Stress is a good thing, at least from an evolutionary and survivalist perspective. It serves an important function: to protect us from real danger by equipping us with the means to either escape a life-threatening situation or face it head-on. But our physical response doesn’t change according to the type or magnitude of a perceived threat. The body’s stress response is the same whether you’re facing a life-or-death emergency, a packed to-do list, or an argument with a friend or family member. Acute stress comes on suddenly and doesn’t last long. When you’re under the gun of taking a test, having to give a public speech, or about to get into a car accident, that’s acute stress. You’ll feel it physically with that adrenaline rush and may even have some gastrointestinal issues as digestion slows and diverts blood away from your stomach. But acute stress isn’t the kind that will have a long-term negative impact on your skin. It’s the prolonged stress, especially the kind rooted in our psyche, that’s the most damaging to our skin. Acute stress goes away relatively quickly. The slow boil of ongoing, unremitting stress from life in general, however, is a whole other ball of wax. It’s the big time skin villain.
At the heart of chronic stress’s impact on skin is its relationship with your endocrine-hormonal-system. Prolonged stress of any kind, be it from chronic sleep deprivation or the pain of going through a divorce, can do a number on your endocrine system. And if, as a result, your hormones are not optimally balanced, or they are not working effectively, you will eventually begin to notice it. Your skin will not escape these challenges. Any of the Big Four skin conditions – acne, eczema, rosacea, and psoriasis – can be part of this picture.
The body’s counterattack on stress does not just involve surges in stress hormones such as cortisol and the subsequent breakdown of tissues such as collagen. In addition, two other players are often involved in direct skin damage: inflammation and oxidation.
Inflammation is the body’s protective mechanism against harmful stimuli. It’s the process by which our bodies can effectively kill an invader or deal with an illness. But, like cortisol, it has a downside-over time, it can cause everything from skin problems such as acne and rosacea to autoimmune disorders.
Oxidation results from the action of free radicals-a term you’re probably already familiar with. Free radicals are the biological equivalent of wayward bullets. They are indeed radical and free-highly reactive forms of oxygen that can damage cell membranes and other structures in the body. But their wrath is especially brutal on the skin. Free radicals can come from anywhere-from inside our bodies, where they are produced as part of our normal physiological processes, to pollution and UV rays, just two of the external sources of stress on the skin.
So, to achieve your healthiest, most radiant skin, you’ve got to dial down the long-term, nagging stress that so many of us deal with on a daily basis. How can we tame that inner psychological beast that keeps us agitated, anxious, worrisome, and feeling overwhelmed?
Before I focus on the single tool I have found to be most impactful, here is a list of 5 of my favorite ways to dial down persistent stress, which you can start acting on immediately:
- One of the things I love to do to calm my very active mind is to wake up 20 minutes early and set my intentions for the day. I make a list of my priorities for that particular day and then, I feel more at peace and focused as I move forward.
- I have started to keep a gratitude journal and to share it with my daughter. I think it’s a good practice for both of us to maintain a healthy perspective.
- I believe that mindfulness about the influx of information from social media and the constant pull of it can be very helpful in stress management. We have a barrage of constant information coming our way. At night and in the morning, I think it’s important to turn these things off and to focus on the moment. I think taking time to simplify our environment, even for a short period, and to breathe can be very restorative.
- I have started to incorporate essential oils into my bedtime ritual. I think the fragrances can be transporting and soothing and can assist with dialing down that sense of urgency that can lead to generalized stress.
- This is one that I am working on, but I think it’s healthy to consider indulging in a relaxing and restorative spa treatment every few months to allow yourself to have time to focus on you. It will help you take better care of others in the long run.
Now, I will turn to the one simple lifestyle intervention can do more good than any cream, lotion, or dermatological procedure: meditation. A few short years ago, if someone started talking to me about the benefits of yoga or meditation, I would immediately stop listening. I was a multitasker, a type A powerhouse. I was a sweater, a runner, a trampoline jumper, not a deep breather. Relax? That was just not in my vocabulary. But people who are crazy-efficient multitaskers actually need to read this section more than anybody else. In fact, meditation is a shortcut to a calm mind-and, in turn, to calm skin. I try to meditate once daily.
What makes meditation so powerful? It has the goal of triggering what’s called the relaxation response, a term popularized by Dr. Herbert Benson at Harvard Medical School. During the relaxation response, the body releases chemicals and brain signals that relieve tension in your muscles, slow down your organs, and increase blood flow to your brain. This response can reduce the pain, discomfort, and anxiety that often manifest themselves in skin conditions (among other things). Scientists now theorize that the biological events taking place during the relaxation response essentially prevent the body from translating psychological worry into physical inflammation. The experience of the relaxation response appears to change cellular connections in areas of the brain associated with reactions to stress. And the good news is that nurturing a daily practice that turns on your relaxation response can help you more easily cope with stressors in your life that persist or even worsen.
You can engage in an activity that triggers the relaxation response simply by stopping for a moment to be fully present (mindful) with your breathing and controlling your inhalations and exhalations. Deep breathing can be done anywhere, anytime. If you’ve never meditated before, a deep-breathing practice twice daily will get you started and give you a foundation for working up to more advanced techniques. There are apps on your phone like Headspace or Breethe that many of my patients use and love. Restoring your skin’s balance, and your overall wellness, doesn’t have to be overly complicated. This is one simple change that can make a world of difference for your health, which will be reflected in your healthy glow from the inside out and the outside in.