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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Could childhood stress cause psoriasis?

Did you know that stressful experiences in your childhood may have increased your chances of developing psoriasis?

Known as ACEs, Adverse Childhood Experiences are anything but ace. They include physical, emotional and sexual abuse, witnessing domestic violence or growing up with household substance abuse.

It was always clear that such traumas could affect people as adults but now researchers across the globe are discovering that they have an even more powerful impact on your health as an adult.

Having a history of ACEs increases your risks of health-harming behaviours such as smoking, drinking or eating too much of the wrong stuff but what’s even more fascinating is that these experiences have an effect on the way the brain develops in childhood.

People who have a certain level of ACEs experience changes in their neurological, immunological and hormonal development. There seems to be something about being in threat mode frequently during childhood that wires the brain to be prepared for danger increasing tissue inflammation and resulting in long-term changes in immune response.  This leads to tissue damage and long-term wear and tear on the body.

There is convincing evidence that people who experience ACEs are at much higher risk for many long term health conditions like auto-immune disorders like psoriasis, cancer, lung disease, heart disease and mental health illness even when you’ve controlled for differences in lifestyle choices.  They can even shorten your life by 20 years and the more ACEs you have the higher your risk.

In one long term study (Danese et al, 2007), childhood abuse was associated with elevated CRP levels, white blood cell counts, and other markers of inflammation 20 years later.

But can we do anything about it?
Years of research have made the link indisputable but the next big challenge is what to do about it. Obviously prevention and early intervention is key but what about those people in adulthood whose traumas are in the past?

I have psoriasis and a fairly significant ACE score. Do I need to just accept that this is the way I developed or can I reverse things?  The research is still in it’s infancy.  We know we can help people cope with trauma but what we don’t know is whether that reverse the neurological and immunological changes?

Helping adults heal is the next big challenge.  The brain has plasticity and can change at any age, so perhaps meditation and mindfulness practice can help to improve things.

It’s also important to remember that whilst a higher score means your risk is higher, it doesn’t determine your future.  Many factors such as a loving parent, grandparent or supportive school teacher can promote resilience so that lots of people with high scores do very well indeed.

One final thing to think about: I developed psoriasis when I was 13 years. I did have adverse childhood experiences to contend with – but psoriasis was another enormous ACE to add to my load and now I wonder for me whether it all became a bit of a vicious circle.

If you want to know more, then watch this excellent TED talk: Nadine Burke Harris TED talk

or watch this informative short animation: ACEs // Public Health Network in Wales

You can score your own ACEs here: Take the ACE quiz

Reference

Danese A. et al (2007). Childhood maltreatment predicts adult inflammation in a life-course study. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A; 104(4):1319-24.

Living with psoriasis. Are you MAD?????

psoriasisPsoriasis is hateful.

I developed it as a young teenager, just what I didn’t need at a time when my body was already going through some huge and alarming changes.  I’ve spent my life since in a battle against psoriasis, seeking out new tactics to beat it into submission and most often going undercover; hiding my skin away from the world, pretending to be normal while all the time, under my clothes, I’m plastered with red hot patches of skin, sore, flaking and peeling.  It’s been a long, hard campaign and in reality my enemy doesn’t even exist.  It’s just me fighting me.  At times I’ve felt very low and I’m not alone.

So many people with psoriasis suffer with clinical levels of anxiety and depression.  People with psoriasis can even feel suicidal.  I understand this.  It’s a difficult condition to live with; painful and unsightly and in a world where appearance is so important, it’ easy to feel disgusting and ashamed.  It’s hardly surprising this would affect your mood.

A review ‘Psoriasis and Associated Psychiatric Disorders’ was recently published in the Journal of Clinical and Aesthetic Dermatology.  The authors reviewed research papers published between 1990 and 2015 looking at psoriasis and mental disorders.  The most prevalent psychiatric problems were sleep (more than 50% of people with psoriasis) and sexual disorders (a depressing 71% of people with psoriasis).  They also found papers reporting an association with schizoid traits, schizophrenia, substance abuse, bipolar disorder and eating disorders.

Problems with dependency and eating may be understood as coping strategies and of course you don’t sleep or feel too sexy with all that itching and flaking going on, but the connection with bipolar disorder and schizophrenia is less easy to understand.

From closer reading, it would seem that the association with schizophrenia is mainly based on a paper which found that people with schizophrenia have a higher risk for psoriasis rather than the other way around.  It’s a bit like saying that a large number of newspapers are published online, but that doesn’t mean that a high rate of online content is newspapers.  Some of the other evidence reported in the review came from a small number case studies where psoriasis cleared up after anti-psychotics were administered.   When psychiatrists talk about schizoid personality or traits the main characteristics are social isolation, intimacy avoidance and restricted affections.  Well duh.  It’s hardly surprising to act like this when you are covered in psoriasis.

Whichever way you look at it, having psoriasis can make you feel bonkers at times.  But it doesn’t have to be that way.  I have one, unique life, albeit a life marred by flaking skin, but I want to be happy and enjoy it.  Sure, I would bite the hand off someone offering me a cure, but until that happy day comes, I want to make the most of my life in spite of my skin.  I believe I can.  There are many psychological strategies and techniques to help you cope with your skin.  You can learn these on your own with the many self help resources available online or find a good psychologist to lead the way.

Reference

Ferreira BI, Abreu JL, Reis JP, Figueiredo AM. (2016). Psoriasis and Associated Psychiatric Disorders: A Systematic Review on Etiopathogenesis and Clinical Correlation. J Clin Aesthet Dermatol;9(6):36-43.

 

Thumb to finger relaxation

IMG_1472The ability to relax can be very helpful, especially when you have a chronic illness like psoriasis.  If you suffer with pain then learning to relax is even more important.  Pain leads to tension which can lead to more pain, more tension on and on in a vicious cycle.Slide1

Relaxation can help with the tension and stop pain from getting worse.  It’s a skill like any other and requires lots of practice.  It’s important to practice at times when you aren’t tense as well as using it as a strategy to cope at more difficult times.  The more you do it, the more effective it will be.

There are many different ways to relax.

This is one method I love.  You can use it when you are tense or irritable, when your pain is getting worse and before bed to help you get a good night’s sleep.

Thumb to Finger Relaxation

Get comfy and remove distractions like the television and your mobile.

Touch your thumb to your index/pointer finger.  Keep it there and think about a time when you felt physically tired in a healthy way, for example after exercise or a strenuous activity.  Imagine you have just swum several lengths or jogged some distance.  Spend a minute or so remembering that feeling of ‘healthy fatigue’.

Touch your thumb to your middle finger and as you do, remember a time when you felt loved and loving.  It could be a warm hug or embrace or a touching conversation.  Spend a couple of minutes remembering that feeling.

Touch your thumb to your ring finger and as you do remember the nicest compliment anyone paid you. What did they say?  Try to accept that compliment now.  Truly believe it and pay the person who gave it to you the respect of accepting it whole-heartedly.  Remember that feeling for a minute or so.

Touch your thumb to your little finger and as you do remember the most beautiful place you’ve ever been.  Visualise it in your mind.  Remember the scent and noise, the ambiance and the temperature.  Enjoy this image for a minute or two.

That’s it.

You can do this exercise anywhere and it only takes around 10 minutes.

If you enjoyed that, why not try a mindful minute.

Please comment below or share if you found this useful.

With thanks to my beautiful hand model in the photograph.

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

image

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.