According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, up to 40 million people live with anxiety disorders. As many as one in five people experience chronic itch at some point in their lives. These disorders often co-occur, but it is hard to determine how many people experience anxiety-related itching, also known as psychogenic itching.
What is anxiety?
Anxiety is a feeling of dread, uneasiness, or fear. Anxiety can cause you to feel tense and restless. It can cause your heart to beat faster and make you sweat.
Anxiety can be a reaction to a stressful or traumatic event, but it can also be a regular part of daily life. Anxiety is not always negative, but for some people, persistent and overwhelming symptoms that accompany anxiety can lead to debilitating fear and other chronic conditions.
What causes anxiety itching?
There are many health effects linked to chronic anxiety, including some that people may not be familiar with. One such example is skin conditions. Ongoing emotional and psychological stress can lead to severe and unpleasant skin itching.
Remember, your skin is the largest organ in your body and it always communicates with your brain. Through the nervous system, the skin sends signals to and from the brain about your environment and any other problems that affect it.
When your stress response becomes too strong, it can affect these interactions and cause various sensory symptoms, including burning and itching skin. Itching from anxiety can be felt anywhere on your skin, including your face, legs, scalp, and arms.
Itching may be persistent or it may come and go. It can occur simultaneously with anxiety or it may happen separately.
How are itching and anxiety diagnosed?
Even if you experience anxiety and itching together, it is important to remember that you may have two separate problems. You may have anxiety, but your itch may be related to an entirely different condition. Depending on your symptoms, your doctor will want to rule out other causes of itching skin, including:
- Dry skin
- Insect bites and stings
- Allergic reaction
Most of the above conditions can be identified through a physical examination. However, other conditions, such as anemia, diabetes, kidney and liver failure, thyroid problems, and some cancers can lead to chronically itchy skin. It is very important to talk to your doctor about your physical and mental health symptoms and your medical history so they can rule out other underlying conditions that require specialized treatment.
Treatment for anxiety and itching
The best treatment depends on the precise cause of anxiety and itching. No matter the root cause, excessive and chronic itching can adversely affect your overall quality of life. In addition to visiting your primary care provider to rule out other conditions, you should reach out to a mental health specialist to address your anxiety symptoms.
If your skin is damaged or injured due to itching, a dermatologist may be able to get you on the road to healing. Typically, treatment for itching skin includes:
- Oral SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors), which are a form of antidepressant that may help relieve itching for some
- Creams and ointments, including corticosteroids
- Light therapy, which can be helpful in some instances
Other "at home" methods you can use to address itching skin include:
- Using a dehumidifier to reduce air dryness in your home
- Trying over-the-counter (OTC) creams or calamine lotion to soothe the skin
- Switching to hypoallergenic, fragrance-free moisturizers
- Avoiding hot baths, rough or scratchy clothing, and harsh sunlight, which can all irritate your skin
- Keeping your fingernails short to prevent skin breakage from itching
Because stress can aggravate your itch, you will need to find ways to reduce anxiety and stress. Consider relaxation techniques such as meditation, acupuncture, deep breathing exercises, and yoga. Seeking help from a mental health professional can provide you with various tools and skills you need to reduce stress and anxiety.
If anxiety and itching are interfering with your ability to function and leading to skin damage or infection, it is essential to see your primary care provider as soon as possible. If left untreated, the cycle of anxiety and itching will continue, which can only worsen your anxiety.
Anxiety and itching, whether separate or combined, can be effectively treated. Healing may take time, but a combination of skincare and anxiety management can help you break the cycle and take steps toward healing your skin.
Itching skin may or may not be related to anxiety.
Your primary care provider or dermatologist can treat skin itching due to medical concerns.
Treatment from a mental health provider may also help relieve the anxiety that is causing skin itching.