Says the American Academy of Dermatology, how we look on the outside reflects how we feel on the inside. That is, our emotional well-being can have an impact on our appearance, particularly the health of our skin, hair and nails. Recent research on how stress affects our skin has led to the formation of a new branch of dermatology called psychodermatology.
Like psychoimmunology, an earlier discipline which studies the relationship between the mind and the immune system, psychodermatology focuses on the relationship between psychological factors – particularly stress, anxiety and depression – and our skin. What’s more, psychodermatology uses psychotherapeutic techniques to treat skin conditions, with many dermatologists now taking causes in psychology to back up their treatment regimens or recommending patients see a psychiatrist or psychologist in addition to receiving conventional dermatological remedies.
Stress triggers the production and release of a hormone called cortisol (the so-called stress hormone). Cortisol has the knock-on effect of causing the skin to produce more oil (sebum), leading to breakouts. Stress can also cause skin to have a diminished protective function (skin is the barrier which keeps harmful agents out of the body), making it more permeable. With our skin defences down, bacteria and other particles can breach the skin, exacerbating auto-immune diseases like dermatitis, psoriasis, eczema, rosacea, hives or skin rashes. Then, the feedback loop begins – the autoimmune episode or acne breakout (which was triggered by stress in the first place) causes an affected individual to feel more stress about their appearance, which, in turn, worsens the skin condition. In addition, the person may also scratch the skin excessively in an attempt to alleviate the itch, further breaking the surface of the skin and allowing in more harmful bacteria. This vicious cycle can prove difficult to break.
Here’s what you can do to make sure stress doesn’t get the better of you and your skin:
- Recognise when you start to feel overwhelmed and immediately take steps to alleviate the negative emotions before they take hold
- Exercise for at least thirty minutes, three to four times a week – exercise is a stress-buster, helping reduce cortisol levels and increase the level of the ‘feel-good’ hormone, serotonin
- Eat a healthy, balanced diet which contains all the food groups – reaching for sugary, fatty foods may make you feel better temporarily but, in the long term, you aren’t doing your skin any favours
- Take time out – schedule regular downtime into your diary, just as you would work meetings, and don’t skip these sessions!
- If a certain situation (for example, an unhappy relationship or work environment) is stressing you out, change it!
- See your dermatologist for advice on what medical treatments exist to improve the condition of your skin
- See a therapist to talk through unresolved issues and to get help on how to manage stressful scenarios.
Don’t mess with your stress – take a spa day! Shut down your computer, turn off your phone, close your eyes…and chill!
- For acne – try a deep cleansing facial to rid the skin of excess oils and stimulate circulation, and zit-zapping face mask and healing moisturiser. Remember to ask your spa therapist about spa treatments specifically aimed at adult acne.
- For dry, dull, tired skin – start with a gentle exfoliation to slough off dead skin cells, followed by a nourishing facial mask and moisturiser. A simple trick for keeping dry skin hydrated is to keep a bottle of facial mist on hand to spritz your face throughout the day. Ask your spa therapist to recommend a good brand or make your own by adding a few drops of essential oil (orange, peppermint or lemongrass work well) and a teaspoon of glycerine to water in a small spritz bottle.
- For relaxation and rejuvenation – treat yourself to a body mud-wrap. After an all-over exfoliation, a mud mask is applied and you’ll be wrapped up in warm sheets or towels. Being so cocooned will leave you sleepy and dreamy! After twenty minutes, the towels and mask come off, leaving you looking and feeling like a movie star – bliss!