What Your Skin is Saying About Your Stress Level

Melody swallowed nervously as she examined her reflection in the mirror. Her face had broken out, the acne as plain as, well, the nose on her face. She cringed at the cliche. When was the last time she had gone through her normal skin care routine? It had been too long, but she had more important things to worry about right now.

Her job interview was looming, less than two days away. Her family’s financial situation was tight. If she didn’t get the job, she wasn’t sure what they were going to do.

This past weekend’s dinner with her husband’s unapproving parents hadn’t done anything to lessen her stress. On top of everything her daughter has been in trouble at school lately. The week feels so long. How is it only Tuesday? She thought.

“I’m too old for acne,” she scolded her reflection. “You don’t have time for this, Melody.” She touched the breakout and rubbed her temples. Her headache was coming back too.

Can you relate?

Stress exacerbates problems in multiple areas of well-being, and most visibly in the skin. Healthy skin might not be a top priority during stressful times, but it is a great indicator that stress may be negatively impacting your health.

How Stress Impacts Skin

We all know what stress is, but let’s start with a definition from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) anyway: stress, “how the brain and body respond to any demand.”

This definition doesn’t paint stress in a negative light like you probably expected. That’s because stress is both good and bad. Broadly, stress can be defined as either short-term (acute) or long-term (chronic).

The body changes its functions to handle perceived threats. For example, if you are in immediate danger, your body will respond by increasing your heart and breathing rate, tensing muscles to protect against injury, and increasing production of steroid hormones to amplify the stress response (Chu et al.). This is good and allows you to respond more quickly to the immediate situation.

However, when the stress response is prolonged it creates health issues like in Melody’s situation where looming concerns over her job situation, her daughter’s development, tense family relations and financial instability are increasing stress over time, with no end in sight, and leading to physical symptoms such as acne breakouts.

“Because the source of long-term stress is more constant than acute stress, the body never receives a clear signal to return to normal functioning” (NIMH).

This inability to return to normal function is what causes sleep trouble, anxiety, upset stomach, muscle pain or tension, and changes in sexual drive (Mayo clinic).

The mind and body are interconnected; what affects the mind will affect the body. Stress causes changes to internal structures like the cardiovascular and nervous systems. Skin, the largest organ, visibly displays the harsh side effects of stress.

Stress can worsen underlying skin problems. It can exacerbate psoriasis and eczema, and it can worsen skin disorders like lichen planus and rosacea (American Academy of Dermatology, AAD).

In an article for the University of Utah, Dr. Abram Beshay explains that exacerbation of these skin conditions is related to the body’s increases in inflammation of the skin, which impairs the skin’s ability to heal, and increases the production of oil and sebum.

The decline in skin health isn’t only caused by physical responses. Beshay notes that getting out of healthy routines during times of stress, such as daily face-washing and getting enough sleep also negatively impacts the skin. People also tend to touch their faces more when they are nervous, further aggravating skin problems.

4 Ways to Reduce Stress to Improve Your Skin Health

If you want healthier skin, reduce your stress. Reducing stress will look different for each person, but it starts with simple changes to your daily routine.

Use deep breathing and meditation to relax. (Mayo clinic)

Sit and breath deeply, maintaining focus on your breath for 5 to 10 minutes. Notice areas of tension without desiring it to fade. Simply allow it to be. Meditation apps can be really helpful. A few I really like are Headspace, Calm and Waking Up.

Plan ahead to help prevent stress. (ODPHP)

Write things down or add them to a calendar. Giving items a time and place when they will be addressed removes thoughts and to-dos from your mind and relieves the pressure of having to remember everything.

For Melody, she could write down questions she is likely to be asked at her job interview. She could add the interview to her calendar with a reminder when it’s time to leave and the location of the interview. To your brain, scheduling action items is the same as having completed them.

Make time to connect with people who support you. (NIMH)

This can be a spouse, or friend, or mentor. Sharing thoughts and feelings has a similar effect as scheduling to-do items. And when you do it with a trusted confidant, they’re likely to share some encouraging words to lift your spirits.

In Melody’s case, this is as simple as discussing everything with her husband. Explaining their daughter’s situation at school, expressing how she feels with Aaron’s parents, and talking through the interview.

Exercise, get plenty of sleep, and stick to your skin care routine. (Mayo clinic & Beshay)

Go for a walk. Remove your makeup and wash your face before bed. Create a few extra minutes without screens or media to allow yourself time to wind down before you sleep. Little things make a huge difference. And getting small victories throughout your day creates a healthier mindset.

Remember, reducing stress doesn’t fix everything, but it will improve your overall well-being and your skin.

You don’t have to do everything at once. Start small with simple changes you know you can do. Your body, mind, and skin will thank you for it.



American Academy of Dermatology (Writer). (2021). Can stress worsen psoriasis? [Video file]. Retrieved May 24, 2021, from https://www.aad.org/public/diseases/psoriasis/triggers/stress

American Academy of Dermatology. (2021). 8 tips to help prevent rosacea flare-ups. Retrieved May 24, 2021, from https://www.aad.org/news/prevent-rosacea-flareups

American Academy of Dermatology. (2021). How do dermatologists control eczema? Retrieved May 24, 2021, from https://www.aad.org/public/diseases/eczema/childhood/treating/derms-control

American Academy of Dermatology. (2021). Lichen planus: Tips for managing. Retrieved May 24, 2021, from https://www.aad.org/public/diseases/a-z/lichen-planus-self-care

Beshay, A., MD. (2021, January 5). Stress and the skin. Retrieved May 24, 2021, from https://healthcare.utah.edu/healthfeed/postings/2021/01/stress-skin.php

Chu, B., Marwaha, K., Sanvictores, T., & Ayers, D. (2020, October 10). Physiology, stress reaction. Retrieved May 24, 2021, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK541120/

Mayo Clinic. (2019, April 04). How stress affects your body and behavior. Retrieved May 24, 2021, from https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/stress-management/in-depth/stress-symptoms/art-20050987

National Institute of Mental Health. (n.d.). 5 things you should know about stress. Retrieved May 24, 2021, from https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/stress/

Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion. (2021, March 19). Manage stress. Retrieved May 24, 2021, from https://health.gov/myhealthfinder/topics/health-conditions/heart-health/manage-stress


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