Many of us recognise that stress is a common reason for skin conditions to flare up. This is particularly the case when it comes to chronic inflammatory skin conditions such as eczema, psoriasis, acne and rosacea. In the fast-paced modern world, very few of us are lucky enough to be able to claim no stress at all, and these varying grades of worry and anxiety may in some susceptible individuals cause worsening of these skin issues.
So have you ever wondered why the stress response can affect the skin so directly? Well, there is no doubt the scientific literature recognises a bidirectional pathway between the brain and the skin – the two organs communicate with each other. Through a number of mechanisms, psychological stress triggers a chain of events in the human body which can directly impact the skin.
- Stress activates a communication pathway between the brain and the adrenal glands known as the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. A sequence of hormones is released which in turn triggers the body’s adrenal glands to produce cortisol and adrenaline.
- Stress activates the sympathetic nervous system, which is behind the body’s “flight or fight” response to threats or danger. This results in further production of adrenaline via the adrenal glands.
The activation of these two pathways thereby results in spikes of cortisol and adrenaline. The skin is a target organ for these chemicals, which act to modulate skin blood flow as well as immune and inflammatory response. Adding to this mix, the skin itself is also able to directly produce these hormones in response to stress, further driving dysregulation of the skin’s immune system.
Stress therefore triggers changes in the skin via the brain and the sympathetic nervous system, but also directly affects the function of the skin itself. These mechanisms act together and can potentially lead to the worsening of a number of inflammatory skin conditions.
So what can we do? Well, removing stress from modern day life is difficult. Even when things are going well, there is a level of uncertainty and unpredictability that we all need to learn to manage. However, managing stress may well have a positive impact on skin flare-ups and understanding the link between the mind and skin can help this. So the million dollar question remains, how do we reduce stress in our daily lives? I’m not going to tout the benefits of yoga and meditation here, but I do think you need to find an outlet that works for you, be that breathing exercises, listening to your favourite music, working out, reducing screen time, cooking or simply culling your social media feed so it includes only things that make you feel good. If finances allow, then professional help from a clinical psychologist can be a key method in supporting you through your journey with your skin. When it comes to skin problems and stress, the end goal is always to have you in a position where you are in control of your skin – and that your skin is not controlling you.