Do your cheeks get red when you feel embarrassed? If so, you know what it feels like to have your emotions affect your skin.
But blushing is just the tip of the iceberg.
Turns out there’s a strong connection between mind and skin, and we’re just starting to figure it out. Early research indicates that how we feel can affect how our skin looks and acts, and may even factor into what sort of skin conditions we may suffer from.
It’s all very individual, though. While your stress may show up in breakouts, your friend may suffer a rosacea flare-up instead. A third person may break out in hives.
How might your emotions be affecting your skin—and is there anything you can do about it?
The Brain-Skin Connection
We have quite a bit of evidence that stress and negative emotions can show up as skin trouble. In a 2014 review, for example, researchers examined studies on the “brain-skin connection,” and found that stress—including mental, physical, and emotional pressure—definitely affects skin.
When you’re under stress, the following is likely to happen:
- You release hormones that encourage inflammation and decrease blood flow to the skin.
- The nerves in the skin become irritated, and may increase inflammation or stimulate allergic reactions.
- Skin recruits the immune system to fight, which can cause inflammation.
- Rosacea, acne, and psoriasis flare-up.
- There might be damage to your skin’s outer layer, resulting in dull, dry skin.
- Production of moisturizing and plumping lipids declines.
- Skin healing, repair, and restoration is delayed.
You’ve heard that stress is bad for your heart and your health overall. Now we know that it can also wreak havoc on your skin. If you’ve suspected that you break out when you’re stressed, you’re probably right!
“The bond between skin and mind has deep roots,” say the researchers at Harvard Women’s Health Watch, “going back at least as far as skin-to-skin contact between newborn and mother….”
The connection is thought to be so solid that there’s a name for the field—“psychodermatology.” In fact, many dermatologists have found that people who go to see the doctor for a skin condition often have a related psychological problem that is related to the skin issue—and that can, at times, make it difficult for standard treatments to work.
For example, whereas some people may get better with antibiotics, anti-inflammatory drugs, or topical ointments, people who have a psychological element involved in a skin condition will likely not experience complete recovery until both the psychological issue and the skin issue are resolved.
“The skin seems to have a unique ability to both respond to our emotions and stir up our emotions,” says Ted Grossbart, M.D., and author of Skin Deep: A Mind-Body Program for Healthy Skin. “It’s the one suit that we wear all the time, but we change it to fit our moods as much as anything else we wear.”
Mindfulness May Help Clear Up Your Skin
Would you be surprised to learn that hypnosis and mind-body techniques like relaxation and meditation hold the key to clear skin for many people?
It’s because the brain and nervous system influence the skin’s immune cells. One study, for instance, found that patients who were less stressed before surgery had higher levels of healing immune cells in their skin, experienced less pain after the operation, and enjoyed shorter recoveries.
Individuals under chronic stress, on the other hand, may fall victim to skin diseases, because the stress disrupts the outer layer, making the skin more vulnerable to assaults from bacteria, viruses, fungi, and pollution.
Skin conditions that become worse when we experience stress include:
Of course many of these skin conditions can cause difficult emotions, such as embarrassment, low self-esteem, and additional stress, creating a difficult cycle to break.
When dermatologists suspect a strong mind-skin connection, they may recommend additional treatments, including:
- Mind-body techniques
- Focused breathing
Hypnosis, for example, was found in studies to help reduce stress and anxiety, while at the same time taming inflammation, controlling itching, speeding healing, and even shrinking warts.
Standard psychotherapy has also found to be helpful. Patients learn how their emotions are affecting their skin, and how those emotions can actually “speak through the skin,” giving them important clues as to how they’re feeling or adapting.
Skin Reactions to Different Emotions
Everyone is different, and may suffer from different skin conditions in response to their emotions, but there are some emotions that are often linked to specific skin reactions.
When you experience these emotions, for instance, you may suffer from the following:
Of course we can’t stop experiencing emotions, or going through stressful times. That’s just life. So what can we do to minimize the effect on skin?
How to Keep Your Emotions from Wreaking Havoc on Your Skin
The key is to do your best to balance both your emotions/stress and your skin routine. Here are the tips that may help:
1. Watch out for stress eating
When we get stressed, the body releases hormones that can compel us to eat unhealthy stuff. Fast foods and high-sugar foods are both bad for your skin, and will further deplete its defenses against stress-induced changes. We all slip now and then, but try to stick to your healthy diet even during stressful times.
2. Get into relaxation
Studies have found that mindfulness-based techniques like meditation, yoga, tai chi, hypnosis, and more can help bring your stress levels down. These activities can also help you weather those stressful times more effectively, with fewer complications showing up on your skin. Incorporate some type of mindfulness routine into your daily schedule—whichever one works for you—and stick with it.
3. Adopt an “I’m stressed” routine
We all go through stressful times. A death in the family, a move, the loss of a job, a promotion, an illness, and financial strain can all derail our usual healthy lifestyles.
Try to create an “I’m stressed” routine that you adopt when things get tough. Think of it like a rescue routine—when you do a little extra for yourself to keep your defenses strong. This routine could include:
- Becoming militant about bedtime (because it’s SO important, particularly when you’re stressed).
- Adding some supportive supplements to your diet for a few weeks, like magnesium, a vitamin B complex, omega-3 fatty acids (great for skin!), vitamin C, lemon balm, and chamomile.
- Scheduling regular relaxation times for yourself, where you get a massage or facial, enjoy a hot bath, take a relaxing walk, or spend time with a pet.
- Cutting out at least one “to-do” from your list, so you can ease up on yourself and give your body the time it needs to recover.
The more you can keep “self-care” in your mind during a stressful period, the more likely you’ll be to get through it.
Inflammation and Allergy Drug Targets – Brain-Skin Connection: Stress, Inflammation and Skin Aging
Harvard Medical School – Recognizing the Mind Skin Connectio
Everyday Health – Emotional Impact of Dry Skin