An Expert On How Stress Can Show Up On Your Face

By Rabia Malik

Feeling stressed out? We know. It’s written all over your face.

A little bit of stress and anxiety can be good for us—sometimes it’s just what we need to nail that work presentation or hit a personal goal. However, there’s a tipping point where stress goes from helpful to unhelpful—and when this happens, it can impact everything from your sleep to your skin. 

“When psychological stress is perceived by the brain, it leads to the release of certain hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline”, explains GP and holistic aesthetic doctor Dr Rabia Malik, who is also the founder of Skin W1 and practices out of Harrods Wellness Clinic in London. “This leads to physiological changes in the body as it tries to adapt to stressors.”

She adds that long-term stress might trigger skin issues: “Chronic stress is particularly detrimental and can have consequences in the skin, largely due to prolonged inflammation which is triggered by the stress response. This leads to a flare-up of inflammatory skin conditions such as acne, eczema and psoriasis, as well as a breakdown of collagen which contributes to fine lines, wrinkles and sagging.”

Who is most likely to suffer from stress-related skin issues? And what can you do about it? Dr Malik explains… 

When We’re Stressed, How Does This Show Up On Our Skin And Face?

Stress causes a physiological response in the body which leads to the release of the hormones cortisol and adrenaline. These changes can lead to a raised heart rate, shortness of breath and a tightening of muscles. Cortisol in particular can lead to an increase in sebum (oil) production, leading to blocked pores and subsequently breakouts or acne. 

This is why breakouts are often one of the first signs of increased stress in the skin. Other common skin changes are redness, blotchiness or rashes that can come and go.

In terms of changes to the face, prolonged periods of stress can lead to persistent frown lines and raised cortisol levels can lead to a breakdown of collagen and increased inflammation over time. This can lead to more fine lines and wrinkles, a loss of elasticity and subsequent sagging. The increased inflammation can trigger flare-ups of skin conditions such as eczema and psoriasis.

Who Is Most Susceptible To Stress-Related Skin Conditions?

We are all susceptible to stress-related skin conditions, but those who have inflammatory skin conditions such as acne, eczema or psoriasis may experience flare-ups more quickly in response to stress.

For Anyone Suffering From Stress-Related Skin Issues Right Now, How Can They Best Treat The Issue?

In my experience, there are two main aspects to managing stress-related skin issues. The first is to try to reduce internal inflammation to bring down the inflammatory response. This can be done with dietary modification (for example, dairy, gluten and sugar all contribute to internal inflammation so it may be worth trying to cut these down) and also through supplementation (for example with a good quality high strength Omega 3).

The second approach is more topical and is aimed at supporting the skin barrier. Less is more when it comes to using products on stressed-out skin. A nourishing cleanser (avoid anything with AHAs or acids) and a moisturiser for your skin type to support the skin barrier are all you need until skin settles. When skin is stressed out, it is important to pare back one’s skincare routine until the barrier is restored. Once the skin is no longer red, dry or irritated, you can slowly re-introduce any active ingredients.

What Is The Best Way To Prevent Stress-Related Skin Conditions From Happening In The Future?

Although we can’t totally eliminate stress in our lives, managing stress is the best way to prevent stress-related skin conditions. Try incorporating physical activity into your daily routine, as well as meditation, laughter, yoga, breath work and perhaps most importantly, getting enough sleep.

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