Ugh, stress! For most of us, stress means anxiety, exhaustion, muscle tension, and so much more! We’re all familiar with the mental health effects of stress, but you may be less familiar with the physical impact your body’s stress response can take on your appearance. Today, there’s a new field of study called psychodermatology which examines the impact of our emotions, including those associated with stress, on our skin! We took a close look into some of the visible ways stress can take a toll on our skin and how to avoid them.
Ever heard that stress causes pimples? It’s not a myth! During times of stress, the body’s level of the stress hormone cortisol goes way up. Cortisol triggers our skin to produce more oil and oilier skin often unfortunately leads to more of the pimples and acne that we hoped to leave behind in our teens. Restless hands that carry oils and touch or pick at acne only exacerbate the problem.
Dry, Damaged Skin
In addition to creating new pimples, stress can also have a detrimental effect on our skin’s moisture barrier. Damage to this barrier makes our skin less able to retain moisture, leading to dryer skin that looks duller and more aged. In addition, damage to the moisture barrier reduces skin’s ability to repair itself following injury.
Itchy and Inflamed
The release of stress hormones throughout our bodies also triggers the release of histamines. Histamines are organic nitrogen compounds that can set off the body’s inflammatory response. As a result, when your body feels stressed, histamines trigger skin itchiness and inflammation. In combination with the acne breakouts, skin damage, and dryness also caused by stress, skin becomes irritated, dull, and flaky. Worst of all, all of these effects together can lead to premature wrinkling of the skin in the long-term.
Most of us associate hair loss with men of a certain age. However, under intense stress, even women can begin to lose hair. In fact, female hair loss during high-stress, life-changing events (think childbirth or major surgery) isn’t unusual. During these high stress times, the body may reallocate its energy and resources from growing hair to focusing on the repair and protection of the body elsewhere. For some women, the habit of hair pulling can also result from stress and lead to significant hair loss. That being said, stress is only one of several causes of female hair loss. It is always a smart idea to check with your doctor for other underlying medical causes!
Bite your nails when you’re nervous? You’re not alone. Biting or picking at nails is a common habit for those under physical and emotional stress. The result is often damaged, messy nails. Worse, the small cuts that often result around the cuticles can get infected, compounding your nail problems. High physical and emotional stress can also result in white horizontal lines across the nails or brittle, ridged, or peeling nails.
How to fight it
Acne, dry itchy skin, hair loss, peeling nails: the threats of stress to your physical appearance are enough to raise your stress level even more! Not to worry, though. Take a deep breath – it doesn’t have to be like this. Try out these stress fighters for improved mental health and the healthy skin, hair, and nails to go with it.
- Identify your stress habits
Find yourself picking at your skin, biting your nails, or pulling your hair during high stress periods? Knowing is half the battle! When you’re stressed, pay close attention to your hands and give them another occupation (e.g. writing, knitting, or just holding an object) so they can’t do as much damage to your skin. If you’re a nail biter, try getting an expensive manicure – you’ll have a much greater incentive to avoid ruining your lovely (and pricey) polish!
- Take extra care of your skin during stressful times
When you’re under stress, take an extra 15 minutes each day to clean, calm, and pamper your skin. Not only is this likely to relax you, but it will help to fight the oil and dirt that clog pores and lead to breakouts.
- Eat and drink for relief
For many of us, stress eating leads us to attack the high-calorie, high-fat processed foods in our pantry. If you know you’re a stress-eater, stock your fridge with healthy, tasty treats like berries, carrots, and oranges that will be good for your skin and your body when hunger or snack cravings strike. Drink extra water during stressful times as well to keep your body (and skin) well hydrated and operating at its peak.
- Enjoy a favorite de-stressing pastime
Even if a stressful time in your life has you on-the-go constantly, you should be setting aside small blocks of time for your own mental health. Take a hot bath, call a friend to chat, take a walk through town, or even just listen to your favorite relaxing tunes in the car. A small amount of “me time” can go a long way to a happier (and healthier) body, both inside and out!
- Think positive
In the cycle of stress, it’s often our own minds that are making our bodies go haywire. By magnifying the challenges ahead and obsessing over the potential consequences, we can raise our own stress levels from within. When you’re feeling the tension, take a minute to try to frame the situation in a more positive light and list out the positives that have happened already. Things usually aren’t as bad as they seem! Putting a positive, optimistic spin on the situation can help you to control your stress response (thereby protecting your skin) and function better under the circumstances.