Stress and Breakouts – What’s the Connection?

We’ve all been there. You’re tired, stressed or worried about something and then, as if the universe is purposefully trying to make everything even worse, you notice a red pimple that emulates Mt. Everest on your chin. You’ve always heard that the idea of stress and acne being connected was nothing but an old wives’ tale, but now you’re wondering if maybe this isn’t a coincidence.

As it turns out, you would be correct in your thinking. You really weren’t imagining all those times you thought your acne got worse because you were stressed out about something. There is a growing mountain of evidence, both scientific and anecdotal, that says there is a connection between the amount of stress you’re experiencing and the health of your skin.

While you might have grown accustomed to the occasional pimple during exam time or when you have a major work deadline approaching, stress related acne becomes even more troublesome when the source of stress isn’t that bad. Our bodies respond in a similar way to “good” stress, like the weeks building up to your wedding day or your anticipation over finally landing your dream job. If you want your skin to stay healthy looking through the ups and down of daily stress, it’s important to begin by understanding the real connection between stress and skin health.

The Science Behind Stress and Acne

Let’s start by getting down to the nitty gritty details of the scientific connection between stress and acne. It all starts with a substance called sebum.

Sebum is an oily substance secreted by your skin that mixes with all sorts of not so great stuff, like dead skin cells, dirt, sweat and bacteria. The result is a thick substance that settles in and clogs pores or hair follicles. This is the foundation of every pimple that has ever existed.

Now that we have the basics of a pimple figured out, let’s switch gears for a minute and talk about stress. When you are stressed, there are a numerous things happening on a physiological level. Stress, and the physiological responses in creates, are meant to be a protective mechanism. Thanks to many modern day comforts, we have less of a need for these protective mechanisms. For instance, it’s suggested that one of the reasons we gain weight in response to stress has something to do with how our ancient ancestors responded to periods of time when food sources were scarce. Granted, we weren’t there, but we can reasonably assume the threat of starvation was a stressful event.  

One of the body’s responses to stress is the release of stress-related hormones. One in particular – corticotrophin releasing hormone, or CRH – relates directly to the formation of acne. CRH binds to receptors in the sebaceous glands where sebum is produced. The binding of CRH to the receptors puts the production of sebum into overdrive.

The result of this process? A higher level of sebum, which equals a higher incidence of acne in response to stress.

The Non-Scientific Approach

While we can connect acne with the surge of stress hormones, one could make the argument that there are other factors at play here. We tend to act differently when we’re under stress, even though these changes in behavior might be so slight that you barely notice them. Still, they exist, and they could be having an impact on the health of your skin.

For instance, how many of us develop nervous twitches or compulsions when we’re stressed. We might chew on the end of a pencil, tap our foot or even head to the gym when we normally wouldn’t to work off some nervous energy. Your body is in a heighted state of awareness when you’re stressed, so these minor behavior changes are a normal way of your body acclimating to a stressful environment.

Some of these behaviors can indirectly result in a dreaded acne breakout. Take for example, how people are more likely to repeatedly touch their face when they’re stressed. They might continually brush hair off their face, rub their eyes or rest their chin on their hands as they indulge in stress induced nail biting. Each time you bring your hand to your face, you’re facilitating the transfer of dirt, oils and bacteria. The more frequently you touch your face, the more transfer that occurs. It’s easy to see how stress-related behaviors can increase the chance of a breakout.  

Likewise, stress is more likely to lead to poor lifestyle habits that can further contribute to acne, such as not getting enough sleep, not eating a healthy diet or simply not having the energy to keep up with your regular skin care routine.

The Vicious Cycle

As if the original source of your stress wasn’t bad enough, suddenly you’re also concerned about the health and appearance of your skin. At this point, it feels like the point needs to be made about how your appearance shouldn’t have such a significant impact on how you feel, but we all know that this is easier said than done.

Teens who suffer from chronic acne often have lower self esteem than their peers, and adults who are have “outgrown” acne but then are suddenly blindsided by a breakout can also take a significant hit to their self-image. This is especially true if stress related acne coincides with an event where you want to look your best – like a wedding, prom, first day of a new job, meeting your boyfriend’s parents or right before a big presentation.

Many people freely admit that the health of their skin directly affects how they feel, and so they naturally feel an even greater amount of stress when their skin isn’t blemish free. This begins a vicious cycle of stress induced acne that leads to even more stress, which – you guessed it – makes the acne even worse.

Steps to Reduce Stress Related Acne

Unfortunately, not many of us can just make the decision to remove stress from our lives and have it magically happen. The fact is that you can’t always control the amount of stress you have in your life. What you can work towards is learning how to control the way you react to stress and as a result, how much it affects your overall health - including that of your skin.

When stress starts to build up, try a few of these tips for creating a healthier balance.

  • Keep it in perspective. Easier said than done, but if possible, try to remove yourself from the situation and look at it from the perspective of an outsider. When we’re close to the situation the small stuff accumulates into one giant stress trigger. Sometimes taking the time to realize that the small stuff can be broken down into manageable chunks takes the pressure off.
  • Show gratitude. If someone asked how many of us were guilty of indulging in a little self-pity with stress as the guest of honor, I would be one of the first to raise my hand. It’s also true that it doesn’t take much to snap me out of it when I take a moment to realize everything that I am grateful for. Gratitude is also great for keeping things in perspective (see above).
  • Take care of yourself. If you’re like most people, self-care is one of the first things to fly out the window when stress knocks on the door. It can be hard to focus on the daily rituals of self-care but keeping up your routine is important for your health. Plus, making yourself a priority has a magical way of making you feel a little better.
  • Get some fresh air. Get outside and clear the cobwebs – bonus points if your time outside involves a little bit of a cardio workout to get the circulation moving.
  • Drink plenty of water. Make sure you keep yourself hydrated. Stress puts extra strain on your entire body and being dehydrated only makes this worse. Hydration is also important for skin health, so if you want to keep the stress acne away, make sure to drink your 8 glasses a day.
  • Talk it out. Having a support network to help you through the stressful times is important. Lean on your family, friends or a therapist when stress runs high. You might also find some relief by connecting with a support group who is going through the same stressful situation as you.
  • Take extra good care of your skin. This doesn’t mean you should go all in on a brand new skin care routine, but now isn’t the time to cut any corners either. Stick to your regular skin care routine, no matter what is going on to cause your stress. Now is also a good time to consider adding in a gentle exfoliant. Just make sure you to stick to only once, or maybe twice, a week to start.

Stress is an unavoidable part of life. Unfortunately, you might not be able to prevent every stress related acne breakout, but you can take steps to minimize your stress and the effect it has on your skin. Most importantly, remember that every situation is temporary and what causes you stress today could transform into something beautiful tomorrow.

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