How Acne Affects Your Mental Health Is Complicated, But Experts Say There's A Way To Cope

There’s nothing comfortable about acne. Whether you’re trying to conceal just one pimple or minimize the appearance of a monstrous breakout, it doesn’t matter where the blemishes turn up: the feel and look of them is unpleasant all-around. But while your best friend might dab on a bit of cream and go about their day without a second thought on the subject, acne can affect your mental health in a pretty significant way, especially if a breakout has the power to provoke your anxiety and alter the way you see yourself. It’s a nasty cycle, to say the least. The thing is, while acne can be stressful, stress can lead to more acne, and, as I’m sure you can imagine, that emotional state of anxiety, plus grappling with low self-esteem issues caused by acne, is a really tough spot to be in.

I know myself, and in high school, I was always trying to hide my hormonal acne. Dabbling in every remedy from face washes to spot treatments, even dotting my pimples with toothpaste, it felt like every time one breakout cleared up, two more came about. Taking birth control pills helped for a few years, but the second I opted off the medication for a different health issue, my skin must have taken the switch as a go-ahead to travel back in time. For me, adult acne feels pretty similar to pubescent acne: just as unpleasant, with just as much influence over my 26-year-old self-esteem as it had when I was a teenager. And, according to a study carried out by researchers from the University of Limerick (UL) in Ireland, the stigma around acne, and the emotional turmoil that comes along with it, can significantly affect your mental health and quality of life.

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I think we can all agree that life would be so much easier if you could stop caring about what other people thought. Unfortunately, though, this is much easier said than done, as shown by the data collected by UL researchers Dr. Aisling O'Donnell and Jamie Davern, Ph.D., who created a survey to explore how acne affects a person's mental health. The questionnaire was given to nearly 300 "acne sufferers," according to ScienceDaily, and the researchers found that those who felt as though there was a very high stigma surrounding acne, experienced greater levels of psychological distress. In other words, if you perceive other people's opinions about your acne to be mostly negative (and possibly worse than they actually are), there’s a chance you will experience high levels of anxiety and bouts of depression as a result, and this could all lead to physical health issues, as well. In a statement for a press release on the findings, which have been published in the medical journal PLOS One, Davern wrote,

Like many physical attributes that are stigmatized, acne is not well represented in popular culture, advertising or social media. This can lead people with acne to feel that they are 'not normal' and therefore negatively viewed by others.

Even though it might not necessarily be a topic of conversation between your friends and family, or often addressed in the media, if you struggle with acne, rest assured you aren’t alone. As per the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) Association, 50 million people in America alone deal with acne annually, and while 85 percent of the population will deal with breakouts at some point between the ages of 18 and 24, acne isn’t exclusive to puberty. In other words, you can totally have a pimple pop up on your face in your 40s. But, trust me, I completely understand that, just because acne is a part of life, that doesn’t mean it’s not annoying, or that it can't be genuinely stressful and anxiety-provoking to deal with.

What's worse, that "acne stigma" outlined in the PLOS One study is pretty real. In a separate study conducted by researchers from Harvard Medical School, the University of Utah, and the Cambridge Health Alliance, published by the AAD, 56 participants were shown images of people visibly suffering from skin issues such as acne, psoriasis, eczema, rosacea, and herpes. After reviewing the images, the participants were then asked to complete a survey documenting their reactions to the photographs. As a result, a whopping 62.5 percent of those surveyed admitted they felt upset by the pictures of acne, while 67.9 percent said they would “feel ashamed” if they had acne, and would find someone else with acne unattractive.

As upsetting as these statistics are, it just goes to show the stigmatization around acne is, unfortunately, all too real. However, according to skin expert and lead product developer at Colorescience, Patricia Boland, how acne affects mental health will ultimately depend on the person, their self-esteem, and whether or not they've battled with acne in the past. "Someone who has severe acne and has been suffering for years is probably more likely to be mentally affected than someone who just has one pimple," Boland tells Elite Daily over email. But, she adds, if you've had relatively clear skin most of your life, experiencing breakouts all of a sudden "could promote self-esteem issues rapidly."

In some cases, acne can even trigger the onset of a mental illness, specifically that of a kind of body dysmorphia called acne dysmorphic disorder. Clinical psychotherapist Matthew Traube, MFT told Refinery29 back in September 2017 that this kind of body dysmorphia is a relatively unknown struggle, which is why it's so important for those suffering to feel comfortable speaking up about what they're going through. For instance, Riverdale's sweetheart, Lili Reinhart, recently opened up to Glamour about her experience with acne dysmorphic disorder, and how even just one blemish can cause her entire self-image to suffer. The 22-year-old actress told the publication,

I see any acne on my face as an obsessive thing. [It’s] the only thing I can think about, and it makes me want to hide... If people could just open their eyes a little bit and see there’s a wider range of beauty, there’d be so much more happiness.
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Because acne can be just as much of a mental health struggle as it can a physical one, Dr. Sanam Hafeez, a New York City-based neuropsychologist who also works on the teaching faculty at Columbia University, tells Elite Daily that those who suffer should consider working with a dermatologist, as well as a psychologist, to "help them handle stress in their lives which triggers breakouts." The best way to tackle acne overall, Hafeez adds, is to approach it holistically by creating a skincare regimen with a dermatologist, potentially talking with a dietitian or nutritionist about what kinds of foods to avoid, a psychologist to manage stress, and even working with a fitness coach to get into a physical routine that reduces anxiety as well.

Unfortunately, acne can affect your mental health in the same way that it messes with your skin. The best thing you can do for your mind, and your body, is to stay cool, calm, and collected, eat healthy foods, stay active, listen to your body, but above all else, be kind to yourself. At one point or another, we all deal with acne. You're not alone, and it won't last forever.