Can stress cause a rash?

April 02, 2013

By J. Bruce Williams, MD
Internal Medicine

“Did my stress cause this rash?!”

A patient recently asked this question half-jokingly, but as we talked further about his life circumstances, he came to the answer of his own question. Issues between him and a loved one came tumbling out, his persistent unhappiness with the present state of affairs made it clear that yes, very much so, his stress is playing a role in his rash.

How can this be possible? And if it is true, that our mental states can give rise to very straightforwardly visible physical maladies, how are we to respond?

The interplay of our minds and bodies runs deep. The more time I spend in the practice of medicine, the more amazed I am at the powerful effects that run back and forth between the two poles of our being, the physical and the mental aspects of our selves. Physical events, such as broken bones, strokes, and degenerative disease strike at the core of our self-definition and can profoundly change attitudes and even personalities.

Just as powerfully, unresolved conflicts and challenging relationships can shift the immune system, trigger a vulnerable cardiac issue, or even tip a person’s sense of balance enough to precipitate a catastrophic accident.

In the case above, the connection is thought to be through our emotions and the brain’s relationship to the function of T cells and other managers of the immune response.

And so, the lesson is clear. Mental health is critical to healthy living! Taking care of yourself, your relationships, and knowing how to manage your boundaries is critical to healthy as well as happy living!