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Skin Problems
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Skin Diseases

Excerpts from “Skin Deep”
by Ted A. Grossbart. Ph.D.
(Harvard Medical School)
& Carl Sherman, Ph.D.
Revised and Expanded Edition, 1992.
Available as a free download at 
(Though these cases apply to skin problems, the same type of patterns and conflicts can be seen in many other ailments that are rooted in, or made much worse by, psychological factors. I have dealt with such with many clients myself. Brian G.)
When something goes wrong with the skin – hives, eczema, warts, or whatever – my experience as a psychologist has taught me to keep the skin's double life, as emotional and physical organ, in mind; to remember that emotional difficulties can cause some skin diseases; and that even when the cause is clearly physical (such as from heredity, infection, or chemical irritation), it may trigger attacks or make them more severe.
A wide range of skin symptoms have been produced – and relieved – experimentally with the focused mental power of concentration and suggestion. As early as 1928, Heilig and Hoff of the University of Vienna used hypnosis to alleviate outbreaks of oral herpes (cold sores). In an experiment, they could also trigger outbreaks in these patients by reminding them, under hypnosis, of the painful events that had triggered them originally (such as a death in the family) and of the itching and tingling that usually comes just before the sore appears.
Kaneko and Takaishi of the Osaka University Medical School used a similar procedure with hives. Fourteen of the twenty-seven patients they treated made complete or near-complete recoveries; only five reported no benefit. They too could bring the symptoms back with hypnosis, either by suggesting skin irritation directly or by bringing to mind situations that aroused anger.
No, I am not the first to relieve skin problems with psychological therapies. Some two dozen scientific reports, including several large-scale studies, describe successfully treating warts this way. In recent years, more and more researchers have applied these techniques to a wider variety of symptoms. For example, the British physicians Brown and Bettley found that many eczema patients improved markedly when psychotherapy was added to their regular medical care.
Unfelt, unexpressed anger is the most common psychological mechanism beneath troubled skin. Since it is unsafe or unacceptable to feel anger toward others, the skin is elected to take a beating – another way that anger is directed against the self.
Derek .. .. What brought him to my office was persistent recurrences of genital herpes. It didn't take much detective work to discover a distinct pattern: the illness flared up whenever he or his lover was out of town. He himself quickly grasped that he'd been unconsciously asking the virus to help him resist the temptation to seek other sexual involvements. Once he became ready to make these sexual decisions on his own, his recurrences ended almost completely.
Vic .. .. In his book Hypnosis in Skin and Allergic Diseases, dermatologist Michael J. Scott describes a veteran airline pilot who developed mysterious herpes blisters on his forehead each time his flight schedule took him over a particular canyon. In hypnotherapy (psychotherapy conducted in a hypnotic trance), he recalled that the canyon had a special meaning for him. There a friend and fellow pilot had died in a crash. He himself would have made the flight had he not been kept home by illness. The herpes outbreaks disappeared as the pilot gradually allowed himself to experience the buried sadness and guilt he felt over his friend's death.
Elsa D.. .. a woman in her early twenties from a close-knit European family, aspired to be a concert violinist, but duty, according to her family's old-world values, demanded that she stay home to care for her elderly grandmother. She left for the conservatory anyway, but within a semester she was back home, forced to give up her studies by severe eczema on her hands. Elsa's hands were caught in the squeeze between duty and personal aspiration; she felt guilty if she sought fulfillment on her own terms and angry at being trapped if she didn't. She could not allow herself to experience these "unacceptable" feelings. The conflict between her own and her parents' values were all the more irresolvable because of Elsa's own conflicts about growing up and becoming independent. Her hands – which would play violin but should tend grandmother – became the battlefield of contradictory needs and demands.
Fred was a hard-nosed, logical engineer who simply could not relate to the psychodynamics of symptoms. His skin was red, raw, and itching, he firmly knew, because there was a physical problem, as a mechanical malfunction invariably reflected something physically wrong with a machine. I challenged Fred. I told him he had the power to take any patch of skin that was clear and make it itchy. The perversity of the idea appealed to him and he gave it a try; before long, he became able to experience much of the same discomfort in healthy skin that he'd had in the red, raw patches. He saw for himself that the mind body connection was real, and this was an enormous help in getting on with other techniques .. ..  If you can make your skin worse, you can make it better.
Allergy is not a disease but a mechanism that causes many diseases, including asthma and hay fever. Allergic skin eruptions follow exposure to plants or animals or ingestion of food to which a person is sensitive. Such symptoms as hives and eczema are often caused by allergy. These skin problems reflect a biological predisposition (probably involving the immune system), but psychological factors play a major role. As the Japanese lacquer tree study cited earlier showed, an allergic reaction may follow exposure to a harmless substance to which a person believes he is sensitive. By the same token, an allergic reaction can be conditioned, linking a particular substance to an emotional issue. One girl developed a strong allergic reaction to wood and wood products. When hypnotherapy allowed her to connect this to her difficult relationship with her father, who was a carpenter, the allergy vanished.
Hypnotherapy has proved effective for chronic hives. In one study, eighteen of twenty-seven patients had a complete or near complete recovery; eight others improved. Short-term psychotherapy, behavior therapy, and relaxation have also given good results. In my own experience, a combination of psychotherapy with specific hypnotic techniques – the approach used in this book – has proved most effective.
 ICHTHYOSIS (Fish Skin Disease) In this hereditary condition, areas of the skin become dry and scaly, sometimes accompanied by severe itching. Doctors usually suggest environmental changes to keep the skin from drying out (emollient lotions, temperature and humidity control) and may prescribe steroid creams or vitamin A medications. Ichthyosis is congenital, with no indication that emotions play a role in its origin, yet hypnosis has produced striking improvements. Good hypnotic subjects enjoyed the most impressive results. One, a fifty-five year old man who imagined himself in a warm, comfortable imaginary ideal environment, achieved 45 percent improvement on parts of his body within one month despite the cold weather that typically made his symptoms worse. Where ichthyosis is widespread, therapists have successfully directed suggestions to one body part at a time. Generally, hypnosis and self-hypnosis help patients attain a more optimistic, active role in their treatment; in view the importance of life-style in moderating symptoms, this can be critical.
VITILIGO. The cause of this disorder, in which areas of the skin completely lose their normal pigmentation, is unknown, but the immune system may play a role. One case history reports striking success against vitiligo with hypnotherapy. Gajwani aw Sehgal of Goa, India, described a twenty-seven-year-old woman who had an irregularly pigmented area near the left edge of her mouth for seven years. (In India, the authors note, vitiligo carries a dire social stigma.) She lived in a strained situation with her in-laws and had an unsatisfactory relationship with her husband, whose business activities kept him from devoting much attention to her. In six sessions of hypnosis (at which she proved adept), it was suggested that her face was flushing and the white spots getting smaller. By the third session, the area had shrunk to half its original size. By the sixth, it had disappeared completely. On the doctor's advice, her husband spent more time with her, following a "prescription" for movies, picnics, and walks. At follow-up, she appeared perfectly healthy. Generally, the fact that emotions play a triggering role in one-third of vitiligo cases suggests that hypnosis and other psychological therapies may be helpful.

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