Skin Deep

A mind-body approach to a healthy life.

Three Skin Mysteries Solved

The skin speaks...

Veteran airline captain Jack L. had lived through it all, from engine fires and locked landing gear to busted hydraulics and deadly wind shear. No matter how grave the danger, he never lost his cool, never produced a bead of sweat. Oddly, though, the forehead of this man of steel broke out in herpes blisters whenever he flew over a particular canyon. What was going on?

Kathy R's career as an investment banker in New York was taking off as spectacularly as her social life. Attractive and athletic, she was never wanting for party invitations or dates. Indeed, her boyfriends changed with the seasons. She seemed to get everything she wanted -- except to be rid of a stubborn case of adult acne. She'd been to several top dermatologists and used the best acne medicines, but nothing worked for her.

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Helen S., a young stay-at-home mom with a new baby, really had her dermatologist scratching his head. The raw, oozing, red rash was clearly recognizable as eczema. But why was it only in one place - the fourth finger on her left hand? Located right under a gold ring, could it have been caused by a gold allergy? Not likely. She had gold rings on other fingers, and they were fine.

Jack, Kathy, and Helen came from very different of walks of life, but they shared a common problem: their skin served as billboards for unresolved emotional and psychological issues. Conventional medical therapies either failed to improve their conditions or worked for six months to a year, then became ineffective. Each of these people was fortunate enough to find a practitioner who understood the powerful connection between mind and skin.

In Jack's case, psychotherapy performed under hypnosis revealed that a friend had died in a plane crash there - and that this man, a fellow pilot, had been filling in because Jack had called in sick. Jack felt responsible for his friend's death. But once he allowed himself to feel his grief and guilt - feelings that he'd suppressed because they were too painful -- his herpes outbreaks stopped.

During psychotherapy, Kathy mentioned that her acne flared up whenever a boyfriend got too close. It was as if her skin was trying to protect her. What was she so afraid of? A memory lay forgotten in her subconscious, but it was far from dormant. She recalled a menacing man who had lived next door to her when she was a child. Persistent fear of this man was preventing Kathy from forming a long-term relationship. Once she saw the connection, her skin cleared up, and her love live blossomed.

Helen's finger grew worse and worse. She got no relief from the usual eczema medicines. She had forgotten the episode when she came to see me years later feeling depressed. She recalled that her baby had had severe colic, crying virtually nonstop for over a year. Her workaholic husband was unhelpful and emotionally unresponsive. In this tormenting situation, her skin gave voice to a desire she felt she could not admit to herself or express directly: "Get me out of this marriage." Finally, her wedding ring had to be cut off. Her skin had, at least symbolically, found a way out.

For .more information see my site and my book Skin Deep: A Mind/Body Program for Healthy Skin.  A free e-book version is available there.

Ted Grossbart is on the faculty at Harvard Medical School and the author of the book Skin Deep.

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