Anxiety is a v. important survival mechanism, but like tequila shots and displays of affection, it has a time and a place. A racing heartbeat, dilating blood vessels, constricted muscles and an outpouring of sweat are all well and good when your body is preparing to hot foot it away from a grizzly bear (or other such terrifying food chain toppers). But when our perceived fears—i.e. reality-distorting social anxiety or work-related stress—aren’t really a threat, our body still reacts in the same way, wreaking havoc on our bodies, and as I’m sure you inferred from the title of this article, our poor, sweet skin.
This response to psychological stress is believed to be an evolutionary adaptation for the fight-or-flight response. So, until such time as our bodies wise up to the difference between real danger and #fakenews, our skin will continue to suffer. Lame! While you wait, here’s a deeper look at what happens to our face when we’re stressed and anxious, and a few handy tips to help minimize all that skin-harming stress…
First up, what does stress and anxiety actually do to our skin?
A lot of things happen to our skin when we’re too stressed to feel blessed, and predictably, none of them are great. Our nervous system responds by releasing a flood of stress hormones—the worst offender being cortisol, which prompts the skin’s sebaceous glands to pump out more oil (causing congestion and pimples) and accelerates our skin’s aging process by reducing collagen and elastin. Lose, lose. Our immune system also goes into battle, releasing chemicals like interleukins, which, in a misguided bid to protect our health, causes inflammation.
According to Richard Fried, M.D. Ph.D., a dermatologist, clinical psychologist, and clinical director of Yardley Dermatology, “Stress is a general trigger that can make the skin misbehave in whatever way it’s prone to misbehaving.” This basically means that if you are prone to skin ailments—acne, eczema, hair pulling, hives, psoriasis, rosacea, and skin picking, among them—stress-induced inflammation can make them flare up.
Stress can also have an indirect effect on our skin, thanks to the self-destructive vices we often lean on to mitigate it. This includes all manner of bad habits, like decompressing over a cigarette with a colleague, stress eating our way through a bag of crisps, or drinking one (or five) too many vinos with our friends after work. Stress can also impact our sleep patterns, eating habits and exercise routines, which in turn, can negatively affect our skin further.So, if we just de-stress, our skin will start living its best life?
The most annoying advice to receive when you are stressed out of your eyeballs or in the throes of an anxiety spiral is to “stress less” or “just be happy.” If only it were that easy, pal. Since we can’t just run from our jobs, bills, or life, the best thing to do is learn to manage the stress. Deep breathing, practicing meditation, doing all the good things for our bodies—regulating our sleeping patterns, eating a balanced diet, exercising regularly, drinking plenty of water—and taking time to properly rest are all good places to start.
But this doesn’t necessarily mean that your skin concerns will magically melt away if you become more zen. Managing stress may be one part of the jigsaw puzzle when it comes to ridding yourself of skin problems, but it’s not the be-all and end-all. If your skin problems are too legit to quit, it might be time to enlist the help of a dermatologist who can make targeted recommendations based on your specific needs. If you are constantly stressed or anxious, it would also be of immense benefit to chat with a healthcare provider or therapist, if possible. Taking a multi-pronged approach will help to reduce your stress levels, so you and your skin are free to live their best lives <3