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Ask A Dermatologist: Does Stress Affect My Skin?

Ever feel like your skin is worse when life becomes stressful? That sudden arrival of acne in time for that big work meeting you were worried about, or your skin deciding to go from sandpaper to full-on Sahara desert while moving house. But is it bad luck? Or is the stress taking it out on our skin?

For Stress Awareness Day, we asked Dr Jason Thomson whether stress really affects our skin, and what proactive steps we can take to help manage it day-to-day.

Does stress really affect our skin?

“In short, yes. Stress absolutely affects our skin. The relationship between skin and stress is a complex one, and they can both affect each other. Skin conditions can be worsened by stress, yet stress (and mental wellbeing) can be worsened by having a skin condition.”

And aside from exacerbating standard skin concerns, stress can also worsen other skin conditions too.

“We’ve known for a long time that stress can lead to a worsening of skin conditions such as psoriasis, acne, rosacea and eczema. And more recently, studies have proven the link between flare-ups of these skin conditions and increased stress levels. Research has identified a complex stress response system, known as the ‘brain-skin connection’, which involves the immune system, the brain and the skin driving the underlying biology.”

But I stress about my skin already, is that making it worse?

“Struggling with a skin condition can have a really big impact on our stress levels and mental health, too – with several studies clearly showing that if you have a skin condition you’re more likely to also have mental health conditions like depression and anxiety. With conditions like acne, the visibility of spots and scarring can have a huge impact on self-confidence, and even the way we interact with others.

As dermatologists, a key part of the treatment process with our patients involves addressing any stress, and the factors that feed into these stress levels too – like mental health and general well-being.

There are also some mental health conditions that are specifically linked to the skin. Dermatotillomania and trichotillomania are conditions that involve people picking at their skin and hair and are closely related to stress and anxiety. Psychodermatology is the field devoted to understanding and treating those who struggle with these kinds of conditions.”

How can I treat my stressed-out skin?

When we’re stressed and our skin is too, it’s best to take it easy. Stick to a simple skincare routine to give your skin a chance to return to normal. However, the reality is that to treat stressed-out skin, you have to tackle the stress itself.

What can I do to reduce my stress and give my skin a break?

This can be easier said than done when the modern world is built around being stressed. Whether it’s the constancy of the news cycle, the pressure to be online all the time or the fact that many of us feel obliged to be superheroes, juggling a career, family, friends and a side hustle, life is stressful. 

It’s important to factor in specific time to destress whenever possible. It can be as simple as taking an extra two minutes in the bathroom to take deep, calming breaths after brushing your teeth, or it could be taking up yoga. Finding time for yourself where you remove yourself from the stresses of daily life, even just for a few minutes, will bring your stress levels down rapidly. 

However, this can’t be a quick fix. To truly combat stress, and stress-induced skin concerns, this needs to be a habit. It’s just as important as anything else in your life, and shouldn’t be put aside because you’re too busy. Like brushing your teeth, it’s non-negotiable. What that time looks like is up to you, be it rock climbing, ten minutes of meditation or listening to an audiobook on your lunch break. It can be anything that slows your brain down and forces you to focus on one thing at a time.

As Dr Jason puts it, “the bottom line is that stress, mental health and our skin are intrinsically linked. This emphasises just how important it is to maintain a balanced, healthy lifestyle that looks after physical and mental wellbeing.”

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