There’s a clear connection between stress and physical health. One of the most obvious manifestations of stress is the effect on skin which is the largest organ in our body. This phenomena is often called ‘stress skin’ and can present as a number of conditions including rashes and acne breakouts. In this article we explore stress related skin problems, symptoms and the factors that drive them. We also dive into the best treatments for everything from stress related skin rash to spots.
What is it?
This is a term that groups various skin reactions that are triggered or made worse by the body’s response to psychological or emotional stress. When under stress, the body reacts by releasing cortisol and other stress hormones. These can disrupt the normal balance of the skin. This disruption often manifests as acne, sensitivity, dryness and even exacerbation of chronic conditions like eczema and psoriasis. It can also present as a dull, tired complexion. In more severe cases, there can even be stress-induced rashes or hives.
Stress skin highlights the intricate connection between the brain and the skin. This is in fact a growing area of research called psychodermatology. It recognises that emotional well-being is inextricably linked to skin health. The psychological impact of stress-related skin issues should not be underestimated. They can lead to reduced self-esteem and increased psychological problems which creates a vicious cycle that can further worsen skin problems. As such, there is strong evidence that suggests that managing psychological stress can be a key factor in treating various skin conditions and calls for an holistic approach to treatment.
How Does Stress Affect Your Skin?
There are a number of different ways that stress can affect your skin. At the heart of it is that it interrupts the delicate balance of your skin’s normal health and functions. When stressed, your body produces higher levels of cortisol. This is the main stress hormone and plays a huge role in skin physiology, inflammation and healing.
High cortisol levels can lead to increased oil production which can trigger acne breakouts. This hormonal upheaval also weakens the skin’s barrier function. This reduces the skin’s ability to retain moisture and protect against environmental aggressors. As such, it makes skin more susceptible to irritants, allergens and environmental pollutants. This can lead to increased skin sensitivity, dryness and irritation. Stress can also cause inflammation which makes the skin more prone to spots, redness, rashes, hives and irritation. This can also worsen existing skin conditions like eczema, psoriasis and rosacea. High levels of stress can also reduce the skin’s ability to heal itself which can be problematic in conditions like acne and eczema. At the cell level, chronic stress speeds up the breakdown of of collagen and elastin. These are the proteins that keep your skin firm and elastic. As such, their reduction leads to fine lines and wrinkles.
Stress can also indirectly affect your skin through its impact on your lifestyle and wellbeing. One if these is self neglect which often extends to forgetting or abandoning your skincare routine thus leading to breakouts or dryness. Stress can also lead to poor lifestyle choices like not sleeping, unhealthy eating, smoking and excessive alcohol consumption. These can all impact skin health and cause breakouts, uneven skin tone, trigger existing skin problems and exacerbate skin aging. Stress can also trigger nervous habits like scratching or picking. These behaviours can damage the skin and lead to scarring or post inflammatory hyperpigmentation.
What it Looks Like
Stressed skin manifests through a variety of symptoms and changes in appearance. These symptoms can vary widely from person to person. It depends on various factors including your skin type, overall health and the nature and duration of stress you’re experiencing. Here are the most common symptoms:
- Acne Breakouts: Stress can lead to increased sebum production which can clog pores and result in spots and skin blemishes.
- Rashes and Hives: Stress can trigger skin rashes and hives which appear as red, raised and itchy patches on the skin.
- Dryness and Flakiness: High stress levels can impair the skin’s barrier function which can result in rashes as well as dry and flaky skin.
- Increased Sensitivity: Stressed skin may become more sensitive and reactive to products or ingredients that previously did not cause any problems.
- Dull & Tired Skin: Stress can affect blood flow to the skin as well as disrupt sleep and cause exhaustion. This can give rise to a lacklustre complexion.
- Fine Lines & Wrinkles: Chronic stress can accelerate skin aging leading to fine lines, wrinkles and lax skin.
- Dark Circles & Puffiness: Stress and lack of sleep can lead to dark under eye circles and puffiness.
- Aggravation of Skin Problems: Stress can cause flare-ups or worsen pre-existing skin conditions like eczema, psoriasis or rosacea.
- Hair Loss or Thinning: Telogen effluvium is a form of stress-induced hair loss which can lead to noticeable thinning of the hair.
- Nervous Behaviours: Stress can trigger nervous habits like skin scratching, picking or excessive rubbing which can lead to breakouts, hyperpigmentation, thickening, scars or infections.
How to Know if Your Skin is Stressed Out
Stress-related skin issues can range from simple spots to severe exacerbation of conditions like eczema or psoriasis. What sets these apart from regular skin conditions is that these symptoms are directly triggered or worsened by stress. Knowing whether skin is causing these problems is vital for effective treatment and management. Here’s how to identify stress-related skin problems:
- Monitor Changes During Stressful Periods: Observe your skin during times of high stress and note any changes or new issues.
- Look for Specific Symptoms: Common stress-related skin problems include spots and breakouts, rashes and flare-ups of exiting conditions. Spots and acne breakouts due to stress are most common around the jawline and mouth but can occur anywhere on the body. There may also be signs of premature ageing, skin dryness and dullness. It’s also worth paying attention to your hair and scalp as stress can cause hair loss and a flaky, itchy scalp.
- Pay Attention to Timing and Duration: Try to notice if skin symptoms emerge or worsen during times of stress and improve when it decreases. Also beware that chronic stress can lead to prolonged or recurrent skin problems.
- Notice Behavioral Effects on Skin: Stress can lead to nervous habits like skin scratching, picking or rubbing which cause harm and may be subconscious.
It might be helpful to keep a skin diary, where you log your skin condition along with your stress levels so you can identify patterns and triggers over time. It’s also really important to regularly check-in with your self and reflect on your stress levels and mental health. This will help identify stress early even if it’s not immediately apparent. If you’re unsure whether your skin issues are stress-related, see a dermatologist who can provide a professional diagnosis.
Treatments for Stress Skin Problems
Identifying that you have stress-related skin issues is the first step toward effective management which requires an holistic approach. You will need to treat the skin symptoms directly whilst also addressing the underlying mental health triggers. Here’s an overview of the best treatment approaches for stress skin problems:
- Skincare: You will need a targeted skincare routine that will protect and treat the specific skin problem. The back bone of this will be gentle cleansers, hydrating moisturisers and sunscreen to prevent irritation and protect from sun damage. Ingredients like hyaluronic acid, glycerin, ceramides, aloe vera and niacinamide can help reduce inflammation and soothe rashes, sensitivity or irritation caused by stress. Try to maintain a consistent skincare routine, even during stressful times.
- Professional Treatments: Consulting with a skin specialist can be useful especially for severe skin problems. They might offer treatments like Azelaic acid, retinol and prescription retinoids like Tretinoin may help with rosacea flare-ups, acne spots, texture and ageing caused by stress. They may also recommend corticosteroids for eczema or psoriasis. Professional treatments like clinical facials or light therapy may also help.
- Stress Management Techniques: There are a number of evidence backs ways that can reduce stress and it’s important to find what works for you. These techniques include mindfulness and meditation, exercise and adequate sleep. Relaxation techniques like deep breathing, yoga or Tai Chi can also help manage stress.
- Lifestyle Changes: Drinking plenty of water and eating a healthy, balanced diet rich in antioxidants, omega-3 fatty acids and vitamins can improve skin health. It’s also important to limit alcohol and caffeine which can worsen stress and affect sleep. Smoking can also worsen skin symptoms and accelerate aging.
- Emotional and Mental Health Support: If stress is overwhelming, causing harmful behaviours or persistent, consider speaking to a mental health professional. Therapy or counselling can provide effective strategies for managing stress. Support groups or talking to trusted friends or family members can also be beneficial.
Stress skin is a reminder of the deep connection between our mental and physical wellbeing. Understanding how stress affects your skin is crucial for prevention and effective treatment. It’s important to address not just the skin symptoms but also the underlying cause. This can be achieved through lifestyle modifications, stress management techniques, and, if necessary, seeking professional advice from dermatologists or mental health experts.
At City Skin Clinic, we are extremely passionate about personalised skincare. Through our online skin clinic, our doctors offer safe and effective treatments with prescription-strength ingredients like Tretinoin and Hydroquinone. We treat a range of skin conditions including acne, hyperpigmentation, melasma and skin ageing. To start your personalised skincare plan, book a virtual video consultation or use our online consultation form. The journey towards great skin starts here.