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Stressed Out Skin: The Link Between Stress and Skin Health

It’s no secret that life is challenging. From everyday pressures like work or school to unpredictable events like pandemics or the loss of a loved one, we experience a broad range of stressors throughout the course of our lives. Events like this can lead to psychological distress and also manifest in your skin, triggering or worsening a wide range of conditions.

Here's the low-down on high stress and how it may be affecting your skin's health.

Stress and Skin: The Connection

The human body is designed to fight against perceived threats. For example, our immune system plays a crucial role in keeping us healthy and protecting us from viruses. However, sometimes our bodies overreact to “threats” that are harmless. Unfortunately, this overreaction can occur with stress, resulting in unwanted skin changes.

When the mind or body become distressed (by a real or unreal threat), our brain secretes hormones that induce the release of cortisol, a stress hormone, from our adrenal glands. Our skin has receptors for this stress hormone, and their activation results in various changes to our skin, such as:

  • Increased inflammation

  • Impaired wound healing

  • More oil and sebum production

  • Impaired resistance to infection

Skin Conditions That Can Worsen with Stress

Due to increased inflammation and the skin changes mentioned above, skin conditions can flare with stress, such as:

  • Acne

  • Hair loss (Alopecia areata)

  • Hair thinning (Androgenetic Alopecia or Telogen Effluvium)

  • Eczema (Atopic dermatitis)

  • Psoriasis

  • Rosacea

  • Scalp rash (Seborrheic dermatitis)

  • Hives

Stress-Induced Behaviors and Skin Problems

Not only can stress cause changes in our brain and body chemistry that result in skin changes, but our behavioral response (conscious or subconscious) also likely contributes. For example, some people touch their face when they are nervous, introducing whatever is on their hands to their face, and cause worsening acne.

Also, we tend to stray away from our healthy habits when under tremendous stress. We may spend less time taking care of ourselves by sleeping less, eating unhealthy diets, skipping exercise, and not washing our faces regularly. All these behaviors can negatively impact our skin.

Tips to help reduce stress and improve skin health

Remember that it’s OK to be stressed—it’s a normal response, and accepting it is the first step to decreasing stress levels.

  1. Take care of yourself: Drink plenty of water, eat a healthy diet, exercise regularly, sleep in a dark room, remove bright screens an hour before bed, and wake up at the same time each day.

  2. Practice relaxation techniques: Slow breathing, meditation, and yoga are exercises that can reduce anxiety and stress.

  3. Be aware of nervous habits: If you touch your face during times of stress, it can trigger skin problems.

  4. Keep in contact: Don’t forget about your social life during times of stress. Make plans with your loved ones and friends.

  5. Seek professional help: Behavioral therapists are trained to equip you with evidence-based strategies to help cope with stress.

  6. Continue taking care of your skin: Use sunscreen whenever you go outside, moisturize often—especially during the winter—and, most importantly, continue to see your dermatologist.