Although people tend to think of anxiety as a mental health issue, it can also have physical effects on the body. Some people with anxiety may experience an itchy sensation in the skin, alongside other symptoms.
Anxiety and itching can also lead to a vicious circle in some cases. Some symptoms of anxiety disorders can cause an itching sensation, and this itching sensation can become a source of irritation and even anxiety.
This cycle of anxiety and itchiness can be hard to break. Anxiety may also cause underlying skin conditions to flare up in some people, causing more itchiness.
Treating the underlying cause of anxiety and itchiness may help relieve symptoms and could break the cycle. Anyone who has symptoms of an anxiety disorder that are affecting their quality of life should speak with a doctor or mental health professional.
Keep reading to learn more about the link between itching and anxiety.
Although it is not always the case, anxiety and itching can sometimes share a very close relationship.
Itchiness can be a sign of a few different issues, even in a person dealing with anxiety. Itchiness may be due to an allergic reaction in the skin or to the skin coming into contact with harsh chemicals or other irritants.
In people with skin conditions
A person with an underlying skin condition may also experience increased itchiness relating to the condition. In these cases, symptoms of stress may exacerbate symptoms or trigger a flare-up of the skin condition.
A study in Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews notes that people living with chronic skin conditions that cause itchiness often report that psychological stress is an aggravating factor for their symptoms.
People with conditions such as psoriasis, lichen planus, or eczema may find that their symptoms get worse when they are stressed, nervous, or anxious.
In people with no skin conditions
The effects of stress and anxiety on itchiness do not only affect people with existing conditions. Chronic itchiness can also appear due to stress in a person without an underlying condition.
This symptom is most likely to occur in people who are experiencing very high stress situations, have psychological conditions, or are going through a major life event.
A small-scale study in Acta Dermato-Venereologica asked college students about their stress levels and skin symptoms. The results indicated that even without underlying conditions, students with higher self-reported stress levels had more symptoms in their skin, including itchiness.
An anxiety disorder may also cause the sensation of itching. In these cases, the itching is not due to an underlying skin condition or irritant but appears as a symptom of anxiety instead.
Stress causes a number of changes in the body, such as hormonal fluctuations and changes in the nervous system, which could lead to unpleasant sensations along one or more nerves. These sensations can cause a burning or itching feeling anywhere in the skin.
Other anxiety symptoms
While anxiety symptoms may vary from person to person, it is not uncommon for a person with an anxiety disorder to experience an itchy, stinging, or irritating sensation on their skin. The symptom is just as real to the person as a physical itch, and it would be difficult to tell them apart.
It is rare, though, for anxiety to cause only itching, and the person will likely experience other symptoms of anxiety, including:
- nervousness or restlessness
- rapid heart rate
- the feeling that the mind is racing
- difficulty focusing
- feeling in danger or in a state of panic
- muscle twitching
- sweating, possible leading to rashes
- avoiding certain activities that cause stress or anxiety
Symptoms of stress or anxiety, including itching, may sometimes come and go, with some only appearing in moments of very high stress. In other cases, the symptoms may persist throughout the day, getting better or worse at different times.
Itching can also lead to skin damage, such as discolored, broken, or bleeding skin, if the person scratches or rubs the itchy areas too much.
While anxiety may cause itching or make it worse, the reverse is also true. Itching and conditions that cause persistent itching can be a source of anxiety.
An article in Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews notes that there is an association between chronic itch conditions and higher levels of stress and anxiety.
The authors state that many people with chronic itchiness experience significantly more anxiety than those who do not deal with this issue.
People with a skin condition such as eczema or psoriasis may find the condition itself a source of stress and anxiety. Symptoms can disrupt daily life, and a flare-up can be distracting and irritating.
The physical itch is not the only source of anxiety for people with these conditions. People with skin conditions that cause visible damage or marks to the skin may deal with social stresses or anxiety when interacting with other people.
In these cases, dealing with a chronic itch can be a source of high stress or anxiety.
The first step toward treatment for anxiety and itching is to identify the root cause and break the cycle of symptoms.
Doctors can help diagnose any underlying skin conditions or refer the person to a dermatologist for additional testing. They may ask the person to take medical tests, such as blood tests, to screen for other problematic conditions that may influence itching.
The doctor may also refer the person to a mental health specialist to help identify any underlying stress or anxiety disorders.
Once the person has received a diagnosis, the doctor can begin treatment.
Treatment will vary based on the underlying condition and the root cause of the itchiness or anxiety.
Treatments for skin conditions may include medicated creams to help stop itching, as well as targeted medications for the individual symptoms or condition itself.
A therapist or psychologist can also help people with anxiety disorders manage their anxiety levels through behavioral therapy. This therapy can help people change the thought patterns that lead to anxiety. In some cases, medications may be necessary.
It is also important to find ways to reduce stress, as it can trigger symptoms. Practices that may help reduce stress include:
- massage therapy
- movement activities, such as tai chi or yoga
- breathing exercises
- regular exercise
As part of a diagnosis for itching skin, doctors will check for other potential causes. Several different conditions and factors can cause itching, including:
- neurological conditions, such as multiple sclerosis, diabetic neuropathy, and shingles
- other psychiatric conditions, such as depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder
- diseases within the internal organs, such as liver or kidney failure, anemia, and even some types of cancer
- pregnancy and hormonal changes
- side effects from some medications
In some cases, the itching is idiopathic, meaning that it has no known cause. The person will need to work closely with their doctor to find ways to manage this symptom.
Anyone experiencing itchiness or anxiety that affects their daily life should see a doctor. The doctor may refer the person to a dermatologist to test for skin conditions or to a mental health specialist for therapy for an anxiety disorder.
Anyone who notices additional or worsening symptoms after starting a new treatment may also wish to speak to a doctor to modify their treatment.
Although it is not true in every case, anxiety and itchiness do often have a close relationship.
People with skin conditions such as psoriasis and eczema may notice symptoms flare up during periods of high stress or anxiety. Anxiety disorders themselves may also cause itchiness.
Additionally, chronic itching can be a source of irritation, stress, and anxiety for many people, potentially leading to a cycle of symptoms that can greatly reduce a person’s quality of life.
Anyone having trouble with new or worsening symptoms should see a doctor for a diagnosis.
Treatment for both skin conditions and anxiety disorders can help break the cycle, making symptoms more manageable and improving quality of life.