Harvard Medical School psychologist Dr. Ted Grossbart designed a program to help people with skin conditions benefit from research-based psychological techniques to control both their itching and scratching. Everyone he sees has had a diagnosis from a dermatologist and typically has tried various treatments.
The basis of his program is that emotional turmoil and stress are not only common triggers of eczema, but can keep even the most high-tech medications from working.
One important part of the program involves a systematic look at when the problem started and when it gets better and worse. Using timelines for this detective work often results in people being able to pin down their individual emotional triggers.
The program also teaches people how to alter their persistent scratching and picking. Here are a couple of techniques that his patients have found particularly useful, as described in this excerpt adapted from his free e-book SKIN DEEP: A Mind/Body Program for Healthy Skin.
Introduction to healing states
The most familiar of these healing states is daydreaming. As you let your mind drift while you gaze out the window, the usual distracting crossﬁre of thoughts, plans, memories, and worries is hushed: although daydreaming sounds like inattention, it is actually a state of highly focused attention — on a fantasy.
In this state, your mind becomes more imaginative: you think more creatively than logically, more in images than words. Half an hour may pass unnoticed, or a lengthy fantasy may unroll in minutes.
We enter similar states while engrossed in reading, while running, biking, or walking, while driving or soaking in the tub. They’re kind of a vacation from the normal cares of the day—and more. With a little training and effort, you can learn to harness this focused mind energy for health.
Scratching hand to soothing hand
Have you been trying to stop scratching with willpower? It simply won’t work. Your itch keeps building, keeps calling out for help. Your hand ﬁnally reaches to relieve it, almost of its own accord. The hand is quicker than the will.
Why can’t you just tell yourself to stop scratching? Very simple: you never told yourself to start. Your conscious willpower self isn’t running the show.
Then who is in charge here? Neither your conscious mind nor your unconscious mind. You don’t direct the scratching, but you’re not aware of it either. Your scratch control center is directly linked to the healing part of the mind. But as you well know by now, if you want help from this part of yourself, you have to speak its language. You can’t push, work, or insist. You need to be subtle and wily.
For example, try to not think of a hippopotamus. Now try harder. Bulldozing yourself with willpower is not effective. Now have each hippopotamus turn into an elephant. Much easier?
Using mental techniques outlined in Skin Deep (and with practice), when your hand reaches to scratch, it can be transformed into a soothing embodiment of healing energy. You can learn to do this conversion as automatically as you once learned to catch a ball: you don’t do it — your hand itself does. You can use this technique as you would use steroid cream, to gain control over your itch. Once you break the cycle, you may ﬁnd that your skin heals itself.
It probably took you years to learn to catch a ball smoothly and without thinking. But you can learn to transform your scratching hand into a healing hand through daily practice sessions with the help of the imagining of your own personal healing state.
Here is a sample exercise. For a more thorough version, please refer to Skin Deep:
First, relax and induce the healing state (you may utilize methods that you have received training in previously, such as relaxation, imaging, meditation, and daydreaming — or self hypnosis techniques that could be used as a base).
Next, imagine your hand as a deep reservoir of whatever sensations are most healing and soothing for your skin. When your hand is full almost to the bursting point with this imagined healing energy, move it to each of the areas that sometimes itch. Just rest the soothing hand lightly on your skin. No need to rub or press. Feel the soothing sensations ﬂow out of your ﬁngers, taking over so totally that there is no room at all for an itch. Give each area as much help as it needs. If your hand needs replenishing, just take it away from your skin and imagine it ﬁlling up again with soothing, healing energy. You can repeat the procedure as often as needed.
Keep focus on the idea that your scratching hand will be automatically transformed into a soothing hand. In the middle of its ﬂight, before hitting the target, your hand will become a healing instrument.
Go through the procedure at least daily, preferably twice a day. Be prepared for a discouraging period before you master this challenging but ultimately effortless mental magic. When it works — when your hand reaches for an itch and automatically soothes with a touch — you’ll feel more like an amazed spectator than someone who’s “broken a habit” by heroic willpower.
You can’t work at these techniques any more than you can convince a ﬂower to grow faster by cheering it on. Plant the seed of each technique, and feed it with relaxation and repetition. (If it starts to feel more like work than a personal gift to yourself, take a day off.) To add momentum to the learning process, take a fraction of a second a hundred times a day to remind yourself, “scratching hand to soothing hand.”
Nighttime itching is a particular torment. A good night’s sleep becomes a distant memory, as mind and body ache for rest. Why is scratching such a problem at night? I suspect it’s the absence of daytime distractions. At night, we are back to basics, our wishes and fears, our bed partners, our body’s aches and itches.
In the past, you’ve continued scratching all through the night, even though your conscious mind was asleep. In the same way, the soothing hand technique will keep on working now. The scratching hand used to awaken you but the soothing hand will protect your sleep and dreams. Because you’re only a spectator, the conversion will go on whether you are asleep or awake.
What’s true of most skin disorders is rarely clearer than with itching: you’re an active part of the problem and you must participate in the solution. There is real magic in these techniques, but even a master magician has to practice. That demands energy, but much less energy than you’ve been putting into itching and scratching.