You already know that anxiety and tension can wreak havoc on your health and leave you feeling drained, but stress can also mess with your appearance in some alarming ways. Experts tell you why it happens and what you can do about it.
Stress can give you zits
For years, derms have suspected that stress can cause acne, and now there's actual proof. A recent study of college students showed that breakouts were worse right before exams. "We think that this is related to the body's release of stress hormones, which in turn stimulate the sebaceous glands to produce excess oil," says Dr. Jessica Wu, a celebrity dermatologist in Los Angeles. And since more oil leads to clogged pores, you end up with — you guessed it — acne. What's more: Stress increases inflammation, so you can expect redness and swelling to take longer to subside, says Wu, who also notes that when her patients are stressed, they're also more likely to pick at their skin, which delays healing and can lead to scarring.
Keep your skin clear
The most obvious fix for stress-related breakouts is also the hardest, which is why we won't tell you to simply chill out. But you can take some proactive steps to getting your acne under control. "When you're angry and stressed, so is your skin, which is why you need to baby it, not beat it up." Dr. Wu. She recommends washing with a gentle cleanser (using your fingertips, not a washcloth), morning and night, and applying a treatment product (look for one with salicylic acid) before bed. It's also crucial that you improve your general wellness through tension-relieving activities such as acupuncture, yoga, meditation, exercise, and massage.
Stress can speed up aging
Even if you don't have noticeable fine lines and wrinkles, chronic stress could be causing your skin to age more quickly in ways you can't see right now. For starters, when you're feeling extremely tense, it can interfere with your sleeping and eating habits, resulting in sluggish cell turnover, says Dr. Debra Jaliman, an NYC dermatologist. Stress can also increase inflammation, which has been shown to reduce collagen and elastic tissue, making your skin weaker, drier, and more wrinkle-prone. Plus, all that frowning and grimacing can break down your skin's connective tissue, leading to premature deep lines, says Dr. Wu.
Prevent fine lines and wrinkles
Before you slather a bunch of anti-aging skin products on your face, you have to take care of your body from the inside, starting with getting 7-8 hours of sleep every night, eating plenty of omega-3 fatty acids, fruits, and veggies, and drinking a ton of water to keep hydrated, says Dr. Jaliman. It's also important to curb your alcohol intake and nix your smoking habit (which should go without saying). In terms of treating your skin, it's mandatory that you wear SPF every single day (even when it's cloudy outside) since sun exposure is the number-one cause of premature aging, says Dr. Jarrod Paul Frank, an NYC dermatologist. "Spa treatments such as massage and facials are also excellent ways to enforce relaxation time while pampering your skin," says Frank.
Stress can aggravate rosacea and eczema
If your face looks red and blotchy, you develop an itchy rash seemingly out of nowhere, or your skin is so dry that it flakes, stress might be the culprit. Chronic tension and anxiety can break down your skin's protective barrier, which makes it harder for it to hold in moisture and fight off irritants. And if you already suffer from rosacea or eczema, stress can also kick those conditions into overdrive, says Dr. Wu.
Soothe your skin
The key to healing prickly, angry skin is to start by quieting your mind. In addition to getting a good night's sleep every night and eating whole, unprocessed foods (processed, sugar-laden junk can increase inflammation), schedule at least 15 minutes of "me" time every day, says Dr. Wu. Go to the gym, take a warm bath, or meditate. "Anything to lower your stress and keep your heart, mind, and skin healthy." You should also switch to gentle cleansers and lotions to retain your skin's natural moisture barrier.
Stress can lead to hair loss
As if zits, wrinkles, and rashes, weren't bad enough, you can also add hair loss to the list of ways stress can mess with your appearance. "Stress can certainly lead to hair loss [clinical name: "telogen effluvium"], but you won't notice it until about three months after the stressful incident or time period," says Elizabeth Phillips, a trichologist at the Philip Kingsley Trichological Clinic in New York City, where specialists treat both medical and cosmetic issues relating to scalp and hair health. Typically, people who are under a lot of pressure skip meals and/or make poor nutrition choices. And even if you are eating well, stress can cause absorption issues. Either way, the scalp isn't getting the necessary nutrients, explains Phillips. Another factor is that hair is the least essential tissue in the body, and as a result of this, when the system is under duress, for whatever reason, the hair tissue isn't a priority so growth is stunted, says Phillips.
Maintain your mane
The most effective way to combat stress-related hair loss (aside from not being stressed) is to create the ideal environment for optimal hair growth, says Phillips. That means getting more sleep, upping your protein intake, and popping vitamin B supplements to help keep hair from falling out prematurely. She also recommends regular scalp massages (three times a week for two minutes preshower) since increased circulation to the area helps new hair sprout through a layer of dirt, oil, and old skin cells.
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