Anyone who lives with or has suffered a chronic skin issue is acutely aware the value society places on appearance. From notions of aesthetics and beauty to what is ugly and disgusting, mental health and skin conditions have a tortuous relationship. And so, with mental illness rates soaring due to COVID-19, how can we and others show skin compassion? It starts with listening and understanding.
“Sometimes we get stuck in unhelpful patterns of thoughts and behaviours,” explains Elaine Clarke, PhD candidate at The University of Sheffield. “For example, I might not want to see my friends because I think my skin looks really bad, so I stop going out, but then I start to get depressed, then I think that no-one would want to see me even if I went out, so I stay in even more, then I feel even worse”.
When we get into a downward spiral like this, Elaine suggests we start small in making changes towards skin compassion. However we may need to experience some uncomfortable feelings until we’re feeling more confident. And sometimes, we need help to do this.
“Another thing that can be particularly tricky about skin conditions is the fact that they change,” Elaine says. “They can be better and worse at times, so just when you think you’ve got it figured out, they can flare up again. That can be tough to deal with”.
Feelings like disgust and anxiety are totally normal and part of being human. But when we get stuck habitually thinking or feeling negatively about ourselves, then it is important to seek professional help.
“Seeing your doctor is a good first step, as they may be able to signpost you to local services that can help or refer you on to see a therapist,” says Elaine. “It can be really helpful to talk to someone impartial about your difficulties however it can be hard with family as we may not want to worry or upset them with how we are really feeling. Having said that, if you can be open with your family or friends then it is really good to have that support, so use it if you can”.
And while many people will have had a minor skin complaint, one of the most common reasons to visit a GP, this is not the same as living with a chronic skin condition.
“Unless you have experienced it yourself, it can be difficult to understand the impact that chronic skin conditions can have on a person. If you are ever tempted to tell someone that their skin is ‘not that bad’, please restrain yourself and instead try to be curious about what things are like for that person. Being listened to is such a valuable thing”.
Social support is vital for whatever difficulties we are having. Family, friends, and support groups online, especially for rarer conditions, are there to listen. But you are the being living in your skin so try to be compassionate to yourself. Try to support yourself the way you would support a good friend in the same situation. And if you don’t feel you can, that’s OK. Seeking professional help is an important step to take because our own skin feelings matter too.
Elaine N Clarke is a PhD candidate in the Department of Psychology, The University of Sheffield, UK. Her published article ‘Depression in people with skin conditions: The effects of disgust and self‐compassion’ is free to access.