Being under a lot of stress can affect your body in more ways than you probably realize. Stress impacts your sleep, your mood, and your skin, among many other things. So, when a sudden, increasingly stressful event occurs, it can send your skin into a fit (which, we all know causes more stress). It's a vicious cycle.
"Everyone is different, and everyone reacts differently to the various stressors that arrive in their days," said Tammy Fender, aesthetician and holistic practitioner. "So often when we are emotionally drained, or exhausted, or both, the skin shows it." Breakouts, redness, and rashes are just a few of the characteristics of stressed skin, but what causes this flare-up to occur in the first place?
What Causes Your Skin to Become "Stressed"?
First, it's important to consider the psychological component: "One of the main ways that stress affects the skin is through something called the HPA axis, the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal axis, which is basically our body's stress axis," UK-based psychodermatologist Alia Ahmed previously told POPSUGAR. "When you perceive stress, your brain recognizes it, and it kicks off a number of processes in the body, which leads to the release of chemicals and hormones, most of which drive inflammation, both in the body and also in the skin. The main chemical that's involved is something called cortisol, which is the main culprit implicated in a lot of skin conditions."
In addition to this, neurochemical signals released by the brain in response to stress can influence the immune function in the skin. What does that mean exactly? "Stress causes unbalancing of the immune system, which allows activation of inflammatory diseases, such as rosacea, acne, dermatitis, and psoriasis, which reduce your ability to fight off viral, bacterial, yeast, fungal, and parasite infections," said Carl Thornfeldt, dermatologist and CEO and founder of Episciences, Inc.
In addition to inflammatory diseases, stress also impacts oil and sweat production (hello, acne), as well as an increased sensitivity of the nerves, which can result in itchiness, burning, prickly, or pain sensations. "Stress can contribute to a change in the hormonal balance, which can trigger irritation and the eruption of redness, or even a rash," said Fender.
How Stress Manifests On Skin Over Time
Everyone experiences and internalizes stress differently, so it makes sense that stress will affect people's skin in different ways, too. One of the first things to look at is whether you are experiencing short-term or long-term stress, as this can affect whether a skin condition becomes chronic.
Short-term stresses, such as knowing you've got an important presentation coming up, can cause temporary problems on the face and body, including being hot, sweaty, flushed, blotchy, and itchy, said Dr. Ahmed. However, if you're experiencing long-term stress, the axis in your brain becomes activated and is activated all of the time. Even during times when you're not stressed, your body processes it as a stressful environment; so when it comes to your skin, it's not uncommon for someone to experience persistent dryness and itchiness.
Long-term periods of stress is also when existing skin conditions like eczema, psoriasis, and rosacea tends to become aggravated. It can also make you more sensitive to fragrance or certain ingredients where you wouldn't have been before. "We don't sometimes know exactly why this happens, but it has a lot to do with the skin barrier," as well as your immune response and inflammation caused by the HPA axis, said Dr. Ahmed. "We know that people with psoriasis and eczema who have a high level of stress, their skin disease tends to be more severe."
How to Soothe Stressed Skin From the Inside-Out
In an ideal world, we would be able to snap our fingers and remove the external stress from our lives, but unfortunately that's not possible. Instead, it's all about making small changes to combat stress. "As a holistic practitioner, my approach is to treat stressed skin as a physical, emotional, and spiritual condition," said Fender. That's where practicing self-care and taking care of your body comes in. "This can mean switching to plant-based skin care, getting better rest, eating more organic raw fruits and vegetables, and exercising."
At Dr. Ahmed's practice, before prescribing any type of treatment, she asks patients if their skin condition, such as eczema or psoriasis, gets worse with stress (keeping a symptom diary can help with determining this). Then, she works with them to figure out what those triggers are. Once that stress link as been made, looking deeper into the sources of the stress, whether that's relationship issues, low self-esteem, anxiety, depression, or lack of body confidence, for example, is important.
"Many of these things make people feel stressed, because they're emotionally distressed, therefore their body perceives that as stress," Dr. Ahmed said. She noted that for some people, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) helps them hugely with turning negative thoughts into positive ones, which can be extremely helpful to prevent a flare-up during or prior to a stressful situation.
From a skin-specific approach, to reduce inflammation you need to repair the skin barrier. That's where best skin-care practices come in. If your skin is inflamed, take a look at the products you're using on it. "Avoid harsh ingredients and products, but focus on gently repairing the skin barrier and calming inflammation," said Dr. Thornfeldt, who recommended the Epionce Enriched Firming Mask for its calming and soothing properties. Look for products that contain calming ingredients like aloe vera, calendula, chamomile, colloidal oats, centella asiatica.
"If there is any concern, see a dermatologist," said Dr. Thornfeldt. A skin consultation can help your doctor develop a routine or solution that works for you.
— Additional reporting by Tori Crowther