It’s Wednesday. You’re at work and you’re struggling to get the rest of your team to cooperate. Or maybe you just haven’t been sleeping well, the kids have been on their worst behavior, you’re fighting with your best friend, and you just had a major argument with your spouse. To top it all off, you’ve been so busy lately, you just haven’t had time to sit down, relax, and recharge.
What do all of these examples have in common? They’re all risk factors for stress, the number one experience of virtually every person alive in the world today. No matter what your lifestyle is like, you probably experience stress at least occasionally as you navigate everyday life.
The bad news: stress can negatively influence your health and your appearance, making you look and feel tired, depressed, anxious, and just strapped of energy.
The good news: knowing risk factors for stress, how it affects your appearance and health, and how you can beat it can help you stay well.
That’s exactly the information we have for you today!
THE MIND-BODY CONNECTION
Everyone knows that too much stress can make you feel exhausted, worn-out, and just plain done in. If that happens over a long period of time chronically, you might begin to struggle with skin, hair, nails, and body issues, too – but why?
To answer this question, it’s important to understand what stress is and the changes it triggers in the body. It isn’t just an emotional or mental wellness experience; it alters the very processes your immune system and organs use to stay well, too.
Stress is effectively the body’s natural response to fear, pain, frustration, and any other intense (usually negative or unpleasant, but not always) experience. It is a built-in and inherent part of our instinctual fight-or-flight system, but in today’s crazy world, it can misfire or just plain go into overdrive.
When you are stressed, a few different things happen inside your body. First, your body produces more cortisol and adrenaline. These two hormones increase alertness and tell your body to be prepared to either run or fight.
In “the wild,” this has an evolutionary advantage of helping us stay safe by kicking our bodies into overdrive when we need power, speed, or protection most. But all of that increased performance comes at a price: it leads to increased wear and tear.
You only have so many reserves (both physical and mental). When you exhaust those reserves, your body struggles to keep up. To compensate, it begins to shut off or limit non-critical functions – including those that keep you looking your best!
Let’s talk about those impacts next.
HOW STRESS IMPACTS APPEARANCE
So how exactly does stress impact your appearance?
The effects most people experience are secondary, meaning that stress affects how the body functions, which in turn affects how you look.
Here’s an example.
Let’s say you’re extremely stressed out for around a week. Although you’re eating well and staying hydrated, by day two or three, your body begins to reduce digestion efficiency and waste removal in an effort to balance needs. Those high cortisol and adrenaline levels begin to affect other hormones, affecting the body’s cellular renewal rate in negative ways.
Eventually, chronic stress also causes mild to moderate inflammation throughout the body (aches and pains, anyone?). This inflammation forces your body to work harder to clear toxins and renew cells in an efficient manner.
Your immune system changes, too. Depending on your unique health picture, it may become overactive (even to the point of attacking your own body, in some cases) or underactive. You become more likely to struggle with infections that cause acne, skin problems, oral health care problems, and fungal infections – and you also have a harder time recovering from them when you do.
Next, let’s explore some of the specific ways your appearance might be affected and what you can do to get back on track.
What’s the deal with stress and the skin, anyway? The unfortunate answer is that the skin just isn’t as important in terms of survival as other systems, like the heart, lungs, or liver. When you become stressed, its overall function is often the first to take a hit.
Most research reflects that chronic stress suppresses the immune and hormonal system, both of which have big impacts on how healthy your skin is over time. High cortisol levels lead to acne breakouts as skin becomes less efficient at clearing out environmental toxins and bacteria. Glands produce less or more oil, adding to the problem.
Remember we mentioned that stress causes poor cellular regrowth? For the skin, that means developing a dull, mottled appearance or even fine lines and wrinkles. Yes, you read that right – stress can sometimes make you appear older.
All of this can, of course, aggravate chronic skin conditions like rosacea, keratosis, dermatitis, eczema and psoriasis. Flares may last much longer or be more difficult to ameliorate, even with medications.
Cortisol also affects your nails by stripping biotin from your body, an essential nutrient involved in renewal, growth, and strength. High adrenaline also draws moisture and oils away from your hands, leading to dryness that can produce cracking, uneven tone, and splitting.
A reduction in digestion efficiency adds another layer to this complex picture, causing subtle vitamin and mineral deficiencies that make it harder for your nails to function in a healthy manner. Ridges and pitting can be a symptom of advanced chronic stress. Then, there’s the fact that many of us absent-mindedly chew our nails when we’re feeling out of control, too, causing direct damage.
The idea of someone being so stressed out they lose all of their hair isn’t new. In fact, it’s been used as a trope in the entertainment industry for almost as long as the entertainment industry has existed!
But here’s the thing: it’s actually based in reality (sorry, we know that isn’t good news). Excess cortisol over a consistent period of time interrupts the hair shaft growth cycle, meaning hair grows faster but reaches the end of its life span faster, too. But renewal cycles (new hair growth) don’t receive the same boost; you begin to lose more hair than you produce, which might result in thinning.
The same consequences of poor digestion efficiency that cause dry and brittle nails can also impact your hair. As biotin is stripped away from the scalp and early hair shaft, hair becomes dull, loses shine, and breaks more easily when you brush it. Unfortunately, many people write this kind of damage off to dye or chemical processing when really, it’s exacerbated by the stress they’re experiencing, too.
STRESS PREVENTION STRATEGIES
Okay. You know what you’re up against, now what can you do about it? First, know that self-care is critical – and that includes caring for your appearance. It isn’t JUST indulgent to have a solid skin care regimen, a weekly or biweekly facial, or even the occasional day at the spa, especially if your life is a little… cray cray.
That precious time you spend will help you improve your appearance, but it also encourages you to care about yourself and relax, helping to ameliorate the negative impacts of stress even as they occur.
Additionally, hone your at-home appearance coping strategies. Have a plan for what to do when you’re struggling with your skin, hair or nails due to chronic stress. Adapt your routine to eliminate issues like dullness, dryness, or breakouts. Not only will you look better, but you’ll avoid becoming even more stressed out by trying to manage your appearance problems at the same time as everyday life.
DIET AND HYDRATION
Diet and hydration is everything. Getting the right nutrients without the toxic ingredients associated with processed junk is by far your best approach.
“Drink your water” has never been so important! Keep a cold drink (preferably water) by your side all day long; sip it often. If your urine is trending toward dark yellow, you’re probably already dehydrated. Add in more water to balance it out.
Eating-wise, choose whole foods whenever you can. Skip the burgers and have a salad full of leafy green vegetables. Fish is a great choice for skin, hair, and nails, especially if it’s oily fish like salmon or trout. Avocados contain loads of healthy fats and essential ingredients to help you look and feel your best. Whole-grain breads, rice, pasta, and oatmeal can all help you produce more serotonin (your brain’s happy chemical) without experiencing negative carb overload.
Lastly, learn how to relax. It’s the most important skill you’ll ever develop because it literally is what allows you to cope when life gets rough. Sadly, few of us have ideal coping skills in place – and even those of us who do can struggle sometimes.
Try taking up yoga, running, meditation, or even just escaping with a good book. If you find yourself feeling completely overwhelmed, consider seeing a therapist. Even if you’re completely well, therapy can be super useful for honing coping skills and just having a place to vent where you won’t be judged. It’s worth it!