Stress that produces negative feelings is not necessarily a topic that most want to discuss, and while it’s not necessarily easy to process, stress does have a purpose. Without it, we would never know when we’re spinning out of control, upset or frustrated. Stress is a direct indicator to our brains that we are taking on too much. Whether negative stress arises from a hectic job, constant bickering with friends or family troubles, stress can arise in your life from many different sources. At times it can be difficult to tell when your body is reacting badly to stress, however your skin functions as a window to what your body is feeling.
The Psychological Purpose of Stress
There are actually two kinds of stress, eustress and distress. Eustress is positive or beneficial stress and can be healthy, giving one a feeling of fulfillment, meaning, hope or other positive feelings. It is often felt by runners before a race, public speakers before a presentation, and everyday people about to do extraordinary things. On the other hand, distress is what we experience when we go through negative stress. Distress fuels feelings of defeat and depression.
Distress really does have a purpose. It is a warning that your body and mind are reaching their capacity of things they can deal with and still be healthy. Sometimes the amount of stress we experience is something we can control and sometimes it unfortunately is not.
The Mind–Skin Connection
Skin has the ability to reflect what a person feels inside. Emotional trouble can show up as skin trouble. What we are going through in our lives is often reflected on our faces. This is partly because the skin contains a plethora of nerve endings that are in constant communication with the brain. For example, feelings of embarrassment can show up as a blush. But the brain also triggers the release of hormones related to stress (cortisol and adrenaline). Prolonged exposure to stress hormones impairs many functions necessary to good general health and healthy skin in particular.
Certain skin conditions can be triggered by stress. This is why you tend to break out during important times in your life, like the night before your wedding or when you’re about to give an important presentation. Chronic negative stress can also disrupt the skin’s natural protective barrier, which normally prevents harmful substances from penetrating and moisture from escaping. This can lead to irritated and dehydrated skin and makes lines and wrinkles more evident.
Persistent stress negatively affects the area around your eyes, one of the thinnest and most delicate on the body. This makes it one of the first indicators of stress.
Skin Conditions Related to Stress
Rashes: Your epidermal skin cells lie on top of each other and are packed tightly together, forming a strong barrier that blocks the penetration of bacteria and other pathogens. When you are under stress this protective outermost layer of skin becomes impaired.
In one study, researchers examined the skin of twenty-seven students in three situations: just after returning from winter vacation (low stress), during final exams (high stress), and during spring break (low stress). Stress caused the outermost layer of skin to break up as skin cells shrank and the lipids between these cells evaporated. This makes the skin more permeable, allowing harmful bacteria to infiltrate the deeper layers of skin. These bacteria produce a protein that activates the immune system, leading to eczema and psoriasis.
Severe acne: In one study, researchers at Stanford University examined the severity of acne in 22 college students during final exam week. Students who were more highly stressed by their exams had worse acne than calmer, less stressed students. In other research, relaxation therapies have been shown to reduce the severity and incidence of acne.
More deadly skin cancers: In a study completed at Yale University, people with melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, were more likely to have gone through stressful life events during the years leading up to their diagnosis than people who did not have skin cancer.
The stress hormone cortisol acts as a powerful steroid that shuts down one part of the immune system, but cranks up another, making you more reactive to allergens. In a Japanese study of 26 patients with atopic dermatitis, patients experienced a reduction in their symptoms – even when they were exposed to the allergen that triggered them – for two hours after watching a funny movie. The laughter produced by the movie probably reduced levels of stress hormones.
Dryness and dullness: Stress reduces the lipid barrier on the skin, allowing fluids to evaporate and leading to dryness. When the stress response is chronic, skin cells take longer to reach the skin surface and flake off, allowing dead skin cells to build up and cause skin to look dull.