Thick scaly scabs, oozing pus, and extreme ageing – writer Viola Levy investigates what the subconscious is trying to tell us
The other night I dreamt my skin was encrusted in thick scaly scabs. Not the normal kind, more like the ‘greyscale’ that plagued Jorah Mormont in Game of Thrones. In the dream, I picked away at them and dark pigmentation marks appeared underneath, permanent. “No amount of SkinCeuticals Retinol 1.0% was going to shift that lot,” my dream-self thought (which made me realise I’ve been writing about beauty for far too long). In real life, I’ve recently broken out in mild rosacea since hitting my 30s and while I’ve been looking into ways to deal with it (the above retinol and Willowberry Nutrient Boost Day Cream are topping the charts so far), the fear of it getting worse could have possibly seeped into my subconscious, hence the dream.
We often describe bad skin as annoying, pesky, and a nuisance but few people fail to mention how it can haunt our dreams. There’s something revolting about things that affect and infect our skin, on a level of intimacy that’s spine-chilling – bringing about sudden drastic transformation and the feelings of repulsion that come with it, kind of like when Jeff Goldblum slowly morphs into a grotesque insect in The Fly. Or the weird, mutant “baby” in David Lynch’s freaky film Eraserhead gets sick and tiny gruesome nodules appear over its screaming face.
Turns out I’m not alone in my nightly epidermal horror show. Katie experienced the same recurring dream about her skin throughout her teens, when she was dealing with breakouts at the time. “I would be viewing my own face, but it would look more like a mask, a floating head on a black background. The face would scrunch up really small and be super old looking and wrinkly, and then it would stretch out and be super smooth and perfect. It would just do that over and over again, kind of like a face version of an accordion. It was pretty horrific actually!”
A quick search on Quora and Reddit brings up other stories. One user wrote, “In my dreams my severe acne comes back when I look at my reflection, what does this mean?” Another commented: “I had a dream that I was looking in a mirror, examining a patch of skin on my forehead that in the real world I have been having a break out. When I stepped back from the mirror, I realised that in my reflection I had a huge, pitted rash down both sides of my face, the longer I looked, the more parts of my body seemed to have this horrible rash.”
A lot of us hold a morbid fascination with things that affect the skin, probably more so than any other body part – perhaps because it’s so immediate and insidious, not least because the skin itself is a fascinatingly complex organ. I remember as a teen being transfixed by its ability to produce these tiny yellow globe-like pustules on my nose and chin. When my younger sister was a teenager, she developed a crater of a blackhead on her nose and I (being the nice older sibling that I was) offered to squeeze it for her, transfixed by the crumpled mess that emerged from that tiny black dot.
In fact, it’s becoming extremely common to be curious about what happens ‘under the skin’ and why videos like Dr Pimple Popper’s are essentially slasher films for the 21st century – you want to look away but stay transfixed. We all cringed in season seven of Game of Thrones at when Samwell Tarly attempts to treat Jorah’s aforementioned greyscale and proceeds to pick it off his body with a scalpel (props to the GoT sound effects team for ramping up the ick factor). So, it’s no wonder ghoulish skin can manifest itself in anxiety dreams, being up there with being unwittingly naked in front of our colleagues or having our teeth fall out.
“I would be viewing my own face, but it would look more like a mask, a floating head on a black background. The face would scrunch up really small and be super old looking and wrinkly, and then it would stretch out and be super smooth and perfect. It would just do that over and over again, kind of like a face version of an accordion. It was pretty horrific actually!” – Katie
Even people who deal with skin conditions on a daily basis aren’t immune to them. Take it from cosmetic doctor Sophie Shotter who runs the Illuminate Skin Clinic. “I had a weird one where I was basically draining abscesses on my skin, it happened not long after I had to treat an abscess at work. I was squeezing pus out of bits of myself. I was a bit grossed out, even though I do this a lot in my day job. It did make me wake up but I wasn’t panicked,” she says.
There are various interpretations and meanings attributed to skin online. Sigmund Freud thought dreams were just aspects of ourselves we didn’t want to consciously acknowledge, e.g. forbidden desires, unwanted feelings of vulnerability, which the contents of our dream are symbols of. “The dream is the (disguised) fulfilment of a (suppressed, repressed) wish,” he wrote in The Interpretation of Dreams.
With this in mind, it makes our skin dreams all the more interesting. “The skin is the body’s boundary,” notes Dr Shotter. “And from the reading I’ve done about dreams, people who dream about skin a lot of the time could have issues concerning their own boundaries – whether physical, emotional or otherwise,” she says. “It all depends whether you take dreams literally or think they have hidden meanings. There are so many possibilities for what things might mean if it’s a dream interpretation. Was my abscess dream solely caused by the real-life abscess I was treating that day, or me needing to get rid of something toxic from my life?”
With others, the link with waking reality can be more literal, as in chef Priscilla Casey’s case whose less than positive experiences with her skin have spilled over into her dreaming life. “This dream has haunted me numerous times where my face becomes increasingly hot to the point of extreme discomfort,” she explains. “It recurs when I have a big event coming up, as I actually battle with atopic dermatitis and rosacea - both of which I have had since childhood.”
Last year, the British Skin Foundation reported that nine in ten dermatologists agree that not enough importance is placed on the psychological effects resulting from skin conditions. So, are skin anxiety dreams like Priscilla’s anything to worry about? According to professor of clinical psychology and British Skin Foundation spokesperson Andrew Thompson, they’re not an immediate cause for concern.
“I wouldn’t worry about the fact you are dreaming, but if you are constantly waking up in the middle of the night and remembering what those dreams were about, then it could be linked to a more serious mental health issue,” he says. “Given 10 per cent of people with skin conditions have significant levels of anxiety and depression, it’s not unusual. If a patient came to me with this kind of scenario, I wouldn’t ask about the content of the dream and try to interpret the meaning of it. I’m more interested in the individual interpretation of the dream, i.e. what does it mean to you?”
“Given 10 per cent of people with skin conditions have significant levels of anxiety and depression, it’s not unusual. I’m more interested in the individual interpretation of the dream, i.e. what does it mean to you?” – Andrew Thompson, professor of clinical pyschology and British Skin Foundation spokesperson
He advises to seek help if your dreams – and related skin conditions – are actually affecting the quality of sleep you’re getting. “Sleep can be due to skin specific issues such as pain, itch, discomfort, and/or any related low or anxious moods,” he says. “It’s likely that longstanding sleep disturbance will negatively affect your health so it’s worth going to see someone for advice if there are persistent problems with any aspect of sleep.”
“Bedtime relaxation rituals can be really useful in this regard,” he continues. “It doesn’t have to be anything drastic, just having a bath allowing time if you have a skin condition that involves using bath emollients, doing something that’s going to take you away from the stresses of the day and the stresses of your skin.”
While I wouldn’t say my dreams are linked to any serious anxiety condition, I’m definitely going to be more wary if Jorah’s greyscale comes back to haunt me. But in the meantime I might just skip my ritual of tidying the skincare products on my bathroom shelf just before I go to bed, lest they come back to haunt me Freddie Kruger-style once I close my eyes… Pleasant dreams everyone!