I am going to die. That was the phrase I repeated to myself as I sat in the passenger seat of my mom’s car, heart pounding, chest tighter than my clenched fists. We were driving to the emergency room because I — at 15 years old — was convinced I was having a heart attack.
That wasn’t the first time my anxiety got so bad that I became convinced there was something gravely wrong with my body. I spent high school in a hypochondria-induced haze, fixated on every little sensation in my body and assuming I’d drop dead at any second.
But the constant stress and panic went beyond racing thoughts and an ever-present sense of doom. It also seemed to be directly responsible for another chronic condition I’ve dealt with most of my life — atopic dermatitis (aka eczema) — although it would take nearly a decade before I realized what was going on.
After all, eczema seems to be all about the skin. It caused stretches of rashes across my hands. Sometimes, they were a mild annoyance, but other times, my skin oozed and bled. The swollen welts made my fingers so stiff, I could hardly bend them.
Ointments and treatments did little to ease my symptoms. It wasn’t until I faced my stress and anxiety head on that my skin finally cleared up.
Here’s how I discovered the connection between anxiety and atopic dermatitis, and how getting rid of stress calmed them both at the same time.
My first visit with a therapist when I was in high school was mediocre. I left the appointment feeling no better, and wondering what the point of the session was.
Fast forward a few years later, when I moved 350 miles from home to go to college. I found myself craving a space to process the big changes going on in my life, as I learned to live on my own and buried myself in new, exciting projects.
I cycled through several therapists at the school counseling office, but eventually I connected with one who helped me unpack a lot of negative experiences in childhood that likely led to the snowball effect of anxiety taking over my teens.
One session in particular sticks out in my mind: I was explaining a particularly stressful situation I’d been in, when my therapist noted, “Look how you’re sitting. You’re holding all this tension in your shoulders.”
I was shook. I had never noticed how much my anxiety manifests in my body — from my stiff posture to the way I picked at my hair and bit the inside of my cheeks when I was stressed.
I knew from experience that when I was less anxious, my stomach hurt less. When my mind wasn’t racing, I could sleep better at night.
And then it clicked: When my anxiety got worse, so did my physical health — a pattern that had been hidden in plain sight for years.
Seeing a therapist on a regular basis helped keep me grounded in college. It didn’t make my problems go away, but gave me some solace knowing I had a place where I could feel safe talking about how I felt.
I slowly worked through my hypochondria and learned how to cope with panic attacks — vital skills that helped me feel in control when my world was spinning so fast.
But during my last year of school, things took a turn for the worse. My dad passed away suddenly from a heart aneurysm the summer before my senior year of college.
Crushed by grief, I could feel my hypochondria roaring with a vengeance. And with it came one of my worst eczema flares yet, just in time for the funeral.
I remember looking down at my hands, from the base of my right-hand pinky to my wrist, my skin was oozing bright yellow liquid and burning with the need to be scratched.
When I returned to school, I focused on simply surviving the next year. Stress piled on me with every class, job, and internship I took on.
Amid the eczema flare-ups, warts grew on my hands for the first time. And just like with eczema, I turned to topical treatments to get rid of the ugly lumps, which didn’t help at all.
I kept going to therapy, and started taking antidepressants, which was just enough to keep me from staying in bed every day. But my skin continued to rage, and there I was, hands constantly covered in Band-Aids as I endured the slow slog to graduation.
What happened after I gathered my diploma, however, felt like a miracle.
A few months after graduation, I was standing in the bathroom, looking at the warts on my hands. I noticed they’d lost their firmness, and some smaller ones even vanished. So I did what any anxious meddler would do — I picked at them.
To my surprise, the deformed lumps fell off with ease. The months of trying to chemically rid my hands of their afflictions suddenly seemed like a waste. What was different now compared to just a few months ago?
Well, a lot, actually. I had a full-time job that kept me in a steady 9-to-5 rhythm. I didn’t jam-pack my already-busy schedule with a half of dozen extracurricular activities on top of my normal work week.
In the evenings, I made dinner for myself and my partner, watched TV, and strolled around the neighborhood. And on the weekends, I got to hang around the house and rest, rather than feeling guilty about neglecting assignments or skipping social events.
Life was moving at a far slower pace than it did in school. Not only did I feel less on edge, but my skin seemed to take notice, too. Before I knew it, my eczema simply disappeared. I’d finally tackled my main trigger: stress.
Without the constant demands of school, I was free from the never-ending loop of anxiety. I had more time to listen to my body and take care of it.
Today, I still get eczema flares every now and then, but now that I know they come from stress, I can take care of my mind to soothe my body. And my skin thanks me for it.