What is it with the superhuman control an itch has over the mind and body? Sometimes, scratching seems like a relief worth risking it all for, especially if you have a health condition that makes you itch a lot: Eczema affects 31 million people in the US every year, and dry, itchy skin is by far the most common symptom. It can lead to trouble sleeping, worse mental health, and other disruptive and difficult things that can drain your well-being.
But scratching is really not the answer: The brief, feel-good release that happens when you give in makes the itch worse. According to research conducted at the Center for the Study of Itch at the Washington University in St. Louis School of Medicine, scratching an itch might make it bother you more in the long-term—because your brain releases serotonin, a chemical that plays a role in your body’s “itch signals,” when you go at your skin, making you just want to do it again and again.1 (That research was conducted in rats, so it’s not totally conclusive. But another very small study found that humans feel varying degrees of pleasure when they scratch itches—no surprise there.2) That’s bad news not only because it’s annoying and uncomfortable to be itchy all the time, but also because further irritating eczema-prone skin can lead to hellish consequences, like more severe inflammation and skin infections, the Mayo Clinic notes. It’s a vicious cycle.
So what can actually help you build an eczema-friendly approach to itching? The best way is through tried-and-true treatments, like over-the-counter or prescription-strength corticosteroid creams and other medications to help minimize your flare-ups. (Talk to a dermatologist as your first line of defense!)
Lots of different strategies can help you feel better (or, at least, not worse) in the long run—but mindset is key. Here, experts offer their best tips for outsmarting the impulse.
How to deal with the urge to scratch an itch
While you can absolutely slap on a pair of gloves or sit on your hands if those things stop you from putting nails to skin, changing how you respond mentally is another key to success, Sasha Heinz, PhD, a developmental psychologist based in Pittsburgh, tells SELF. “You can think of an urge [to scratch] like a ringing phone. You want to pick it up—you feel compelled to pick it up—but if you let it keep ringing, it will eventually stop. You want to think about it less as ‘fighting’ an urge, but more as ‘not answering the call’ of the urge,” Dr. Heinz says. That mindset acknowledges that the itch might keep happening—but it’s less about defeating it, and more about being able to live with it2.