For years, stress has been linked to numerous health issues. High blood pressure and migraines, for instance, may be signs that we've got way too much on our plates. But did you know that one of the first places stress shows up is on your skin? The skin is our largest organ. Like many people, you might think of it as a barrier to keep negative influences out and what's positive in. But the skin is also a busy immune organ with direct and indirect connections to the brain.
The science of stress
Whenever we feel anxious or overwhelmed, the hypothalamus signals the pituitary gland, which sends a chemical message to the adrenal glands. The adrenals then produce cortisol—a major stress hormone. This pathway is called the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis, and news travels through it in seconds. Once cortisol is pumped into our system, it communicates with all of our organs and causes inflammation as a reaction to stress. Inflammation produces oxidants that damage a cell. Short-term inflammation helps fight off disease, but chronic inflammation severely harms the body and is linked to a wide variety of diseases, such as diabetes, arthritis and asthma. What does that mean to the skin? When a pore is inflamed, it becomes thick and swollen and is more likely to become clogged. When collagen becomes inflamed, the matrix breaks down and results in a wrinkle. Acne, wrinkles, dryness and itchiness appear with inflammation—they're telltale indicators of what's really going on inside.
The emotional effect
All too often, we try to blame external influences—chocolate, dust, even the weather—for the state of our skin. But the real cause of a so-called "bad skin day" is often emotional. You go to the office or supermarket and run into a friend who asks what's going on as soon as she sees you. A stomach ache is internal, but a blemish you can't hide. That's the thing about the skin: You have to deal not only with how you feel but also with how others react to you. The flip side is that once your skin starts to mend, people notice immediately and tell you that you look great.
Is the cure in a bottle?
Today, anti-aging treatments are flying off the shelves of pharmacies as well as high-end department stores. Women are buying these products at ever younger ages—a sign that you're never too young to worry about the aging effects of stress. Even teenagers are reporting soaring stress levels—and it's showing up on their skin. A recent study found that teen acne flare-ups become 23 percent worse around exam time. This rise in breakouts isn't due to excess sebum—the oil that clogs pores and causes acne. The culprit is inflammation.
How to handle stress
Our healthy habits are often the first thing to go when we get stressed. We may skip the gym, smoke, eat junk food, forgo our skin-care routines and withdraw from our family and friends. Learning to take control of the things that are truly under our control—and, believe it or not, many stressors fall into this category—is a great help. Preparing for times of stress and giving ourselves a break is the first step toward managing it. Start by working on the small issues first—it will have a positive impact on your brain and help decrease stress hormones.
- Find an ally—a friend, relative, therapist or member of the clergy—and talk about what is going on in your life rather than isolating yourself.
- Go against the grain. You may feel like skipping a workout or eating junk food, but doing what you can to counter these impulses pays off in the end.
- Exercise. Walking for as little as 15 minutes a day helps raise your level of endorphins, the mood-boosting chemicals in your brain.
- Zone out to help you "zone in" later. Find a healthy way to relax. It could be massage, yoga or meditation—anything that has a quieting effect.
- Sleep! Sleep is anti-inflammatory, a time of healing when cortisol levels are at their lowest. Getting enough will keep your best coping skills at hand.
- Throw out your magnifying mirror—it only encourages you to critique and pick at your skin. The body and mind are more connected than we realize. The good news is that we have the capability to lessen stress by taking small steps each day. Try a few simple lifestyle changes, and your face will show the results sooner than you'd imagine.
Solutions for stressed-out skin
Here are three treatments that can help undo the damaging effects of life's daily grind:
- Moisturizer lessens the dryness and itchiness brought on by stress. Look for one that is fragrance-free and "non-comedogenic" (so it won't clog pores and cause breakouts).
- Retinol, a derivative of vitamin A, sloughs away dead skin cells and helps thicken the skin. It targets acne, age spots and wrinkles, and is now found in many drugstore products.
- Glycolic acid/salicylic acid pads gently exfoliate and also have an anti-inflammatory effect—thanks to the salicylic acid—that calms your skin, especially if you're having a breakout.
For more from PARADE's special issue on Women's Health, click here.
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