Wondering why your skin has suddenly flared up? From acne to rosacea, psoriasis and more, skin conditions can often be a sign of stress or burnout. An emerging field of Psychodermatology incorporates psychology in the treatment of skin disease.
According to a 2018 study by the Mental Health Foundation, 74% of people have felt so stressed that they’ve been overwhelmed or unable to cope. The link between stress, your mind and skin conditions may be stronger than you think.
For Stress Awareness month, we spoke to British Psychodermatologist Dr Alia Ahmed to get the lowdown on the surprising effects of stress on skin and what to do about it.
Missed it? Here are our top eight takeaways.
1. CORTISOL CAUSES DULL SKIN, TEXTURE ISSUES, POOR ELASTICITY AND MORE
When we experience stress, our brains signal the adrenal glands to release cortisol (AKA the stress hormone). While the effects may be temporarily beneficial in a flight-or-fight situation – it has a less than desired effect on our skin.
As Alia explains, ‘Cortisol does all the things that you don’t want it to do.’ It makes your skin barrier less effective and more easily allows in irritants. Skin can also lose moisture, heal more slowly, show more wrinkles, fine lines and even change texture.
That’s because cortisol inhibits the body’s formation of collagen and elastane – the building blocks of skin. ‘I can give you as many pills and potions as you want but until we’ve also managed that aspect, we won’t be able to break that cycle.’
Decreased circulation, not helped by stress making us sleep worse, also causes dullness.
‘That’s why when you’re tired, people will say ‘Oh, you look pale,’ or skin looks dull. It’s because blood flow to the skin is not as good as it normally is.’ Read our definitive guide to understand how to repair your skin barrier and improve dry, dull and dehydrated skin.
2. STRESS MAKES SKIN OILIER TOO
Feel like your breakouts always coincide with being overwhelmed at work or home? You’re not imagining it!
Cortisol causes increased oil production from the sebaceous glands, leading to clogged pores and sadly, more spots.
‘That’s creating a lovely environment for acne,’ says Alia. ‘If you’re already predisposed to it, then you add this lovely oil-rich environment for bacteria to proliferate and your pores to get clogged, you’ve added in the ingredient yourself.’
You’ll want to combat this with Salicylic Acid and Niacinamide, Alia’s top two picks for cleansing pores.
In a time crunch? Our salicylic acid infused biodegradable Take Off – Touch Down wipes have you covered.
3. STRESS CAN INFLAME AND KICKSTART SKIN CONDITIONS
Cortisol also causes an inflammatory response and skin conditions such as eczema, psoriasis and rosacea, as well as acne, can flare up or even begin as a result.
‘Any skin condition can flare if you have stress or burnout, and you can still develop new conditions,’ says Alia.
That’s because cortisol is pro-inflammatory and can affect every part of the body. Chronic stress can permanently raise your cortisol levels, meaning they stay up even when the stressor is gone.
‘Acute stress is fine. It’s when you’re stressed for a prolonged period. That’s why it’s important to break these cycles as much as we can.’
Stressful life events like changing your job, going through a break-up or suffering a bereavement can also have the same effect.
As stress is a known trigger for conditions like psoriasis, a chronic inflammatory disease, dermatologists will often ask patients what happened just before their skin began acting up.
4. 98% OF PEOPLE WITH SKIN DISEASE ARE PSYCHOLOGICALLY IMPACTED BY THEIR CONDITION
It’s not just the mind that affects skin. Our skin can also significantly affect our mental health.
Recent research by the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Skin shows 98% of people with skin disease – which includes psoriasis, rosacea, acne and eczema, among others – reported feeling emotionally or psychologically impacted by their condition. Many even felt their relationships and ability to work suffered as a result.
‘These are all the building blocks of your life,’ says Alia. ‘Most people are working or studying at some point in their life.’
‘Skin often is trivialised, but it doesn’t matter if it’s not a life-threatening condition. For that person at that moment in their life it is the thing that they think about.’
‘If somebody’s got high blood pressure, I’m not going to know just by looking at them, but if you’ve acne or eczema or psoriasis, most people will know.’
‘It’s always there, so it’s always playing on people’s minds.’
Alia also highlighted that the severity of the condition does not dictate the psychological distress experienced.
‘You could have a small patch of psoriasis on your arm, or a small patch of eczema, and it can be as distressing for you as it is for someone who has it all over their body.’
‘I strongly feel that probably all dermatology patients should have some level of psychodermatology, because your skin is a visible organ, and even if it’s not visible to someone else, it’s always visible to you.’
5. CHRONIC SKIN CONDITIONS CAN CHANGE YOUR PERSONALITY
The psychological impact of living with a chronic skin condition like psoriasis or eczema can lead people to become more withdrawn and less emotive.
‘If they’ve had it since childhood or a young age and it’s been part of their life, their personality can change,’ explains Alia.
‘People with psoriasis are typically not very good at expressing their emotions. I have to really drag the information out and that’s not their fault – that’s because they’ve just become conditioned to living that way.’
‘Same with eczema, they find it difficult to tell you what’s wrong and they can’t always tell you why it’s like that, and they may be more likely to develop depression and anxiety.’
6. YOU MIGHT NOT REALISE YOU HAVE ROSACEA
Another condition that commonly flares up thanks to stress, rosacea can be hard to recognise in ourselves. That’s because how it presents varies by skin type and tone.
Did you know April is also Rosacea Awareness Month?! When better to get clued up on the symptoms.
Reddening or flushing of the face, often in the middle portion of the cheeks, is considered the main symptom. However, you might also have papules or bumps, dry or flaky skin, and even burning or stinging.
‘It presents differently in different people,’ says Alia. ‘And also, it’s mostly reported in Northern European background people, however, it may just be reported in less people with skin of colour because we don’t know how to describe it.’
‘I’m unlikely to say my skin is “red,” but I might use a different word.’
As rosacea can cause sensitivity, Alia advises using gentle skincare products, as well as Azelaic Acid to calm inflammation.
7. YOUR DIARY IS YOUR NEW BEST FRIEND
Keen to work out what’s stressing out your skin?
Alia recommends those with skin conditions keep track of any changes (such as increased itchiness, if you have eczema) using a diary or notepad.
Since timelines are helpful when working out the root cause of skin issues, you could also include details of your treatment history, lifestyle – think diet, exercise and quality of sleep – and what products you use.
This will also help you determine what lifestyle changes are needed.
8. BUILDING RESILIENCE CAN HELP COMBAT STRESS
Sadly, stress is almost impossible to avoid nowadays. However, it IS possible to manage.
As well as making changes to your lifestyle – especially diet, sleep and exercise – Alia also highlights the importance of building resilience.
‘You are going to face stress at times in your life but building up resilience is really important – and how do you do that? You need to try and build in mood-enhancing activities to your day, so you always have something to look forward to.’
This could be something as simple as phoning a friend , using your Flight Mode Mood Rescue aromatherapy roller, or going for a walk – whatever makes you feel positive.
Positive affirmations, self-dialogue and acceptance (accepting you are stressed and moving on from it) also come highly recommended by Alia. Ensuring your environment is not noisy, cluttered or polluted will help too.
‘These are all simple things, but they build up your resilience. What you’re trying to do is create an environment in your mind and around you physically, so that when you have that stressful event you can bounce back from it.’