Feeling itchy? You may want to light a vanilla candle.
You know stress can make you snap at co-workers or devour the contents of your fridge. Turns out it can also mess with your skin, which is actually hard hard-wired to respond to stress, says Mark Mummert, Ph.D., a psychiatry professor at the University of North Texas Health Science Center. Skin has a large number of nerve fibers and is interconnected with the nervous system and immune system. “Stress directly affects the release of substances from the nervous system that can trigger the immune response,” says Mummert. Check out these 10 skin woes that are worsened by mental states–and find a way to relax already!
A 2012 study in Brain, Behavior, and Immunity found that people who listened to a relaxation CD before and after surgery had less stress and a speedier recovery than other patients. New findings show stress “can affect immune cells in the skin that are important in controlling wound healing,” says study co-author Elizabeth Broadbent, Ph.D., a psychology professor at the University of Auckland in New Zealand. “Listen to relaxing guided imagery on your smart phone to help boost healing,” while recovering from a root canal or a bike fall, says Elizabeth Lombardo, Ph.D., bestselling author of Better than Perfect: 7 Strategies to Crush Your Inner Critic and Create a Life You Love.
When women in a 2013 study from the journal PLoS ONE underwent a social stress test before being exposed to pain-inducing hot or cold sensations on their skin, they perceived the pain as more intense. Stress triggers the release of inflammation-causing proteins called cytokines, which are involved in the immune response that can make the skin’s nerve fibers more sensitive. Whether you’re struggling with period cramps or a headache, “watching a funny video or movie can help distract you, and laughter can reduce stress and cause a release in feel-good endorphins, which can help decrease the pain,” says Lombardo.
Various studies have linked depression, anxiety and stress with symptoms of psoriasis. A 2012 review from the journal Dermatology Research and Practice reports that 44 percent of psoriasis patients had experienced stressful life events just prior to the appearance of the condition, and 88 percent had flare-ups triggered by stress. In a recent study by researchers at the University of Manchester in the UK, patients who learned mindfulness skills had less severe symptoms and better quality of life. Try a brief mindfulness meditation, says Lombardo. “Sitting with eyes closed, focus on your breath as it comes in and out. When thoughts distract you, simply refocus on your breath without judging yourself.”
4 ?Weak skin protection
In a 2015 study, researchers at Iwate Medical University in Japan investigated the effects of psychological stress on the skin’s protective barrier that keeps toxins out and holds moisture in. Their results show that stress weakened the barrier, making skin more vulnerable to infection and dehydration. Findings from the Journal of Investigative Dermatology suggest this may be caused by increased cytokines released during stress. “When you’re more infection-prone, like when your child has a cold or you’re visiting a friend in the hospital, make sure you are getting enough liquids and adequate sleep,” says Lombardo. “Aim for 7 to 8 hours to help reduce stress and revamp your immune system.”
Though researchers are still unclear on how mental health and eczema are connected, they believe the key could be an overactive autonomic nervous system, which helps regulate stress. This may lead to an inflammatory immune response “thought to be important for disease flaring in psychologically stressed patients with atopic dermatitis,” says Mummert, whose 2012 review covered this link. Substances related to inflammation have been found in the blood of patients during flare-ups. “Writing out your thoughts and feelings–whether about what you’re grateful for or upset about–can reduce stress and even boost your immune system,” says Lombardo.
6 Hair loss
A 2014 study in the Indian Journal of Dermatology found that 38 percent of patients with alopecia areata–a skin disorder that causes hair loss–had depression, while 62 percent had anxiety. While these could result from dealing with the disorder, findings suggest they may trigger the disease or its recurrence, and a 2012 study linked the condition to stressful life events–especially those involving family relationships. For patients who struggle with alopecia, these might be valuable areas to explore with a therapist. “A good therapist can give you new tools to help reduce your stress, depression and anxiety,” says Lombardo.
Lichen planus is a common rash that affects the inside of the mouth and other areas of the skin. Research published in 2014 in the Journal of Clinical & Diagnostic Research compared patients with the condition to a group of healthy participants. Patients had significantly higher anxiety and levels of cortisol (a stress-related hormone), and a 2015 study found similar results for people with canker sores. “Go jump on the bed, dance to your favorite tune or go for a walk,” suggests Lombardo. “Any type of exercise can help reduce stress and anxiety.”
Chronic stress can trigger or worsen itching, whether it’s part of another skin condition or not. A review published in the journal Experimental Dermatology in April 2013 suggests that the autonomic nervous system is involved here, too, and that stress can cause changes in certain areas of the brain that can actually rewire the circuits involved in itch perception! Use the power of scent to help relieve stress,” says Lombardo. “Vanilla and citrus scents have been shown to promote relaxation and a more positive mood, so light a vanilla candle or keep your orange peels out instead of throwing them away.”
You know acne is associated with stress, but research has also linked it with depression and anxiety. In a scientific review published in 2011 in the journal Gut Pathogens, experts suggest that emotional distress may mess with the balance of gut bacteria (a hot topic in recent years), leading to inflammation throughout the body, including–you got it–the skin. “Nature is a great way to reduce stress, and even looking outside or at a picture of a nature scene can help,” explains Lombardo. So even when you can’t get outside, you can still get a stress-busting nature fix.
Stress is a common trigger for facial flushing in rosacea sufferers, and new study from the Journal of Neurophysiology suggests it may be due to an overactive fight-or-flight response (of the sympathetic nervous system). Researchers suggest that rosacea alters the sympathethic nervous system in a way that makes it more vulnerable to triggers like stress. Many patients manage flare-ups with stress-reduction techniques like deep breathing and visualization. “Just close your eyes and imagine a relaxing scene, like being on the beach or sitting by a cozy fire,” suggests Lombardo. “Imagine yourself actually being there, experiencing the scents, sounds and sensations.”