Your skin is directly connected to your nervous system.
So when stress is weighing down on you, a cascade of events involving hormones, inflammation, and your immune system is triggered, which can lead to skin problems.
Skin conditions such as acne, alopecia, dermatitis, psoriasis, and rosacea are often preceded by and worsened by psychological stress.
The Skin-Brain Axis
Underneath your skin is a network of nerve endings, which send and receive signals to and from your brain. This is why you can feel things like heat, cold, pain, and pressure on your skin.
It’s a two-way communication system, though. Not only can your skin send signals to your brain, but your brain can also send signals to your skin.
This is what’s known as the skin-brain axis.
When you’re stressed, your brain’s hypothalamus, pituitary gland, and adrenal glands all work together to release stress hormones—primarily cortisol.
Cortisol is a steroid hormone that stimulates the release of glucose (blood sugar) from your liver. This is done to give you a quick burst of energy to deal with the stressor—to fight or run away, theoretically.
While this effect can be life-saving in times of danger, it’s not so great when it persists for an elongated period. Cortisol also suppresses less-essential functions of your body, like digestion, immunity, and growth, in order to free up more energy to deal with the stressor. So if cortisol stays elevated for too long, it can negatively impact those systems and cause damage to your body.
How Cortisol Affects Your Skin
Cortisol increases inflammation throughout your body. It also stimulates the production of sebum (oil) in the sebaceous glands of your skin.
These two effects can lead to the development of acne, as well as psoriasis and dermatitis flare-ups.
Additionally, since cortisol suppresses your immune system, the bacteria on your skin that usually wouldn’t cause problems can now take hold and cause infections and rashes.
Cortisol can also break down collagen and elastin, the proteins that give your skin its structure and firmness. This can lead to wrinkles, sagging skin, dull complexion, and slowed wound healing.
Stress also causes your blood vessels to constrict, which can potentially lead to a decrease in blood flow to your skin. This can make your skin look pale or blotchy.
How to Reduce Stress-Related Skin Problems
The best way to reduce stress-related skin problems is to reduce the amount of stress in your life.
This may seem easier said than done, but there are some things you can do to help lower your stress levels.
While you may never be able to completely avoid stressful situations, when you are prepared with healthy coping mechanisms like these, you’ll be better equipped to deal with them when they arise.
If you are feeling overwhelmed regularly and need extra help, don’t be afraid to seek professional help. A therapist or psychiatrist can help you address your specific circumstances in a healthier way and give you personalized tools to help lower your stress levels.