Just a Psychologist with Psoriasis

I wore a dress to work this week.  The weather has been soooooo hot and my skin isn’t too bad so I thought I could get away with baring my legs. ‘You look gorgeous’, were my husband’s parting words and he’s not biased.  Right?

So, I am on the ward where I work.  There’s no air conditioning and all the patient room doors are open.  Where I am stood writing notes, it’s a rare moment of serenity; everyone is either dozing in bed or quietly getting on with jobs in hand.

On the other side of the ward, the ward round is in progress.  This involves a troupe of junior doctors, nurses, dietitians and physiotherapists following the almighty consultant from bedside to bedside as he makes important and almighty decisions.

The troupe start to descend my corridor and the almighty consultant spots me from across the ward and shouts out in his rich Northern accent,

What’s been biting your legs?’

Everyone stops.  Everyone takes a good long look at my poor, psoriasis spotted legs.  A few patients, who haven’t got out of bed for days, even manage to shift a bit to get a view.

I’m the team psychologist.  I should know how to handle this.  Everyone is now waiting for my reaction.  The truth is I feel ashamed and ugly and I wish I hadn’t listened to my husband that morning when he assured me no-one would notice my skin.

For the first time in my life I don’t respond with an apologetic explanation.  I practice what I preach.  I take a deep breath, I smile, I shake off feelings of shame and I say,

‘It’s psoriasis.  And now you’ve loudly pointed out my imperfections, is it my turn to point out yours?’

Pause, a few giggles from the troupe and almighty consultant put firmly and politely in his place.

Go me!  I was still chuckling about his mortified look and mumbled apology as I drove home later that day.

And I’m still wearing a dress to work, at least while the sun continues to shine.  Bring on those questions and comments. I’m ready for you.

Read this if you want more tips for dealing with questions about your skin.

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The Shame of Psoriasis

What are people thinking about you when they look at you?

OMG how ugly
She looks dirty
That’s disgusting
I don’t want to go anywhere near him in case I catch it

It’s tough to live with those thoughts going around your head and little wonder we try to hide our skin and cover up.

People with psoriasis often rate other people’s reactions to their skin as the main difficulty with the condition.

But are you sure you’re always right about what people are thinking?

A psychology experiment carried out in 1980 took a group of women and made them up with fake scars. The women, who thought they were ‘disfigured’, then had a conversation with a stranger who knew nothing about the experiment. After the conversation, the disfigured women felt stigmatised. They were more aware of the stranger’s behaviours like staring and related this to their appearance. They thought the stranger was reacting negatively to the scar and this affected how favourably they rated the stranger. What women didn’t know was the experimenters had actually removed the scar before the conversation took place so any negative reaction to the (non-existent) scar was imagined. This study tells us that believing you look different heightens your awareness of other people’s behaviour and you are more likely to interpretate their behaviour as negatively related to your appearance – whether or not that is actually the case. Because of this, you are less likely to warm to strangers.

There’s no doubt some people are rude, unpleasant and insensitive. I’ve met a fair few of them. I’ve written about one particularly upsetting encounter here. But perhaps it’s not quite as bad as you think. Try some CBT and see if there is a different way of thinking?

 

Reference

Kleck RE and Strenta A (1980). Perceptions of the impact of negatively valued physical characteristics on social interaction. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 39 (5), 861-873.

Sun, Sand, Sea and Psoriasis

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It’s beach weather and that can be very stressful for people with psoriasis. Whilst most people are thinking about sand castles and seashells, we are thinking about skin, skin, skin.

Our options for the beach are:
* Stay away
* Go but cover up
* Brave it in beach attire

Neither option is the right one and I have done all three at various times in my life. Here are my beach tips whether you decide to cover up or strip off.

1. Pick the right swimsuit. In my time I have worn long surf shorts with a tankini top and I also own a stylish modestkini (yes that is a thing!). I wear a wetsuit to swim in the sea which is quite sensible on the Welsh coast even when your skin is perfectly perfect.

2. Wear sunscreen. Whilst the UVB rays can be helpful, burning never is.

3. Try waterproof camouflage make-up. I spent a wonderful afternoon with a Red Cross camouflage make-up consultant and I came away with a prescription for my exact skin colour. The service is now provided by Changing Faces. I urge you to book yourself in and see what a good concealer can do.

4. Use a few windbreaks. It will give you privacy, as well as keep the sea breeze from chilling you.

5. Let your children/partner/beach buddy bury your legs in the sand. Cover your plaques, exfoliate and keep them entertained at the same time.

6. Be prepared for comments and questions so it doesn’t ruin your day if someone asks about your skin. Read this for more advice about dealing with unwanted attention.  This blog post might help too.

7.  Identify your thoughts that are making you feel anxious.  Try some CBT techniques to challenge them.

Enjoy!

Urgh what’s that? How to cope with nosey, ignorant and plain rude people when you have psoriasis

 

Hands up if you’re too scared to show your skin, psoriasis and all.

Me too.

What is it we’re afraid of?  That people will judge us or be disgusted by our skin?  Are we afraid of attracting unwanted attention or that people will be cruel?

I’m a consultant clinical psychologist and my training in cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT) tells me that my fears are based in faulty thinking. I can challenge my thinking by telling myself most people won’t notice my psoriasis and those that do, won’t judge me.  I don’t judge people and I’m not so special, so why do I assume that everyone else is judgemental?  So I know how to do CBT and I know it can work really well.  Then why am I still scouring the shops for long sleeve dresses and wearing trousers on the hottest day of the year?  I’ll tell you.

I was 17 and it was summer.  We had planned a girl’s night out in the village pub.  I had a lovely dress I’d never worn and I braved it with bare legs despite the plaques.  No-one would notice I told myself and besides, my dress was gorgeous – that’s all anyone would see.  We got served at the bar, despite being underage, and spirits were high.  And then I heard him, ‘Oh my God.  Look at her legs.  It’s disgusting.’  I froze, drink in hand, cheeks flushed and held my breath.  Was he talking about me?  And then I felt someone poke my leg, actually physically touch a plaque of psoriasis, and the group of young men behind me broke into delighted screams and laughter.  I said nothing.  I wanted to die.  My friends moved around me protectively and glared at them, trying to change the subject.  I don’t remember saying much for the rest of the evening, barely moving, hardly breathing, wishing for a power cut so I could escape under the cover of darkness.  When I got home, I cried and cried until I was exhausted.  Thinking about it makes me shake even now, nearly thirty years later.  This experience means CBT will never work 100% for me.  And it’s not the only time someone was thoughtless or downright mean about my skin either.

So if CBT doesn’t work, what’s going to help me face the world in my swimming costume?  If I do get unwanted attention, I need to be prepared.  I need to have thought carefully how I am going to respond to questions and comments and then practice saying it in front of the mirror or with a friend so when it happens, I respond automatically rather than freeze.

A good response to the ‘Oh that looks sore’ comment is an explanation (It’s psoriasis), followed by reassurance (It looks sore but it doesn’t hurt), followed by distraction (Have you been here before?).  Distraction is a great skill and once you learn how it is easy to change the direction of a conversation your confidence will soar.  People love to talk about themselves and very soon they will have forgotten about your skin.  You can read more in earlier blog post.

For the unkind comments, you might want to have a couple of witty comebacks up your sleeve.  I wish I’d said, ‘’Does it take a lot of practice to learn to be so rude?’ in the pub all those years ago.

Someone once told me that when a complete stranger approached her to tell her how sore her psoriasis looked, she would clasp them in a warm and close embrace, thank them for their concern and say, ‘It truly is a terrible disease and horribly contagious’.  Not true of course but made her feel so much better.

Dealing with Disgust

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A paper published in the Psychological Bulletin examined the emotion disgust.   The authors suggest that disgust is an innate emotion designed to protect an individual from disease. Humans are instinctively disgusted by something that looks like it might be harmful. In the case of disease, the feeling of disgust is triggered by visible symptoms and it leads the disgusted person to keep their distance and hence avoid catching it. They suggest that feelings of disgust are more strongly aroused when the person with symptoms is a stranger.

This paper could make quite depressing reading for those of us with psoriasis and might explain the extreme reactions some psoriasis sufferers have experienced. If strangers can’t help feeling disgusted and we can’t help having psoriasis, how can we deal with it? Well, we could hide away – wear long sleeves, avoid swimming or the hairdressers, never use shop changing rooms or wear a bikini on the beach.

An alternative solution might be to learn to manage the reactions of others instead. The charity Changing Faces has great advice. They suggest using an Explain-Reassure-Distract method to deal with comments or questions. For example:

 

Explain: “I have psoriasis.”

Reassure: “It’s not catching. Don’t let it bother you.”

 Distract: “Have you been here before?” Or “Did you see the football last night?”

 

In this way, the person with psoriasis can take control of the conversation and limit its potential to cause upset.

There is an article in The Psychologist by James Partridge and Adam Pearson, two inspirational men with visible differences. They suggest that if you have a disfigurement you have to be more socially skilled to help manage the reactions of others.   Both James, who was badly burned in a car accident, and Adam, who has Type 1 neurofibromatosis, have learned to do this:

James:

I experimented with different levels of eye-contact, handshake, verbal energy and body language, and found out and eventually mastered the skills to deal with the scared-ness I met – ‘scared’ being an acronym for staring, curiosity, anguish, recoil, embarrassment and dread. These skills mediated the effect of my outside and boosted my inside too.

Adam:

I discovered too how to control a social situation – just going up to someone who is staring or acting funny and saying ‘Hi’ is a really good way of breaking the ice and showing your human side.

There is no doubt that facing the world, plaques and all, takes a great deal of courage. But, like all things, it gets easier with practise. Decide how you want to explain, reassure and distract. Choose your own words and try them out on your family or in the mirror.

If you have a child with psoriasis, practise it with them so they can use it at school. Instead of getting cross if someone asks what is wrong with your child, model an “explain, reassure, distract” response so your child can learn from watching you. Be prepared and then you won’t get upset, flustered or angry in the heat of the moment.

Stop hiding away. Take a deep breath and get out there!

 

References

Oaten, M., Stevenson, R.J. and Case, T.I. (2009). Psychological Disgust as a Disease-Avoidance Mechanism. Psychological Bulletin, Vol. 135 (2), 303–321.

Partridge, J. and Pearson, A. (2008). Don’t worry…it’s the inside that counts. The Psychologist, 21, 490-491.