And we know this is bad for us: stress has been found to suppress the immune system and contribute to heart disease, poor gut health and insomnia. But is there another, lesser-known effect?
“Stress is by far the single biggest factor for ageing skin and can affect its health and appearance,” says Shabir Daya, pharmacist and co-founder of Victoria Health. “It dries and damages skin from the inside out. When we’re stressed, our adrenal glands produce excessive amounts of the stress hormone cortisol, which results in a variety of health concerns including anxiety, weight gain and sleep disturbances.” And we’re not just talking about life- changing, stressful events here.
“That low-level, drip feed of daily stress can still impact skin,” explains holistic facialist Annee de Mamiel. “Our brain doesn’t know how to filter between the big, life-altering, stressful events, and, ‘Oh God, I got an angry email from my boss’ stress. Our adrenal glands react in the same way and, over time, chronic, low-grade stress builds in our bodies and can lead to adrenal fatigue, which can result in exhaustion, brain fog, low mood and a feeling you’re heading towards burnout. When we feel stressed, our body experiences 1,400 different physiological reactions, and we hold this in our gut, our heart, our shoulders, and our skin, too.”
How does anxiety affect skin?
“How doesn’t it?” says Daya. “Keratinocytes in the epidermis, the outer cell layers of skin, produce cortisol when we feel stressed. Cortisol is an inflammatory hormone and so, depending on your skin type, it can make your skin red, dry, wrinkled, tired-looking, reactive and sensitive, oily and acne-prone, or cause under-eye dark circles.
“Large quantities of cortisol cause elevated sugar levels in the bloodstream,” he continues, “which results in by-products called advanced glycation end products (AGEs), which cause the destruction of both collagen and elastin. This results in loss of elasticity, while inflammation encourages fine lines and wrinkles.”
And thin, crêpey skin around the eyes, too – because, according to Daya, increased cortisol also breaks down the thin tissues surrounding the eye area, making the tiny blood vessels around them more visible.
The visible signs of stressed skin
“When we become overly stressed, or feel low-level stress every day, our bodies go into fight-or-flight mode, and never get a chance to recover,” says Denise Leicester, a nurse-turned-healer and founder of natural-remedy brand Ilāpothecary (of which Meghan Markle is a fan).
“This causes the sympathetic nervous system, which is the motivating one that wakes us up in the morning and gets us raring to go, to become over-stimulated. The parasympathetic nervous system is the rest-and-digest one, and you need to find a fine balance between the two.
“If the sympathetic nervous system goes into overdrive, you can end up run-down or even with adrenal fatigue. Your body then goes into lockdown, only looking after what it sees as essential organs – which isn’t your skin, so it becomes depleted. The first sign is a darkening of the skin, like dark circles under the eyes. The next is dryness and redness.”
Stressed skin is also more prone to blemishes: “Extra cortisol makes our skin glands produce more oil, and oily skin is more prone to acne,” says Dr Galyna Selezneva of the Dr Rita Rakus Clinic in London. “So if you’re breaking out more than usual, it could be a sign of too much stress in your system. Stress also slows down healing, so breakouts and spots take longer to clear. And anxiety has a direct effect on more serious skin conditions, such as eczema and psoriasis.”
How to de-stress your skin
“Start on the inside by stimulating your parasympathetic nervous system,” says Leicester. “In the evenings, eat light, soak in a magnesium salt bath (which helps with adrenal fatigue), drink camomile tea, get to bed early, and focus on remaining calm. Save your stress for the day, when your sympathetic nervous system can deal with it.”
As for skincare, Leicester advises going back to basics: “When we look in our bathroom mirror and see the issues that stress creates in skin, it’s tempting to bring in the big guns, like exfoliation, vitamin C, retinol or hyaluronic acid. However, you don’t want powerful, active products, but rather nourishing and calming ones, like face oils and creams containing vitamins B or E, or rose. It’s not about looking 10 years younger, but rather being kinder to both your skin and mind, so they calm down.”
“Lastly, work on your skin from the inside by turning your skincare routine into self-care,” says de Mamiel, who is launching a new range of products for skin anxiety later this year. “Before you apply your product, take a few deep breaths of the essential oils, which work on your limbic system to help bring down cortisol levels.”