This Is How Stress Affects Your Skin

By Nisa Z.
July 14, 2021

Here’s a stress test for you: rate your stress level from 1 to Britney Spears in 2007. 

Since the start of the pandemic last year, my stress levels fluctuate from a manageable 5 to teetering close to a Ms Spears’ meltdown on a regular basis. Uncertainty mixed with anxiety is a ticking stress bomb. And my eczema-prone skin is a victim of all this stress.

It’s ok and normal to feel stress. It helps us with our daily life like a much-needed boost of energy for a last minute pitch.

But what happens when it gets too much? That pimple that appeared the day before an interview. Or a sudden itch after receiving an urgent email.

It’s not just in your head. All that stress is taking a toll on your skin. We take a look at what your body is trying to tell you.

How does stress affect the skin?

Stress can be due to external stressors, like UV rays and pollution. Or it can be caused psychologically like anxiety, feeling overworked and depression.

The skin can immediately respond to stress, actual or perceived. And the side-effect of stress is noticeable on the skin. You may have already experienced it. Whenever you feel nervous and start sweating, your skin is helping to bring into balance the external environment and internal tissues.

This is because of the brain-skin connection.

Stress triggers the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis; three glands that’s involved in the body's response to stress.

The hypothalamus and pituitary gland in the brain recognizes the stress and releases stress signals like peptides into the bloodstream. The adrenal gland, a triangle-shaped organ above the kidney, then picks up on these signals.

It produces stress-regulating hormones such as:

(i) Cortisol

  • The main stress hormone that acts like your body’s in-built alarm system
  • Has many functions for example managing inflammation, regulating blood pressure, control sleep/wake cycle and boosting energy to handle stress

(ii) Catecholamines (Pronounced kat-uh-ko-la-meenz)

  • Responsible for the body’s flight-or-fight response
  • Main types of catecholamines are adrenaline, noradrenaline and dopamine
  • Also produced in the brain and nerve tissues
  • Under stress, it increases blood flow to the muscles, heart and lungs. And increases the heart rate and blood pressure.

This stress-regulating response stimulates pro-inflammatory skin cells, like mast cells and directs immune cells from the bloodstream into the skin. From there, the physical effects of stress are noticed. 

What are signs of stressed out skin?

Stress wreaks havoc on the skin. Here are some signs of what that looks like:

  • More sebum (oil) is produced, causing a greasy look and causing acne
  • Worsened flare-up of underlying skin conditions such as eczema, psoriasis, and rosacea
  • Disrupted skin barrier functions so skin appears dry, flaky and has low resistance to infections
  • Increased itching sensation
  • Wound may take longer to heal
  • Easily sensitized skin that appears as rashes or hives

You may have also developed certain habits that contribute to stressed out skin. For example, touching the face when you are nervous transfers more bacteria to the face, worsening acne.

Does stress make you age faster?

The link between stress and aging is complex and not fully understood.

One major external stressor, UV rays, is a main contributor of premature skin aging. UV rays are a major stimulant of the skin’s HPA axis. Since you can’t avoid the sun completely, constant activation of the HPA axis has damaging effects on the skin.

Stress can lead to higher transepidermal water loss, lower water retention and poor barrier function. The skin’s ability to renew itself slows down and slight wrinkle formation occurs. How this happens exactly is still unclear, but lower ceramides and natural moisturizing factors were observed.

Poor sleep quality not only worsens stress. It also accelerates signs of ageing like fine lines, uneven pigmentation and reduced elasticity. Poor sleepers also recover much slower after skin barrier disruption.

A long-held belief is that stress causes grey hair. A recent study not only quantitatively linked psychological stress to greying hair, it also showed that the greying was reversible for some people. Another reason to take that vacation.

What are long-term effects of stress on the skin?

Long-term stress has adverse effects on the body.

The body copes with constant stress through a process called habituation. Over time, habituation creates long-term changes to the HPA axis activity.

This can compromise the immune system, increase susceptibility to infections and worsen some allergic and inflammatory diseases.

 5 ways to manage your stress levels

We now know stress and the skin create a non-stop feedback loop.

When you’re stressed, your skin is affected. And when your skin is affected, you stress out even more!

Here are 5 easy ways to manage your stress levels.

  • Practice deep breathing
    When you’re feeling anxious, your heart beats faster and your breathing quickens and shallows. Immediately counteract this with a simple breathing technique.

    Breathe deeply into your belly. Feel your belly rise and hold for 3 seconds. Exhale slowly. Continue until your whole body feels relaxed.
  • Get moving
    Exercise releases endorphins, that feel-good hormone and natural painkiller. It also reduces the levels of cortisol and adrenaline. Even doing gentle activity like stretching or a quick walk around the block can help your body cope with stress better.
  • Incorporate meditation into your daily routine
    Contrary to popular belief, meditation is not about emptying the mind. Meditation coach Kassy Gilkie says, “Absolutely anyone can start meditating right now, today - all it takes is one minute!”

    Sitting quietly in meditation gives the body a break from anxiety-causing activities like emails and social media. Deep breathing during meditation also encourages full oxygen exchange. 
  • Eat nutritionally-dense food
    Stressed is dessert spelled backwards. It’s easy to reach for a bar of chocolate when you’re feeling depressed.

    But when your body’s defences are down from all that stress, support it’s repairing and regenerative abilities instead. Indulge in nutritionally-dense foods like fruits, vegetables and healthy fats found in salmon and nuts.
  • Self-care is the best care
    When everything feels like it’s too much, just keep it simple. Do what makes you feel good. Take some time for yourself, even if it’s for a few minutes. Run a warm bath or do a face massage. And let those worries melt away.

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