Most of us are aware that stress -- particularly chronic stress -- can cause all kinds of issues with our physical, mental, and emotional health. From disrupted sleep patterns to strain on relationships and lost productivity, stress is a big problem for those who experience it. But how does stress affect pre-existing skin conditions?
Whether acute stress (which is temporary stress caused by something like a traffic jam) or chronic stress (which is ongoing, caused by issues at work or in relationships, for example), our bodies have similar reactions. When stressed, certain hormones are released in the body in response to incoming stimuli that’s perceived as threatening to safety -- even if it’s not.
When cortisol, adrenaline, and norepinephrine are released, a “fight, flight, or freeze” response happens in the body. The central nervous system gets “stuck” in one of these states for a period of time. In the case of chronic stress, too much time spent in this state can lead to long-term health issues in many areas of the body. The skin is no exception.
One of the most common skin conditions exacerbated by stress is acne. The chemical hormone cortisol causes the pores on the skin to increase their oil (or sebum) production. Sebum mixes with dirt, bacteria, sweat, and dead skin cells to clog pores, resulting in breakouts. These can take the form of blackheads or whiteheads.
Stress can also cause eczema or dermatitis flare ups. Psychological stress in particular can provoke or aggravate this skin condition because it interferes with suppressing normal immune responses. Eczema at its core is an immune system-related skin condition, so when stress hormones are released, they cause interference and result in this red or brown itchy patch on the skin.
During times of stress, we might also engage in unhelpful behaviors as coping mechanisms, which can actually add to our skin symptoms. Overworking, undersleeping, skipping exercise, forgetting to drink water, smoking cigarettes, increasing alcohol and caffeine intake, and of course forgetting to wash our faces can all contribute to worsening skin conditions.
First, it’s important to healthily manage stress levels. Work on engaging in self care practices to try to lower the levels of stress hormones being released. If you can, attempt to find the root cause of the stress (for instance, a work project or a relationship) and set some personal boundaries around it, relying on a therapist’s help if needed. Get some extra sleep, drink plenty of water, and prioritize physical exercise daily.
As far as your skin is concerned, be sure you cleanse, tone, and moisturize it, ideally twice a day, with high-quality skincare products. Wash your pillowcases in hot water every couple of days to remove excess sebum, and wear loose-fitting, gentle clothing materials like cotton rather than tight polyesters or synthetics. Try to manage the quality of your diet as well, avoiding excess caffeine and alcohol as much as possible until the stress abates.
Finally, consider seeing a dermatologist who can help prescribe acne treatment or eczema treatment if your flare ups continue or you need extra support.
If you’re in the greater New York City area and want to talk to a doctor about your stressed out skin, contact Vanguard Dermatology today. Our board-certified specialists can help.