How stress affects your skin

It’s intuition when we sense the person around us is unhappy or feeling anxious. Call it a good judge good of character, negative energy, or simply just a vibe. You know, they know. The terribly bad day has happened to every single one of us – and just when you think you appear to have it altogether on the outside, somebody asks “are you ok?” Stress shows, and in this blog post you will learn how it affects your mind, body and skin and how it can make you appear less attractive.

What happens when we stress out?

Stress is a term that summarises the reaction in the body that responds to a stressor or stimulus. Sometimes referred to as the Flight or Fight Response, when we feel threatened, the body releases hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. This immediately causes physical changes in the body, such as:

  • Heart beats faster

  • Muscles tighten

  • Senses sharpen

  • Breathing speeds up

  • Blood pressure rises

The more we stress, the more easily triggered we become. The long-term effect of this impacts our immune, digestive and reproductive system, our heart, skin and can make you vulnerable to weight and memory problems and other mental health illnesses. This can lead to: 

  • Memory loss and poor concentration

  • Bad judgement

  • General feelings on unhappiness

  • Agitation

  • Aches and pains

  • Gut problems

Stress affects our eating patterns, how we sleep, mood swings and can also make us feel withdrawn and isolated from others. The NHS report that mental illness is the biggest cause of disability in the UK and 1 in 4 people will face some kind of mental health problem in their lifetime. 

Why we stress

So, if stress is so harmful to our minds and body, then why do we do it? Stress, no matter how long it lasts, can be triggered by a number of things. Relationships, business, work, studying and sudden life changes like moving house, loosing or changing jobs, sickness and grief.

Stress is the central being of our understanding about everything we experience in life. It is essential for survival and development, and without it, well we would not be alive. Yet it remains a complex process that we still don’t know enough about yet. 

In today’s world wellness is a habitual practice, of great interest in many communities across the globe. Within it is a diverse culture of people, including myself, that set out each day to take care of and nourish their minds to avoid these feelings of stress. But how much of our minds, can we truly control?

Stress is an essential reaction that takes place, so does trying to escape that response, eventually do more harm than good? When is the right time to take a step back, reflect and restore? Is wellness, as we know it today, simply just an effective sales tool or ineffectual belief system? Is it nature of nurture that makes one person more stressed than the other, when their problems seem solvable? How much stress, is too much stress? As these unmeasurable questions go unanswered, the mystery of mental health remains a topic that is constantly researched and discussed in all industries and areas – mental health funding in the UK has increased by £1.4billion compared to the three years ago.

How stress affects the way our skin 

Stress has just as much impact on the way we look as it does on our internal system. Evidence has shown us how stress can:

Aggravate inflammatory skin conditions 

The relationship between stress and skin has been studied since ancient times, but it is only in the last 20 years of research that has revealed the underlying mechanisms between stress and certain skin conditions.  This evidence has shown how stress can specifically trigger inflammatory conditions such as psoriasis, atopic and contact dermatitis and acne.

Increase wrinkle depth

A common facial expression associated with feeling stressed, frustration and anger is frowning. Through habit we can produce this expression even when we are not experiencing these emotions, which can lead to muscle tension, headaches and increased wrinkle formation around the glabella. Research has shown how becoming more conscious of this and switching a frown for a smile can give you a mood boost, as your brain releases happy hormones.

Reduce hydration in skin

If you are experiencing high volumes of stress this can have an effect on hydration in the skin, and therefore may increase the ageing process. Overcrowding stress in mice caused higher transepidermal water loss (TEWL), lower water retention property and impaired barrier function, according to a 2001 study.

Affect wound healing 

In this detailed report it was noted that anxiety and depression are ‘associated with delayed healing in chronic wounds’ as a result of elevated cortisol levels.

Compromise scalp health

A study that was carried out between January and June 2015 surveyed 1435 undergraduate students at College of Medicine, King Saud University (KSU), Riyadh, Saudi Arabia found that highlighted that highly stressed students were more likely to experience oily, waxy patches or flaking on the scalp as well as troublesome sweating and nail biting.

Stress can encourage us to behave differently which is has a butterfly effect on our overall appearance and how others perceive us. Some examples of this is when we are stressed, we are more likely to reach for high-fat or sugary foods that provides us comfort but increases the chances of weight gain. The skin picking disorder dermatillomania is thought to develop from stress and is believed to affect 1 in 20 people. Stress has also been linked to premature greying and loss of hair.

How people perceive us when we are stressed

Judgement of beauty varies between each individual, factored by culture difference and personal taste and belief systems. A certain facial characteristic can be deemed beautiful and endearing to one person, but grossly unattractive to the next. However, there is one thing that we all seem to find unwelcoming when it comes to connecting with another person, and that is stress.

A 2012 study went viral when Markus J Rantala, a professor of biology at the University of Turku in Finland released findings after studying the relationship between testosterone, facial attractiveness and immune function. The results suggested that men and women have evolved to prefer less-stressed partners, alongside using facial attractiveness to choose the ideal mate.

Certain biological signals give us insight to the overall health of a person, which helps us make an instant judgement on attractiveness. These clues can tell us how much sleep a person is getting, their diet, an insight to their health and ability to provide. Research doesn’t have to tell us for us to know that more attractive a person is, the better they are treated. When you consider all the potential effects of long-term stress on our lifestyle habits and motivations, (– weight gain, skin picking, dull-looking skin, mood swings, lack of libido) it highlights how a highly stressed person can be easily judged less attractive than a person with low stress levels.

How stress can make you perceive others

During my research there was a handful of studies I came across, that discussed how our own stress can changes our perception of others. In 2016 an article was published to highlight how different parts of a women’s menstrual cycle could have an effect on masculinity preference. Results showed women were more likely to be attracted to masculine-faced men right before ovulation than in the earlier phase of a female monthly cycle.

In the same year the University of St Andrews revealed their findings from a study that showed how men under stress find heavier women more attractive. The study compared men undergoing intensive army cadet training, and found that “the weight preferences in prospective female partners changed in response to the harsher environment and then remained at the new level while the environment remained harsh.”

How to minimise stress

Here are just a few things that I have found work well to minimise short and long-term effects of stress.

  • Take a long walk surrounded by nature

  • Write down your feelings everyday

  • Exercise regularly

  • Stopping telling yourself and others your stressed

  • Read something that will encourage you to learn something new, reflect or relax

  • Learn meditation

  • Perform daily self-care acts

  • Try breathing exercises

  • Incorporate sound healing into your daily routine

  • Speak to a mental health professional or a loved one about how you’re feeling

  • Eat a healthy, balanced diet 

  • Minimise alcohol, caffeine and sugar intake

  • Get enough sleep

  • Take time to understand what you want and create your desired environment

  • Accept failure and celebrate achievement

  • Identify your burnout symptoms and triggers

  • Help others

  • Develop a daily mantra

Stress is normal and a fundamental part of human behaviour. It defines our experiences, our personality and helps us survive in unknown territory, but stress can also have detrimental impacts to our behaviour and everyday lives. Stress impacts our immune system and our perceptions of experience and others, and in turn how others perceive us. Our society encourages us to live in fear of stress, to suppress and manage the unwelcome feeling until it becomes confusingly taboo. Nobody likes a ‘stress-head’ and you didn’t need to read this article to know that. The real secret is to find your medium, the perfect balance each day, by taking each moment as it comes.

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