By O’rya Hyde-Keller
At age 16, Dawn Montefusco developed a serious case of psoriasis that covered 85 percent of her body in itchy, red scales. Her doctor dashed her hopes of an easy cure, telling her she’d most likely have the autoimmune disease the rest of her life. “I was a sophomore in high school, so this was devastating,” recalls Montefusco, now 40.
The summer after her sophomore year, Montefusco decided to take it easy. She spent the next few months relaxing, going to the beach, and hanging out with friends. Remarkably, by fall the psoriasis had cleared almost entirely. The condition flared up occasionally on her scalp, hands, and face as she grew older but never as badly as that first outbreak.
Everything changed at age 36 when Montefusco moved across the country, from sunny Florida to Portland, Oregon, to take a job working with at-risk youth. The dreary climate only exacerbated the stress she felt at her new job. Her psoriasis came back full force, covering her entire body just as it had 20 years earlier. This is when Montefusco finally made the connection: Her psoriasis had always flared up when she felt stressed or emotionally unbalanced. Even the smaller outbreaks in her 20s and early 30s, she says, occurred when she’d been sleeping less, partying more, and not taking care of her mental well-being. As further proof, her psoriasis would disappear altogether when she felt emotionally healthy and relaxed–like during that summer she’d spent at the beach.
More than skin deep
We all know intuitively that stress and skin problems go hand in hand, but the medical community has only just begun to really explore the connection–and tailor treatments for psoriasis, acne, eczema, and even warts accordingly. “Up until very recently, the American Academy of Dermatology was saying that stress was not a factor in acne,” says Ted Grossbart, PhD, a professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School and author of Skin Deep: A New Mind/Body Program for Healthy Skin (Health Press, 1992), “even though everyone and their grandmother knew that you got the pimple before the big date.” Coincidence? Grossbart and others don’t think so.