“OMG not again!?!!”
As if dealing with stress in your life wasn’t enough, stress-induced acne makes everything worse.
I totally understand!
You’re probably pretty well clued into the regular stressors, like exams, moves, your job, squabbles with a loved one, travel, money worries. And if your complexion is susceptible to stress, you’ve seen blemishes pop up to accompany experiences like these.
However, there are more, even sneakier ways stress can trigger your acne you should be aware of. And that’s what we’re going to explore right now.
First, though, I want to remind you that stress isn’t the CAUSE of your acne.
The root cause of your acne is a genetic skin condition called retention hyperkeratosis, which causes your skin’s normal, continuous shedding process to go haywire.
Ordinarily, a layer of dead skin cells is shed inside the pore each day. However, people with acne-prone skin produce up to 5x more dead cells than normal, and the excess dead cells stay stuck on the skin’s surface and clog your pores. The resulting plug (known as a microcomedone), when mixed with oil, forms a blackhead. When infected with bacteria, forms a blemish.
Stress is one of four primary acne triggers that aggravate this faulty process and perpetuate your breakouts. And that’s why it’s so important we dive deeper into this topic, so you’re aware of the insidious ways stress can impact your skin. Because the better equipped you are to control your stress, the better you can control your acne.
The key signs you have stress breakouts.
- Location and duration. Stress-induced breakouts commonly occur on the chin and jawline. They’re red, inflamed and last for 1-2 weeks. They typically occur within 48 hours of a stressful event and they’re a form of hormonal acne (more on that shortly).
- Type A personality. Is this you? Generally hard working, driven, determined to succeed. Total multi-tasker. Hate wasting time and can feel irritated when delayed. You’re motivated and often work like crazy to accomplish a goal, even at the expense of your health.
While these qualities are great for getting ahead in life, they also open you to a lot of stress or anxiety, especially if you’re juggling a bunch of projects, keep adding more, and want everything done yesterday. Though the stress can help push you through to completion, it can take a major toll on your physical and emotional health. And, no surprise, trigger never-ending acne.
- Anxiety. Everyone experiences occasional bouts of anxiety; it’s part of human nature. But for some people, anxiety takes hold. And they can’t shake frequent, intense, excessive and persistent worry and fear about everyday situations. For some, their anxiety disorders can even peak in terrifying panic attacks.
Primary symptoms include having difficulty controlling worry, experiencing gastrointestinal problems, feeling nervous, restless or tense, having trouble sleeping, having a sense of impending danger, panic or doom, and more. If you have elevated anxiety like this, you are vulnerable to increased stress-related breakouts.
- You’re female. If you’re a woman, especially be aware. Females are more susceptible to stress-induced acne because of the surges of testosterone that occur, which impact the adrenal glands versus the testes in males. Also, because females have lower levels of testosterone to begin with, even minor changes can have a bigger impact than males.
- Severe trauma, death in the family and emergency situations. Unusual circumstances like these can greatly elevate stress and trigger acne. In very rare situations, pyoderma faciale (also known as rosacea fulminans) can be triggered. Usually confined to the face and usually only in females, the onset is typically acute and consists of pustular lesions and cystic swellings, which are itchy, tender and painful.
Stress can be an endless irritant.
Every day, what’s more, you’re bombarded with a unique “personalized” blend of stressors, which reflect your life situation, including your health, relationships, finances and work. Your outlook and where you fall on the spectrum of stress, anxiety and Type A personality traits further influence your stress “blueprint” and how you react to stressful situations.
For example, what sends a friend’s stress through the roof—like an unexpected car repair bill—is a no brainer for you because you’re not worried about money. On the other hand, maybe you feel awkward and stressed about going to the gym while your partner gets super pumped and excited. Maybe it’s a host of little things, like a friend who’s always five minutes late, a roommate that never refills the toilet paper roll, or a teenage child who leaves the car on empty. These and a thousand other irritants can add up and whittle away at your reserves and your health.
How you deal with your stress is another important factor.
What happens when you feel stressed? Do you make massages, meditation, exercise, soothing tea, walks on the beach, hiking in the mountains or some other relaxing method a priority?
Or do you ignore stress and stuff it down because you don’t have the time or energy to deal with the situation?
Here’s the thing, the longer you ignore stress, the more you don’t deal with it, the greater the hold it takes. And what can emerge in your body and emotions as a hint of an issue—a brief headache or a few pimples—if left unchecked, can escalate into bigger and bigger health concerns.
The hormonal connection between stress and acne.
When you’re experiencing elevated stress, your adrenal glands (small glands located on top of each kidney) produce elevated cortisol, a hormone that helps you respond to stress and has many other important functions. It’s also needed for “fight or flight,” which is a normal response to perceived threats.
Fight or flight is a response we want to happen when we see a bear in the woods (i.e., pull out the “bear mace” or run like hell). However, when we’re stressed all the time, this process kicks in unnecessarily. For example, if you have a belligerent boss or co-worker that’s always picking at you and making you feel bad, it’s not a do-or-die situation, though it can feel like it when you have to face the agony every day. In a situation like this, your stress level stays high, it never subsides back to normal.
However, when you’re in constant high-stress mode, your cortisol levels stay high, which can lead to problems such as weight gain, suppressed immune system, digestive problems, heart disease and more. Stressful situations like these can trigger stress EVEN MORE, in an escalating feedback loop that can be dangerous for your health.
Meanwhile, the increased stress you experience ALSO activates your adrenal glands to produce elevated androgen hormones. The elevated androgen hormones stimulate the sebaceous glands beneath the skin in acne-sensitive pores. The increased oil production then combines with dead skin cells, debris and bacteria, and triggers microcomedones to flare to the surface, causing an inflamed breakout.
Unfortunately, the more stressed you are about your acne, the more at risk you are for depression. Which is stressful. And which can trigger even more acne. This is the horrible roller coaster ride of acne that keeps perpetuating itself.
Are you seeing why it’s so critical to get stress under control, so you can safeguard your health and your skin?
Even though I’ve kept my skin clear for years now, if I let my Type A personality push, push, push so I get super caught up in work and don’t stop for lunch day after day, stress will catch up with me and I’ll get a breakout.
That’s my big sign to SLOW DOWN. To pause for a moment. Take a deep breath. I’ll even have a conversation with stress! I’ll ask “What’s really going on? Is this truly a big deal? How can I reframe this situation into a more positive outlook?”. Your acne is always telling you a story, you just need to pay attention to “hear” the headline.
My other go-to survival skills include mindfulness meditation and gardening. For me, they’re like putting deposits into my RELAX account, that I can draw on whenever stress threatens to overwhelm me. Meditation and gardening are my lifelines back to calmness and focus.
What’s most important for YOU, is to consider the impact of stress in your life.
What’s causing you stress right now? Do you suspect stress is triggering your breakouts? What exercises, activities, breathing techniques or mindset shifts would help bring greater calmness into your life? Would professional support be useful? Is there ONE shift you could make right now that would help you take back control, even just a little? I often like to ask myself, “Will this really matter tomorrow?”. This really puts things into perspective.
As you’ve seen, stress comes in many forms and has many inroads to triggering acne. The good news is, the more you regain control over stress, the healthier you will be overall. In turn, you’ll be better equipped to keep your acne at bay and find your way back to clear skin.