How Stress Affects Your Skin

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For anyone who has a chronic skin condition such as acne   or psoriasis, it may be a no brainer to say that anxiety and stress can have an adverse effect on your skin. But to what extent? What role do emotions play in the health of our skin? And is there any research to back up the subjective experience of patients who say that stress worsens the symptoms of their skin disease? In this post we will investigate the correlation between our mental state and skin problems.

There are numerous studies out there which show the connection between stress and skin disease. Here is just a sample of that research:

  • A 2004 study published in The International Journal of Cosmetic Science explored the reasons for adult acne and especially in women. One of the theories proposed is that adult acne in women has something to do with increasing stress levels found in women who have fast paced jobs.

  • Another study on acne,which focused on adolescents, revealed a significant association between stress and the severity of acne especially in males.

  • Stress has been indentified in numerous studies as a trigger for psoriasis outbreaks. For example, in this 2007 report on the Environmental Factors in Skin Diseases, the authors estimate that as much as 40-60% of psoriasis cases are triggered by stress.

  • A 2006 study published in Neuroimmunomodulation, found that multiple skin diseases are made worse by psychological stress including: Atopic dermatitis, psoriasis, seborrheic eczema, and alopecia. The symptom of itching, common to most of these skin diseases, was strongly correlated with feelings of stress.

It is clear that there is a connection or correlation between feelings of stress and the triggering of the symptoms of many skin diseases. What is not yet clear is whether or not stress can cause the development of certain skin conditions. Numerous factors contribute to the development of any skin disease such as genes and hormones. Some skin doctors point out that there are a lot of stressed out folk who never develop skin disease because they don't have the genes for it. But if you have the biological and genetic predisposition for developing certain skin problems, the research shows that stress can play a part in aggravating your condition.

It is still somewhat of a mystery as to the mechanics behind how stress affects the skin but here are some theories:

  • Some say that stress and anxiety can dehydrate the skin as well as impair its ability to stop allergens and infectious agents to penetrate the skin.

  • Stress may over-activate the immune cells of your skin which can result in inflammatory skin disease.

  • Stress can cause the release of hormones such as cortisol which increases oil production. This increase in oil can block the pores and cause acne.

  • Blood vessels react to stress by becoming more reactive by either closing up and cutting off blood to the skin or opening too widely and causing a flushed appearance.

  • There are studies which show that stress can impair our skin's ability to repair itself. Wounds take longer to heal if we are feeling anxious.

So what can we do about this? Stress is a part of normal everyday life. How can we prevent it from attacking our skin?

One answer is to see a psychodermatologist. This is a new profession which arose from the recognition that there is a connection between our mind and body and specially between our mental state and the health of our skin. In a 2010 Psychology Today article, the role of psychodermatologist is explained:

Dermatologists see skin from a biological perspective; we see skin from a biological and a psychosocial perspective. Psychodermatology practitioners treat skin the way a psychotherapist treats behavior -- by learning how it responds to emotional and environmental stressors and helping to moderate those responses.

Psychodermatologists combine psychological therapies with dermatology. For example, they may prescribe medications or topical creams to treat your skin condition but they may also add on psychotherapeutic therapies such as relaxation, biofeedback, self-hypnosis or psychotherapy. Although it is a beginning science, there have been some studies and anecdotal evidence to show that these therapeutic techniques, when used in conjunction with traditional skin disease treatments, can speed up the process of healing and increase a treatment's overall effectiveness. Advocates say this combined approach can provide a hopeful alternative when traditional skin care treatments don't work.

Another way of dealing with overwhelming anxiety and stress is to seek the guidance of a mental health practitioner such as a psychologist or psychiatrist trained to diagnose and treat anxiety disorders. If you feel that your anxiety is causing you not only mental distress but is also exacerbating the symptoms of your skin condition, it is time to seek help.

In addition to getting medical guidance you can also find information, resources, and support for anxiety related disorders on Health Central's AnxietyConnection.   Remember that whatever you are dealing with, you are not alone. Reach out. We will listen.