is happening in the skin.”3

Psychological treatments using mindfulness and self-compassion may be helpful for people with skin conditions because they allow them to focus their minds and learn to accept themselves, making it more likely that they will detect early signs of stress or skin flare-ups. This has the potential to help people to respond differently, by understanding trigger factors and helping them to tolerate difficult sensations or emotions.

Studies of mindfulness and compassion-based psychological treatments have been shown to improve the speed of skin healing and quality of life in psoriasis patients, and lower shame and skin complaints in chronic acne sufferers.456

1 Kabat-Zinn (1994)
2 Neff (2003)
3 Kabat-Zinn (2015). Available at https://www.theconnection.tv/jon-kabat-zinn-ph-d/
4 Kabat-Zinn et al. (1998)
5 Kelly, Zuroff, and Shapira (2009)
6 Muftin (2012)

Mark Hudson, Department of Psychology, University of Sheffield, UK

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