Stress is a fact of modern life, and it seems to be on the rise. In fact, a study by the American Psychological Association found that from August 2016 to January 2017, Americans’ overall stress level increased for the first time in 10 years.1
And all that stress can have a major effect on the body. For example, have you ever felt like your skin looks a little worse during times of stress? Well, it’s not just your imagination. Stress does indeed have a profound effect on the skin, and this can manifest in a variety of ways. Your skin may break out, become dry and irritated, or you may just feel like you suddenly “look older.”
Now, it may seem odd for stress to show itself so clearly on the skin, but body systems and organs are quite intricately intertwined. And once a “stress response” is set in motion, it’s bound to have a ripple effect that eventually shows up in the skin.
Here’s how it all works…
Stress Hormones and Your Immune System
The human body has systems set up to help protect it from potential harm. When your brain interprets an event as being “stressful,” it sends a series of distress signals to the rest of your body. This is known as the “fight or flight” response.
This signaling triggers the release of stress hormones like norepinephrine, epinephrine, and cortisol. These stress hormones enable your body to react quickly and efficiently to protect you from potential danger. Likewise, stress hormones also activate the cells of your immune system, readying it to fend off any potential illness or pathogen invasion.2
These stress hormones are good and have helped humans to survive illness and environmental threats for thousands of years. Cortisol, for example, usually works to inhibit inflammation and control the immune response.
However, ongoing stress can make the stress response backfire, as stress hormones become chronically elevated.
This increase in stress hormones can make them less effective, and it can chronically activate your immune system. This can lead to increased skin irritation and sensitivity.3
So what does this mean for your skin? A few things. For starters, you might be more likely to develop something called a “stress rash.” A stress rash is made up of red raised bumps. These red bumps can show up anywhere, but they appear most often on the stomach, back, arms, or face.
Experts postulate that stress rashes are triggered by a release of histamine, a chemical released by the body in response to a heightened immune response.4 Usually, histamine is released when the body is exposed to something that can be physically damaging, including stress.
And if your body is in an ongoing state of heightened immune response, it can begin to exacerbate skin conditions like dryness, redness, and sensitivity. This is especially true if you are already prone to such skin conditions.5
Ever found yourself looking in the mirror during a particularly stressful season and feeling like you aged several years overnight? Part of that can be due to perception. But part of that feeling can also be based in fact.
You see, stress actually affects your DNA – which affects the way you age.
A quick refresher on DNA: These molecules are basically an “instruction book” for your body, directing it how to grow, develop, and function. And each person’s DNA is unique and specific to him or her. Your DNA is what makes you you.
At the end of each strand of DNA are protective casings called “telomeres.” These protective casings help protect the genetic information encoded in each DNA strand. Now, every time a cell divides, it loses some of its telomeres. And chronic stress, as well as elevated stress hormones, can diminish your body’s ability to replenish these telomeres. This, in turn, can lead to cell death or cell irritation – which can set the aging process in motion.6 In other words, exposure to chronic stress can alter your DNA and accelerate the aging process.
Feel like you’re aging “all of a sudden?” It may be that stress is quite literally affecting your DNA.
We all know how sleep can suffer during times of stress. And sleeplessness doesn’t just make you feel tired the next day – it actually impacts your health, including the health of your skin.
You see, a lack of sleep is detrimental to your “skin barrier function.” The skin barrier function involves the outermost layer of your skin, also known as the stratum corneum. This strong outer layer does two things:
- It prevents water loss from the skin.
- It blocks pathogens and environmental pollutants from disrupting the rest of your skin.
When this barrier function is damaged, your skin can lose water – and foreign invaders can more easily penetrate the stratum corneum. The result? Redness, dryness, and irritation.
And studies have shown that sleep deprivation is directly associated with impaired skin barrier function.7 So if you find yourself tossing and turning at night, don’t be surprised if it shows up on your skin the next day.
Ever find yourself reaching for a pint of ice cream to take the edge off a rough day?
When nerves are frayed, it isn’t uncommon for people to overindulge, or even engage in behaviors they otherwise avoid. But unhealthy coping strategies can make skin problems worse.
Unhealthy snacking: Sugar, fried foods, and even dairy can contribute to breakouts, accelerated skin-aging, and redness and irritation.8
Drinking: Heavy alcohol consumption is correlated with poor skin condition and irritation.9
Smoking: Smoking speeds up skin aging, and it can also make acne and skin irritation worse.10,11,12
Practicing Skin Mindfulness
The key to getting a handle on your skin condition is getting a handle on psychological stress. Here are a few steps you can take to lower your stress levels:
- Practice meditation
- Get regular exercise
- Talk to a therapist or trusted friend
- Eat a healthy, well-balanced diet
And if your skin is showing signs of stress, remember to treat it with extra care. Using products with ingredients like aloe can help soothe stressed, irritated skin.13
For Healthy Skin, Curb Stress
Your skin is intricately connected to your stress level – reacting to hormones, DNA changes, sleeplessness, and your very own coping strategies. But managing stress can do a lot to bring you a peaceful mind and peaceful skin.