Skincare, Selfcare and the Mind-Body Connection
The body’s largest organ, skin has three main functions: it is the body’s first line of defense against bacteria and other environmental factors including pollution and radiation from the sun, it maintains the balance of fluids by allowing water to evaporate through its porous surface and also helps to regulate body temperature. As the most visible indication of health, the condition of our skin affects how we feel about ourselves and how we are perceived by others. If we feel self-conscious about the appearance of our skin, it can have a deep and pervasive impact on other areas of our lives.
Feeling uncomfortable in our skin can affect our ability to get a good night’s sleep and may fuel feelings of separation and isolation. Stress, in turn, has a dramatic impact on even minor bodily functions like oil excretion in the outermost layer of skin, which thus affects skin tone, the potential for acne, moisture and elasticity.1 Self-care, including rituals of personal grooming can be very relaxing in addition to the inherent cleansing and moisturizing benefits of the activity itself.
The Divided Self
To understand most important ideas in psychology, it is important to understand how the mind is divided into parts that sometimes work at odds. You might think of your consciousness as a small person sitting in a control center, pulling the levers and adjusting the dials of bodily function, intentionally driving the physical body to complete tasks and move through the world. But in some ways, our brain is more like a committee of parts that work together to do a job, that sometimes have competing desires and priorities. One of the most significant divisions within the brain is the differences between the newer, more recently evolved parts of the brain versus the older, reptilian parts.2
As time has progressed, our brains have changed and developed to allow us to experience and control higher order functions, such as our ability to use language to reason, regulate emotion, learn from memory and be able to plan for the future.2 The forebrain of mammals evolved to develop an outer shell, building outward from the same sort of brain of earlier organisms. This new layer includes the hypothalamus, specialized to coordinate basic drives and motivations, the hippocampus, specialized for memory, and the amygdala, specialized for emotional learning and responding. These structures are sometimes referred to as the limbic system, named for the Latin “limbicus” meaning border or margin, because they wrap around the rest of the brain. More social mammals, particularly among primates, developed an additional layer of neural tissue, called the neocortex, that surrounds the limbic system and allows for higher-level processing such as planning and decision making.
Our minds are a loose confederation of parts, but we mostly identify with one part: conscious verbal thinking. In The Happiness Hypothesis, Jonathan Haidt develops an analogy of an elephant and a human rider, where the elephant is the bulk of the brain, mostly operating autonomously and capable of protecting and orienting itself in the world. When language evolved, the human brain was not re-engineered, its structure was already established. This verbal aspect of consciousness is like the rider sitting on top of the elephant, it may steer and describe the behavior of the elephant, but it is not in full control.
As Haidt puts it, “an emotionally intelligent person has a skilled rider who knows how to distract and coax the elephant without having to engage in a direct contest of wills.” Changing your behavior, making the choices that best support longevity and health often require sacrifice and discipline. The more we understand that the verbal, conscious part of our brain is limited in its ability to control our actions and behavior, the more patient and gentle we can be with ourselves, learning tricks to help us guide our inner-elephant to make the decisions that work best for us as a unified body.
Taking good care of the body directly affects the health of our brain, creating a beneficial cycle of health and well-being that drives longevity. Here are a few simple but effective ways to integrate more self-care into your lifestyle:
Establish a Routine
Establishing a regular daily skin care routine with products that are formulated for your skin-type can help to reduce sensitive skin reactions. Finding the right products can be time consuming and expensive but maintaining adequate moisture in the skin and reinforcing skin’s natural barrier function are very effective ways to improve the appearance of smooth, hydrated skin and can help protect your skin from pathogens, preventing the vicious itch-scratch cycle. Establishing a predictable routine not only allows you to relax into the process, but also minimizes variables that can lead to flares of red, dry, irritated skin. If you tend to get mysterious flares, it can be helpful to keep a journal. Gratitude-focused journals have been shown to help create calm and clear stress.3 At the end of each day, simply think about and write down 5 things that happened that day that you feel grateful for. Then jot down how your skin was feeling and anything out of the ordinary that may have affected it. Over time, you will have data you can analyze to help you better understand how your skin reacts to the environment.
Get Enough Sleep
Evidence is mounting that critical functions occur during sleep that are connected with maintaining a healthy life. Sleep is linked to feelings of wellness, good mental health, efficient metabolism and preventing infections and the development of many types of chronic illnesses.4 Studies suggest that sleep loss leads to an impairment of immune functioning and could be a significant factor contributing to a wide variety of disorders.5 The amount of sleep an individual needs varies from person to person, but research has shown that most adults need 7-9 hours of quality sleep per night. In our culture that prioritizes accomplishment and activity, it can be difficult to prioritize sleep. Sleep is not an optional lifestyle luxury, but a critical, biological necessity. If you have trouble sleeping, it can again be helpful to establish a routine, to go to bed and wake up at the same time every day, both on weeknights and weekends. Other helpful tips for sound sleep include not going to bed too hungry or too full, sleeping in a cold room (65 degrees Fahrenheit is appropriate for most people to help initiate and maintain sleep), and minimizing exposure to light before bed, including light from screens such as televisions, tablets and phones.
Studies suggest that psychological factors might influence immunity and immune system-mediated diseases and that strong social relationships may strengthen the immune system and reduce the risk of depression and anxiety disorders.6 Studies also show that giving care and support to others may actually be more beneficial than receiving help ourselves.7 Being vulnerable and open with those that we love, communicating our needs and not being afraid to lean on others when we need help can be the difference between thriving and suffering. For those with sensitive skin conditions like eczema, in addition to the material costs of prevention and medication, there can be a tremendous emotional toll from feelings of isolation. It is important to seek out the support of a community. The National Eczema Association provides advocacy and awareness for treatment options but also does a tremendous job of creating a real sense of community for those living with eczema and atopic dermatitis.
Healthy Diet & Exercise
Thinking about food and diet can be its own stressor, but a growing body of evidence has demonstrated that lifestyle habits and nutritional patterns could delay the natural course of neurodegeneration and ill health.8 Diet, the types of food and routines associated with when we eat, along with exercise, how and when we move our bodies, are the most accessible tools we have for maintaining health and wellness. The Mediterranean diet, where meals center around plant-based foods and healthy fats, with moderate amounts of animal protein and a focus almost exclusively on whole (non-processed or packaged) foods, has been well investigated for its potential beneficial effect on cognitive status and longevity.8 Doctors currently recommend an optimal 30 minutes of light activity, even walking, each day.
Consider Trying Yoga
The circulatory system has an engine, the heart, that pushes blood through the body, delivering oxygen and nutrients from the lungs and digestive system to the cells of the body. But the lymphatic system, the body’s plumbing system, carrying waste away from organs and cells, relies entirely on the movement of the muscular system to push lymph through the body. All exercise and motion will help engage the lymphatic system, but one of the greatest physical benefits of yoga is the intentional sequence of poses to help activate muscles that are often stagnant or overlooked in other forms of exercise. Yoga’s historical context is also as a meditative practice, combining motions of the body with stillness of the mind, asking that the rider and the elephant work together as one, aware both of the physical limitation or edge of the physical body while at the same time recognizing the limitless nature of consciousness.9 Meditation has been shown to be effective on its own in relieving the symptoms of inflammatory skin conditions10 and yoga can be a gentle and accessible way to incorporate the many benefits of exercise and meditation into your daily routine.
Be Kind and Patient with Yourself
Remembering that the highly aware and verbal part of your consciousness is just one part of your control center can help you to be patient and kind to yourself. Treat yourself with the kindness you would offer a child, remembering that life is a journey of growth and that your unique experiences, both of joy and of suffering make you who you are.
1) Inflammation and Allergy – Drug Targets, May 2014, pages 177–190
2) The Happiness Hypothesis, 2006
3) Physiology & Behavior, March 2020, pages 1-5
4) Sleep, June 2012, pages 727-734
5) Archives of Internal Medicine, September 2006, pages 1686-1688
6) Annual Review of Psychology, 1996, pages 113-142
7) Psychological Science, July 2003, pages 320-327
8) Nutrients, April 2020, pages 1-22
9) Light on Life, The Yoga Journey to Wholeness, Inner Peace, and Ultimate Freedom, 2005
10) Acta dermato-venereologica Supplementum, 1991, pages 37-43