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How stress causes skin problems & what to do about it

By Localiiz Branded | 25 October 2021

Header image courtesy of Polina Kovaleva (via Pexels)

Brought to you by Bupa Global

If you find yourself already having gone through several skincare regimes, switching between a department store’s worth of mask brands, and becoming so familiar with old wives’ hacks that you know them better than the back of your hand, the answer may be much simpler than you would think.

In fact, the main culprit behind your skin problems may well be a well-known mastermind behind a wide range of hindrances to your well-being: namely the evil cloud of stress. Read on to find out the ways in which this looming pressure may cause your skin to itch or even develop problems like rashes.

What is stress?

At its core, stress is one of your body’s key physiological responses to pressurising situations and events that spark a blast of chemicals to run throughout. Producing adrenalin, the phenomenon flips the switch on your fight or flight response, often leading to feelings and bodily ticks that may be hard to navigate. Yet everybody has differing trigger points as well as different ways of coping, be it cognitively or physically.

Effects of stress on skin

While under duress, your body expresses stress by releasing a variety of “stress hormones,” like adrenaline and cortisol, affecting blood flow to the skin. A common marker of stress that etches itself visibly is irritation or rashes. In severe cases, a form of hives referred to as “adrenergic urticaria” is an extreme and itchy form of changes to the skin. Typically red, raised, and bumpy, they may appear quite quickly.

For those who are prone to vitiligo because of hereditary genetics, sudden or extreme stress can actually cause the recognisable pale white patches to sprout all over your skin. As the scalp under your hair is also part of your skin network, temporary hair loss or a sore scalp may even appear as a sign, perhaps after a major operation or during bereavement, particularly life-changing events that cause pain and major stress.

Continued periods of stress may lead to damages to your immune system, weakening it in whole and causing you to become more at risk to infections, and subsequently skin diseases. Autoimmune issues include conditions like vitiligo, the loss of skin pigmentation, or urticaria, the alternate moniker for hives. In these situations, your body mistakes regular cells for invasive ones, causing them to attack those that are linked to your bodily dermatology. Another class of issues include inflammatory illnesses like rosacea, a condition that leads to redness and visible blood vessels all over your face.

In less serious cases, minor blemishes like acne can also be triggered and worsened by stress. Flare ups are actually a result of other problems in your skin system, being an offshoot of an infection or underlying conditions. Lying dormant for most of the time, the herpes simplex virus is responsible for cold sores, yet is only brought into view in times of stress.

Responding to stress

It is inevitable that we will be thrown into situations when we cannot run away from stress, and nobody wants to have battle scars from it to show on their skin. The key is to avoid getting dragged into a vicious cycle of stress being cast and worsened through faulty coping mechanisms that do more harm than good.

Sleep is one of the underrated factors that can combat stress. As draining as it may seem, stress can keep you up at night but requires better quality sleep to circumvent. It is particularly difficult as well when itching or pain hinders this process.

Turning to temporary comfort, many choose to deal with their woes by indulging in sugary and fatty comfort foods, alcohol, caffeine, or even smoking. These will only worsen both your stress, as well as your skin quality. Even your overall health will be impacted negatively, resulting in a concerning downgrade in your foundations, all across the board. Alcohol and caffeine make up the criminal duo that causes skin redness, not just Asian flush, but also conditions such as rosacea. Psoriasis is another example that shows how harmful smoking and drinking can be.

Another problem that may arise and that may take longer to unlearn are “body-focused repetitive behaviours,” including habits such as pulling at your hair or picking at your skin. For some who end up participating in this behaviour, it releases a short-term “feel-good” hormone burst of dopamine, relieving stress in the short term, but unfortunately leaving damages for the long term.

Breaking the cycle

When managing the combination of both stress next to skin issues, the two can interlink to cause a vicious cycle that extends beyond physical woes to encroach upon your self-esteem, and even social activities and relationships. For example, you may feel stressed about your skin, which unfortunately leads to even more flare-ups due to the surge of hormones, resulting in more stress, which triggered it all in the first place.

When consulting your doctor, it would be helpful to look at the bigger picture and integrate means of tackling both problems together. Target your stress directly through healthy coping techniques that divert your feeling of relief away from harmful practices like scratching or hair-pulling.

There are several common ways of enhancing mental well-being that can help alleviate your strain. In cases that require treatment addressing problems directly, cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can be a great tool to develop. The process teaches you skills that can be used to work through, cope, and protect your mental well-being in order to prevent psychological effects from seeping into somatic ones or physiological ones. For people struggling with body-focused repetitive behaviours, CBT may help greatly.

Another form of phasing out anxious emotions and pressured mental states is the practice of mindfulness. It hones your mind to be more present in the moment by prompting you to take awareness of you you feel emotionally and physically, easing you into being a little more kind to yourself, as well as others! 

By giving yourself the space for inward compassion, it can lead to profound effects on stress symptoms that cause skin irritations and problems. An instance is the lowered levels of anger, which is an aggregation that can cause flushing and redness to appear in people with rosacea. In fact, a study by Fordham, Griffiths, and Bundy suggests that CBD can work in tandem with mindfulness to treat psoriasis.

Getting help and support

It’s best to consult your doctor for advice to find the best remedy for you. As an ancillary, you can also turn to local support groups for encouragement, accountability, and lifestyle advice and connect with people who are struggling with the same conditions. It could help you learn to cope better with your skin problems.

Although stress is unavoidable, there are plenty of healthier habits that can boost your overall well-being. Exercising regularly can work to improve your mental clarity. Make sure you leave at least four hours between working out before you sleep to not overexcite yourself. Maintaining good “sleep hygiene” can also be something for you to start looking into, in order to determine if your sleep levels and quality are sufficient in reducing stress.


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