We’ve all had our share of bad skin caused by stress in the form of breakouts, rash, or itching. So we’re not oblivious to the fact that stress affects your skin and it’s bad for your overall health. And we think that’s the end of it. The bad news is that it’s not. The possible good news is that you can reverse engineer the process.
Given that “stressed” is currently pretty much the default mood for everyone these days, I think you might be interested in the implications of long-term stress for your skin and its health. Hopefully, you’ll gain perspective, and a new outlook on stress, which will make it easier for you to do something about it.
When you think of skin, unless you’re a field expert or a dermatologist, you always think of it in the context of facial skin. And you think of it as something facing outward and having to do with external things.
We’re more focused on what happens on the visible side of it. We use SPF to block UV rays. And we exfoliate to improve skin texture. We also moisturize and keep it soft and plump. But we’re barely interested in what happens beneath the skin; the part that we don’t see.
When you take a closer look, your skin is your largest organ. It’s the first responder to any sensory stimulant. What happens to it is delivered to the brain through a bunch of nerves. On the flip side, what happens inside the brain also shows on the skin.
What Happens When You’re Stressed
Psychological stress is defined as an emotional strain that a person perceives to be exceeding his/her abilities. So it’s not a tangible thing. But what it does in your body is. And several mechanisms are involved in the process.
Stress activates the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. Simply put, it refers to the interaction between your brain and your kidneys. This axis is your body’s main stress response (1).
Stress causes the release of several hormones such as cortisol. These hormones help your body adapt to this new strain and make several things like energy and strength readily available to cope with it. When you’re stressed, stress hormones are circulating in your system. So far so good.
Acute Stress vs Chronic Stress
It’s important to note that acute (short-term) stress and chronic (long-term) stress have significant differences in the way they affect your skin.
Short-term psychological stress gives you a boost, so to speak, to prepare you physically and mentally to fight whatever it is you need to fight to maintain your physical and mental stability. It has a stimulatory effect and it’s actually beneficial.
Long-term psychological stress, however, has the opposite effect. Long-term stress exhausts the immune cells and causes them to overwork. As a result, they can’t be stimulated enough to get the proper response (2).
To paint a better picture, here’s an example of short-term and long-term physical stress, which works similarly to psychological stress. Sun exposure is physical stress to your skin.
Unprotected sun exposure under optimal conditions for no more than 5-10 minutes is actually great for your health. It’s enough to get some vitamin D and some endorphin going in your system (3).
But long term sun exposure has the opposite effect. It depletes your skin’s antioxidant levels, sabotages your immune response, ages your skin, and damages your health on so many levels.
So there is a huge difference between short-term and long-term. It’s the same process with psychological stress. One is beneficial and the other one is detrimental. The latter is what’s affecting your skin.
How Does Stress Affect Your Skin?
1. Stress suppresses your skin’s immune system.
It negatively affects how your skin responds to inflammation. Your skin can’t properly recover from infections or it’s really slow at it. Think slow wound repair, stubborn acne that takes forever to heal.
A suppressed immune system also exacerbates existing skin conditions like eczema, rosacea, and even acne. So stress takes what is bad and makes it even worse.
2. It damages the skin barrier.
We all know the importance of a healthy skin barrier. When it’s intact, your skin is healthy, has enough water to carry nutrients, and is resistant to bacteria and inflammation.
When the skin barrier is damaged, your skin gets dry, sensitive, and becomes significantly more prone to transepidermal water loss. A compromised skin barrier will cause itchy skin, facial redness, rosacea flares, and susceptibility to inflammation.
Apparently, stress damages your skin barrier as well. Here’s how. Keratins are proteins that are located at the outermost layer of the skin. And they’re crucial to your skin’s protective barrier.
High cortisol levels cause low levels of two important keratin proteins called KRT10 and KRT1. Apparently, these play an important role in maintaining skin integrity and permeability (4).
3. It causes acne.
Not surprisingly, stress is also responsible for causing acne as well as making it worse. Stress hormones cause excess oil production on the skin. And if you have oily skin, you know that excess oil is a breeding ground for acne-causing bacteria.
Combine excess oil with a suppressed immune system, your skin is more prone to the formation of acne and lingering pimples.
4. It ages you.
These are things science clearly indicates how things go regarding stress and anxiety. But there are other things you can infer. All of the above make your skin prone to free radical damage.
Healthy skin barrier, healthy immune response -these are crucial to protect the skin against oxidative stress. When the skin’s not healthy and not protected properly, it’s more prone to wrinkle-causing elements.
Plus, stress literally makes you frown and worsens existing wrinkles. They become entrenched and more prominent. Stress ages you in the most obvious way!
How to Prevent Stress From Affecting Your Skin
This is easier said than done. Stress is so subjective. So are the ways you cope with it. But at this point, you should have a more clear picture of what goes on behind the scenes and the sad story of that acne that’s sitting on your forehead way longer than it should’ve.
1. Listen to your body.
We have been talking about psychological stress and how it affects your skin. Something so unobservable has so many observable effects on your health.
With all the enzymes, the receptors, and the hormones, how we feel is simply dominated by our biology. Keep this in mind and learn to listen to your body. Know that every time you’re stressed, there’ll be consequences.
2. Focus on short-term gains.
Sadly, it’s easier to maintain long-term stress than long-term happiness. So start with the easy part and focus on short-term happiness. Focus on very little things that can make you happy right now.
If stress hormones are the problem, find ways to boost hormones that counteract them. Make yourself some coffee, or buy something nice for yourself, or do something nice for someone else.
3. Skincare as self-care.
The connection between your skin and your brain is clear. If your brain can affect your skin, can your skin affect your brain as well? Well, this is what started the whole “skincare is self-care” movement. Skincare has become a way of taking care of yourself, managing your anxiety, and feeling better about yourself.
Skincare is not an excuse to indulge in expensive skincare products and waste money. The idea is pretty simple. During your routine, you physically care for yourself, express self-love, and boost confidence. Not surprisingly, you reduce stress and boost happiness hormones like dopamine and serotonin.
4. Fake it.
I want you to get your cell phone and open the front camera. Press record and start laughing. This is a fake laugh. And in about 10 seconds, it’ll become real. This is simple manipulation. But it works. Because your brain is not wired to hold two conflicting ideas at the same time.
You literally see yourself laughing and start to believe that you’re happy. Your brain cannot unsee the fact that you’re laughing so it starts to adopt this new mood. Take it as a jumping-off point. Try to stop being so stressed all the time and fake happiness. Happiness looks like wide eyes, a big smile, and a nice posture. Do these! Beat your brain at its own game.
Long-term stress will take a toll on your health. Unless you do something about it, you’re rowing against the current with that serum to tackle stress-induced acne. Eating healthy, exercising, having hobbies, and finding your passion are all elements of a stress-free life. Focus on each of these things until you develop a healthy coping mechanism.
So this is how stress affects your skin and things you can do to avoid it. The topic is so broad that it involves an array of medical fields including neurology, dermatology, psychodermatolgoy, and endocrinology. I’m not an expert. But below are the sources for these articles you can check out for further reading.
- Slominski A. (2007). A nervous breakdown in the skin: stress and the epidermal barrier. The Journal of clinical investigation, 117(11), 3166–3169. https://doi.org/10.1172/JCI33508
- Dunn, J. H, & Koo, J. (2013). Psychological Stress and skin aging: A review of possible mechanisms and potential therapies. Dermatology Online Journal, 19(6). Retrieved from https://escholarship.org/uc/item/3j0766hs
- Benefits of Moderate Sun Exposure (2017). Harvard Health Publishing
- Choe, S. J., Kim, D., Kim, E. J., Ahn, J. S., Choi, E. J., Son, E. D., Lee, T. R., & Choi, E. H. (2018). Psychological Stress Deteriorates Skin Barrier Function by Activating 11β-Hydroxysteroid Dehydrogenase 1 and the HPA Axis. Scientific reports, 8(1), 6334. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-018-24653-z
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