Stress is often blamed as a major obstacle to maintaining healthy skin, interfering with the body's efforts to keep the skin in good, supple, effective condition.
But do we really understand what's going on, and, more importantly, is there anything we can do to help skin cope with stress?
Understanding stress hormones
When we feel stressed, frightened or threatened our bodies release stress hormones to help us to cope. This is a useful, necessary process that's triggered when we enter into what's known as the fight or flight response, a mechanism in the body that enables humans and animals to mobilise a lot of energy rapidly when they're faced with threats to their survival.
When you feel threatened, the stress hormone cortisol is released into the bloodstream and triggers various processes which allow your body to deal with the immediate threat. Once the threat is over, cortisol levels drop, and you gradually return to your usual state.
What happens long-term?
The problem is that our bodies are only designed to cope with short bursts of cortisol into the bloodstream, and problems can occur when people are stressed for prolonged periods of time and continually releasing cortisol... which, let’s face it, lots of us are!
What with money worries, family and relationship issues, work stresses, school anxiety and so many other things to fret over on a daily basis, many people have high levels of stress hormones in their bodies much of the time. This is when cortisol becomes our enemy rather than a helpful friend.
One negative effect of prolonged cortisol release is that collagen formation can be inhibited. Collagen is a fibrous protein that provides strength, waterproofing and elasticity to the skin; it's what makes the skin barrier robust and healthy! Think of the skin as a wall or a waterproof mac: it stops irritants getting in and prevents water from getting lost! Without regular production of collagen to fortify its defences, skin struggles to retain moisture, which is vital to maintaining healthy, supple skin.
The inflammatory issue...
Prolonged cortisol levels can also interfere with the body’s ability to regulate inflammatory responses. This can be a real problem for eczema sufferers, as over-reaction is at the heart of the condition: people with eczema react with excessive inflammation to all sorts of triggers, whether dietary, environmental or internal, with the heat, redness, itching and swelling we know so well.
Couple this overreaction with faulty collagen production and problems with retaining moisture, and you can see how prolonged periods of stress can really batter our skin's ability to stay healthy and robust.
So what can we do about it?!
Sometimes it’s easy to identify what is causing stress in your or your children’s life, and maybe it’s just something that will subside naturally with time, but for many of us stress is a regular fixture in our lives.
This requires some day to day tools that we can fall back on to help us feel more relaxed, happy and calm, reducing the cortisol levels in our body. If you’re feeling super stressed and your skin is really struggling, see below for some stress relieving tips for adults and children.
De-stressing tips for adults
Aerobic activity can really help to disperse high levels of cortisol. It doesn’t have to be full-scale gymnastics three times a week: even just a walk, bike ride, taking the stairs instead of the lift, a stroll to the shop instead of driving or a good old dance around the kitchen to your favourite tune can help! If you can fit it in though, a yoga class (particularly good as it relaxes the mind too), swimming, Zumba, jogging or any aerobic activity a few times a week can work wonders for reducing stress.
Just the word meditation can stress people out, but if that's the case for you, maybe it’s worth a second thought?! Meditation, at its simplest, is just making time to empty your mind and feel calm for a bit. Even just a few deep breaths, a few minutes a day, will engage the vagus nerve, which sends a signal to the nervous system to slow heart rate and decrease cortisol.
There are lots and lots of different techniques so you need to find one that works for you, but here’s a link to a very simple quick one to get you started. Meditation Tips for Beginners
Yes, that's a technical term for just hanging out with the people you love! Studies show that spending time with friends can reduce cortisol levels. Spending face-to-face time with people who make you feel good, including physical affectionate touch, increases oxytocin (the happy hormone) and reduces cortisol (the stress hormone). So more hugs and hanging out is the order of the day.
Don’t underestimate the power of a good ol’ belly laugh! Studies show that increased laughter = decreased stress hormones. Make time to hang out with people who make you laugh, watch some comedy (a live show is best of all) or watch giggling babies and silly kittens on YouTube perhaps.
Do whatever it is that makes you chuckle - it really does do you good!
Listening to music you love has also been shown to reduce cortisol levels. Get yourself a set of headphones and put a selection of your favourite music on your phone, tablet or iPod. Next time you are travelling on a busy bus/train/tube, instead of reading more work related emails, overthinking the day’s events or worrying about how you can juggle three days worth of tasks into just one hour, plug in and drift off into your own little world for ten minutes of music – count it as therapy!
De-stressing tips for kids
It's a sad fact that increasing numbers of children are suffering from stress. With clear links between stress hormones and skin conditions, it could be worth trying some of the tips below to help reduce stress in your child’s life.
Tell your child it's OK not to be perfect
There is a huge amount of pressure on children and young adults to be high performers at everything. Hard work and achievement are an important part of life but it is equally important to remind children that not being perfect and getting things wrong is totally OK and an important part of life’s journey. We all do it! If your child is someone who feels this kind of pressure, it might help to remind them that there is no such thing as perfect and that the journey is where the gold is!
Focus on the positives
It's easy for children to get lost in negative thoughts and self-criticism, especially if they are prone to peer comparison. Take time to remind them of their positive attributes and make time to do activities with them that make them feel good.
Make time for fun and silliness
So many of the activities our kids do are competitive and anxiety-generating. Make time for child-friendly, screen-free, non-competitive fun and silliness. Climbing trees, a picnic, a tea party, cinema, painting, swimming, indoor play areas, a day out to a castle or the woods...
Children learn from parent/grown-up behaviour, so don’t forget to look after your own emotional and psychological well-being. If you're stressed and anxious then your children are likely to pick up on that, and might feel the same. Take measures to be calm and happy as much as possible. Children will look to parents to determine how to react to situations, so try to stay calm and react in a way that makes your children feel safe too. Often easier said than done, but it's a good goal to have!
Encourage your child to face their fears
Avoiding situations that make your child feel anxious can sometimes just prolong agony. By teaching your child to face their fears they learn that anxiety naturally subsides with time and the feeling goes away. The body is designed to reduce anxious feelings and calm down after about 20-45 minutes of being in an stressful situation.
It's so important for children to get enough sleep; it really does makes a difference to their coping abilities. Try to stick to the same bedtime every night, even at weekends and in holiday times too.
A thirty minute pre-bedtime routine can work wonders for winding down before sleep. Try to avoid using screens as a part of this routine as this can have the opposite effect.
Encourage your child to express anxiety
If your child seems anxious or scared try not to say phrases such as “no, you’re not!” or “you’re fine!” as this can lead them to believe you don’t listen or understand. Validate your child’s experience and have a loving discussion about their fears.
Help your child learn how to problem solve
Encourage your child to find their own solutions. This helps to build confidence that they can deal with difficult situations. Don’t solve the problem for them but if they struggle to suggest a solution you could suggest a few and encourage them to pick one they feel would work, giving them the feeling they are in control of the outcome.
You can practice simple relaxation techniques with your child that can help in stressful situations. Try ten deep breaths in and out to calm down anxious reactions. Or you could try doing a calming visualisation with them; make it relevant and interesting to your child so they follow it, like relaxing in a hammock on a warm beach and feeling the sand between your toes…
If you require medical advice we recommend you always contact your healthcare professional.
If you or someone you are caring for seems very unwell, is getting worse or you think there's something seriously wrong, call for emergency services straight away. For general medical advice, please contact your healthcare professional, this article does not contain or replace medical advice.
Do not delay getting help if you're worried. Trust your instincts.