I’m a chronic blusher. Yes, it’s a real thing. It’s a phenomenon that is said to have no cure other than a controversial surgery. At age thirty-two, it’s been over fifteen years since the onset of my chronic blushing. I’d like to share my story and hope to reach other chronic blushers, parents of chronic blushers, and friends of chronic blushers. I’d like to let other chronic blushers know they are not alone. I hope to educate general society and “non blushers” on what we experience internally (and externally) on a daily basis. The most important message I want to share is that I am leading a happy, healthy life as a chronic blusher. I attribute this to my innate zest for life, my motivation to succeed and “overcome the blushing”, my supportive family and friends, and my loving husband. I’m not saying it’s easy, but I’m saying it is entirely achievable.
My struggle with facial blushing began in high school. When I say facial blushing, I don’t mean a cute pink tinge to my cheeks when I’m embarrassed. I mean an immediate reddening of my entire face (think bad sunburn appearing out of nowhere), accompanied by profuse sweating and rapid heart rate, often brought on by absolutely nothing embarrassing. It could be triggered by being called on in class, by running into someone I know at the grocery store, by speaking up during a work meeting, or by telling a story to a group of close friends.
I was always on the quiet side. Shy and introverted. A typical Pisces dreamer. I had solid friendships and enjoyed being social, but I was never the person people chose to sit next to on the bleachers. Instead, I always ended up sitting on the end of my group of friends, never quite able to hear the full conversation and always a little bit uncomfortable. Trying to think of things to say to join the conversation. Looking back I realize I likely struggled with some form of social anxiety, I just didn’t know it at the time. I was a good student and enjoyed the academic part of school. I participated in a variety of sports over my four years in high school including soccer, swim team, track, and cheer. I remember some of the first few times the blushing happened as it was both shocking and confusing. Once, a senior on the cheer team stopped in the halls to simply let me know what time she’d pick me up for our gymnastics class that evening. I said, “ok, sounds good”, as my face grew hot. She gave me a funny look and walked away. I quickly turned to the mirror in my locker and was shocked to see my face had turned bright red. I noticed I was sweating in places you shouldn’t normally sweat, like behind my knees and my butt. I could feel sweat trying to drip down my legs in my bell-bottom jeans. My heart felt like it was pounding out my chest as I tried to figure out what was going on. I ran to the bathroom to cool off. I locked myself in a stall and pulled my jeans down to cool my legs off. I wiped the sweat off the back of my knees with toilet paper and fanned my face with my hand. What was happening?
Fast forward to thousands of these episodes happening to me over the last half of my life. We’re talking redness taking over my face and making me look like a tomato, sweat pouring down my legs, and feeling like my heart was going to explode out of my chest, all within a matter of seconds. The fact that my body can have a reaction like that to something as benign as running into someone I know at the grocery store is baffling to me. I am a friendly person by nature and often want to say hello to people I know and catch up, but when my body reacts in this flight or flight way it makes it difficult for me to concentrate. It makes me want to find the nearest exit to flee. I’ll be the first to say it is shameful, embarrassing, and tirelessly frustrating.
The two areas where blushing has affected me the most are school and work. In college at the University of Arizona, I did well in large three hundred student lecture classes. I was able to pay better attention since I wasn’t on high alert waiting to be called on any second. Smaller classes were more difficult as I couldn’t escape being called on and couldn’t slide by the whole semester without volunteering to speak. I was in the honors college, was an ambassador of my major, Family Studies and Human Development, and was in a sorority. I craved being involved and actively sought it out, all the while trying to find ways to hide my blushing.
Graduate school was difficult because it was a smaller class size of only thirty-eight students. I struggled with my blushing during graduate school, as well as in my early days as an occupational therapist when I was still learning on the job. I still learn on the job every day, but my confidence as an occupational therapist has grown which likely has decreased my feelings of being on ‘high alert’, therefore leading to less instances of blushing. I sometimes find it funny that I ended up in a career that is extremely social. As an occupational therapist, I talk and interact with people all day long. Patients, nurses, doctors, social workers, families, you name it. I often wonder why I didn’t end up in a career that is less social and more isolated — something where I could work from home and hide behind a computer all day. Maybe it’s because I always knew I wanted a career that was geared towards helping others and I never wanted my blushing to hold me back. I always hoped if I continued to forge ahead my blushing would eventually disappear. I remember when I first went to the doctor regarding my blushing back in high school. She was my pediatrician who also was a family friend. She was kind, caring, and listened to my concerns. She even let me know she related to me by telling me she too used to blush while public speaking. She told me I would outgrow it and not to worry. How I wish that had been true. In fact, the opposite happened. As I got older, my blushing only worsened and became more frequent. From the initial onset in high school where I mostly only blushed a few times a month, to current day where I could blush every single day, multiple times a day if I am put in the right situations. I of course have learned to avoid certain situations that may trigger blushing and am sure it is engrained in my subconscious whether I admit it or not. What are some of the biggest situations I blush in? High on the list is the grocery store. With bright florescent lights, people everywhere, chatty checkout clerks, and the possibility of unexpectedly bumping in to an acquaintance, the opportunities for blushing seem endless. Surprisingly I don’t avoid the grocery store and actually enjoy shopping for food. A trick I’ve discovered that can help prevent a blushing episode at the grocery store by running into someone I know: if I spot the person or people first and have a minute to prepare myself, the severity of my blushing seems to be less. Maybe it has to do with gaining control over that initial fight for flight response my body has become accustomed to.
Work meetings are another high occurrence situation. I’ve worked in several settings as an occupational therapist, including skilled nursing facilities, acute care hospitals, and inpatient rehabilitation. Staff meetings at these jobs where I may be called out for any number of reasons including to report on a patient, to accept an award, or to answer a simple question are sure to cause blushing. When all eyes are on me the blush typically is unavoidable. Figures of authority at work are also a common cause, even if they’re genuinely just curious about how their rehab patient is doing or simply asking me a question. I think about why two different people can ask me the same question, for example, “how much help does Mr. X need to get out of bed?” can cause me to have two completely different reactions. Why does one, often a figure of authority such as a doctor, cause me to sweat and blush, when the other, often a peer, cause no stressful physiological response and allows me to answer the question thoughtfully and calmly? This will always puzzle me.
Believe me, I’ve spent many hours researching the cause and cures of blushing and have tried countless remedies. I ordered a cream and pills online that promised to stop the blushing, I did three sessions of hypnosis and left the office with a recording of our session which I was supposed to listen to at least once a week, I bought green tinted foundation for my face and tried breathing techniques. I cried to my mom and my sisters about how frustrating and humiliating it is. My dad, a doctor, suggested I try a beta-blocker. I was prescribed propranolol, which I still occasionally take to this day. Although it doesn’t stop the blushing, it helps control it by reducing my heart rate and blood pressure, which in turn helps control the “fight or flight” response. I now take propranolol only on an as-needed basis before a planned situation that I expect to cause a blushing episode. For example, before a job interview, before a work meeting, or, back in my single days, before a blind date. Of all my hours of research, the only true cure I’ve come across is ETS surgery, or endoscopic thoracic sympathectomy. Upon first discovering there was a surgery that could stop my blushing, I rejoiced. I thought, “Sign me up!” To my dismay, after further research I found that ETS is a controversial surgery with many negative side effects. ETS essentially destroys a part of the sympathetic nerve trunk in the thoracic region, stopping signals from the brain that may cause one to blush. The biggest side effect I’ve read about is excessively sweaty palms. The scarier side effects include inhibited autonomic nervous system response including reduced physiological response to emotions such as fear or arousal, and changes in bodily functions including heart rate. I place high value on my health and fitness and the idea of intentionally messing with those bodily functions is not worth the risk for me. I say I’d do anything in the world to stop my blushing, but in reality that’s not true.
I do often find myself wondering: what would life be like without chronic blushing? Would I be leading a different life? Would I be any happier than I am now? I like to think no. Although my chronic blushing causes me stress and contributes to my anxiety, I realize that it doesn’t define me and doesn’t make me any less of a human being. What makes me happy today? Doing things. Mostly outdoor things, and mostly solo. Surfing, running, and swimming to name a few. I also love to read, cook, and play with my dog, Cali. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that my hobbies are mostly individual ones, and not team or group based. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy a good happy hour with friends. In fact, I’ve found that I crave friend time almost as much as I crave alone time. In 2014 I followed in my dad’s footsteps and started racing in triathlons, which is a completely individual sport yet you are surrounded by people. I’ve done two Sprint distance triathlons, two Olympic distance triathlons, and two Ironman 70.3 races (otherwise known as a half Ironman). The latest triathlon I was signed up for in spring 2020 was canceled due to COVID-19, but I hope to compete in more triathlons in the future.
If you’re reading this as a non-blusher and looking for advice on how to help a loved one struggling with blushing, my biggest piece of advice is to not bring attention to the blush. Bringing attention to a blushing episode only makes it worse. It causes an increase in awareness that people are looking at you and perpetuates the physiological factors that contribute to the reddening of the skin. Do not, I’m begging you, say “look how red your face is getting!” Believe me, we know. We can feel the hotness, the pounding, and the panic building. The best thing you can do is to redirect the conversation so people’s eyes are off the blusher. This lets the blusher recover, cool down, and rejoin the conversation when they are ready. I have never outright told my friends or family this but I think they have adapted the strategy themselves without having to be told. I notice my friends are great at asking someone else a question when they see I’m turning red thus redirecting the eyes in the group to someone else. Maybe it’s because they feel uncomfortable for me or maybe it’s because they know it helps, but whatever the reason it seems to work. If you are a parent of a blusher I encourage you to talk to your child about what they are experiencing and take them to the doctor to discuss anything that may help. My parents did this with me and although nothing seemed to help, I do think having it validated as an issue is worth something. Talking to a therapist may also be beneficial as there are likely often underlying self esteem issues, low confidence issues, and/or anxiety issues that chronic blushers face.
Living with chronic blushing can be extremely isolating and it’s easy to feel like you’re the only one. I wanted to write about my experience in hopes that I will reach those suffering and to help broaden the understanding of what a chronic blusher goes through. I will probably always be in search of a cure for my blushing (other than surgery), but until then it won’t stop me from living my life to the fullest every day (of course, while carefully avoiding any situations that may cause an episode, ha, ha). It is part of who I am and has become a part of my life that I can’t seem to avoid no matter how hard I try. I sometimes think, why me? It’s not fair! I then try to think of one of my mom’s favorite quotes growing up: “life’s not fair”. Not in a negative way, but in a way that reminds me that everyone experiences his or her own struggles in life, big or small, but relative to each individual person. My struggle is chronic blushing and I have chosen to accept that. If I can use my experience to help others, then I can turn my struggles into a good cause. And isn’t that what life is all about? I’d like to think so.