The effects of stress on your skin

Have you ever wondered if that itch or redness is just your skin — or is it all in your head?

Healthy skin is not just about what you put on it or in it. It is also about what's going on in your head. Your nonstop, chattering, worrying mind. I think most of us know by now that our mind effects all of our health, but our skin is almost like the canary in the mine — it can show us there are issues before we have a clue there's anything wrong since it’s the only organ we can actually see.

Mind stress can show up on our skin and make some conditions like psoriasis, eczema and acne worse. And there are studies that link stress to grey hair — not sure what that says about me!  

Chronic stress shows up in our skin

Some stress is a healthy thing, it's what's keeps us safe. If there's a speeding car coming towards us, the stress hormone, cortisol, is released to help us act quickly and get ourselves out of the way. We’re designed to react and then the stress passes. The problem is nowadays most of us are in a chronic state of permanent stress so we have a constant high level of cortisol which takes a toll on all of our body — and on the skin, it leads to damage we can see and feel. 

If we are chronically stressed, the skin barrier can become damaged because we stop producing the healthy oils needed to protect it (by keeping the water in and the irritants out). Stress can change the skin’s pH, making the natural skin microbiome ineffective, which means unhealthy bacteria can grow, which can lead to infection, inflammation and sensitivity.

Collagen production will also decrease so our skin can look tired and aged.

Skincare is not going to fix this and if your skin is in this state some products (think exfoliants, acids, over-use of cleansers) can exacerbate any problems.

There is evidence that it is not the actual stress that causes us the biggest problem, but the way we deal with it. So, managing stress is key. Easier said than done, especially after the last few years!

How my skin reacted to stress

I started looking into this because I’ve had eczema on my arm for the first time in my life on-and-off for the last 18 months and now know why it causes people so much anxiety. I am sure it’s a side effect of Covid lockdowns and general worry about everything. Now the awful itch is an alarm bell for me to calm the #&$@ down.

So, while I will always remain a work in progress there are things that help me when my arm starts to itch. They are all things that I know are good for me and make me feel so much better but yet they do not come naturally to me — but in researching this blog I am more determined to continue.

Ways to help manage your stress

I sit every morning for 10-minutes. I can’t call it meditation as its mostly sitting silently and planning the day ahead and repeating nonsense despite my best intentions. I am not sure if I have progressed much over the years, but sometimes I actually notice the nonsense. There’s no denying that the practice of meditating does decrease our stress, and improves our health but if you want to read a bit more about that here is an article from the Harvard Gazette

I do try to concentrate on my breath especially at night when the mad thoughts can take over (you know, the ones that make zero sense in the morning). This I have found a very difficult thing to do but keep trying. Here's a breath-by-breath meditation by Tara Brach. She is a very wise woman, and her talks have brought me back to my senses many times.

Getting outdoors is crucial, because like most people this makes me feel better and there's now evidence that just seeing one tree or looking at a bird decreases our stress markers — so you don’t have to live in the bush to get the benefits.

Outdoor exercise decreases stress

Exercise produces internal antioxidants, which helps fight off oxidative stress, so exercising outdoors is a double whammy win. These (above) are the new steps to the top of Mangere Mountain — worth the climb.

I have periods off social media, but I need much more. We all need more. I have turned off all news notifications on my devices and so I control when I read the never-ending anxiety-driven bulletins.

And my phone is turned off early in the evening when I am being very good 😊.

All these things can help you sleep better. Poor sleep not only makes you feel terrible, but it affects most systems of your body — so bad for your mental and physical health.

I even stopped drinking alcohol 2 months ago! It has been easier than I thought especially considering I live with a beer writer so the house is full of very good local beer. I have no idea how long I will do this for, but for me not drinking is a mood enhancer. Who would have thought?

And most of all I think we need to give ourselves a break — it's been pretty tough. We don't need to do all the things and they don't need to be perfect: our lives are not Instagram. And acknowledging the good is important because it's way too easy for us to ignore that. I am not too woo-woo but I did start doing a "3 things that was great about today" and it really works. I even managed to get them to be non Agnes & Me — and for me that has been true growth.

Aging better 

Research shows that if your brain is happy, if you're generally rested and you're in a good state of mind you actually age a lot better in every way.

So, working on our stress will have way better effects on our skin than a face cream or serum, even mine! And it's way cheaper too, plus you get all the other internal benefits that you can’t actually see.