Skin Health + Stress: 24 Ways To Manage Stress & Anxiety

woman wearing green jacket sitting on dock facing calm water in shades of green and blue

I recently read that 70% of Americans are feeling stress or anxiety about the upcoming election and the uncertainty that may follow.

You can count me among that 70%. Fighting off a migraine? Check. Not sleeping well or enough? Come on, it’s 2020. Getting distracted easily or feel mental paralysis? Ummm, yes.

The physical response to the stress and anxiety we’re feeling is fueled by our body’s chemical reaction to produce cortisol (known as the stress hormone) which impacts our system in multiple ways. Our skin is our largest organ so yes, anxiety and stress most certainly impact the health of your skin.

Did you know we can literally speed up our skin’s aging process if we don’t manage our feelings of stress and anxiety? Take a look in the mirror and tell me what you see.

Stress causes changes to our skin which reduce elasticity and collagen and contribute to wrinkle formation (think scowls and brow furrowing).
It will also aggravate any pre-existing skin issues like psoriasis, rosacea and eczema.

It can also cause hives, skin rashes and fever blister flare ups.

Anxiety can cause your body’s stress response to go into hyperdrive. Sensory symptoms to your skin may occur like burning and itching of the arms, legs, face, scalp - really anywhere on your body.

"Skin aging is characterized by formation of lines and wrinkles, increased pigmentation, loss of elasticity and firmness, and dull skin. It is a consequence of both intrinsic factors and extrinsic factors. There are two major theories for aging: the programmatic theory which focuses on reduced cellular life span, decreased responsiveness and functionality, and dysfunctional immune responses; while the stochastic theory points towards environmental damages, focusing on DNA damage, inflammation and free radical formation” (1)

So what can you do to try to stay zen? To combat this you’ve got to fight to stay healthy with a combination of attitude and action. Because sometimes you will need to trick your mind into believing you’re ok. This is the basis of the same approach athletes have towards winning.

Here’s a list of 24 things from basic to inspirational we can do to manage our stress and anxiety, and challenge these detrimental effects on our skin aging. Read, pick a few to focus on, and just get started!

1. Hydrate.

There is a brain to skin connection and your skin will likely show signs of stress possibly before your brain catches up and you allow yourself to feel it. Look for fine lines, dullness and dry patches first. There’s a decent likelihood your skin is dehydrated so fill your favorite water bottle and sip water frequently throughout the day.

2. Get enough sleep.

Science shows that quality sleep helps fight fine lines, uneven pigmentation and reduced elasticity. This is the year of insomnia and wacko sleep patterns. Try some of the suggestions on this list and if you’re still having trouble, consider talking to your doctor. Sleep is everything.

3. Eat well.
Many of the foods that help reduce stress are exactly what your skin needs to stay healthy and glowing.
  • Try eating dark chocolate which is full of antioxidants,
  • Berries like blueberries, raspberries and strawberries which are high in vitamin C.
  • Nuts like almonds and walnuts are full of healthy fats, micronutrients, minerals and antioxidants and reduce inflammation.
  • Green leafy vegetables like kale, spinach and broccoli which are high in lutein and help fight free radicals. Some say green leafy vegetables are a natural protection from UV sun damage.
  • Fish rich in Omega-3s are excellent for your skin health as well as good for your brain health and focus.
4. Cut back on sugar.

Sugar increases inflammation which breaks down collagen and elastin. In addition to sun protecting your skin on a daily basis, cutting back on sugar is one of the most impactful actions you can take towards pro-aging your skin. It also exacerbates skin conditions like acne, rosacea and eczema which are exacerbated by stress and anxiety.

5. Cut back on heavily processed food.

There’s a lot of hidden sugar in processed food, and a lot of sodium both of which wreak havoc on your skin. Sodium causes skin to swell making your face look puffy, bloated and tired. High sodium leads to weight gain and high blood pressure and contributes to stress, anxiety and depression. 

6. Salt.
That said, in a typical healthy person a balance of healthy sea salt or pink salt is necessary to your health and is said to help with anxiety.

Interpretation:  skip the french fries and in a healthy person, adding sea salt or pink salt to a home cooked meal in moderation is fine.

7. Monitor caffeine and alcohol intake.
Caffeine and alcohol dehydrate your skin and too much of either makes your skin dull. Additionally, too much of either can increase stress hormones which in turn will exacerbate your skin’s health. 

If you’re having trouble sleeping then you might want to consider adjusting your intake of both.

8. Exercise.
Get your skin glowing AND feel better. Studies show that just five minutes of aerobic exercise can help boost your mood and self esteem. FIVE minutes.

Getting exercise gets blood flowing throughout your body, carrying nutrients and oxygen to skin cells while carrying away free radicals that do damage. Exercise releases endorphins which make our brains feel happier and releases tension and feelings of anxiety.

9. Smile more.

Facial exercises tone your neck and facial muscles. Strengthening the muscles in your face and neck reduce the appearance of wrinkles and release tension caused by stress and anxiety. Like regular exercise, facial exercise increases blood circulation. While you’re at it, give yourself a mini face massage when you’re either cleansing or applying serums. Use the middle section of your fingers to gently apply pressure in circular motion. This will help stimulate blood circulation and relax tight muscles around your mouth, forehead and jawline that contribute to wrinkles, brow furrowing and headaches while also exfoliating dead skin cells or helping serums penetrate deeper into skin.

10. Try aromatherapy.

Our olfactory system has a direct line to memory and the emotional centers of our brain which is why comfort foods or foods from our childhood resonate so strongly. It is said that scents help reduce cortisol (stress) levels and contribute to feelings of calm. So why not give smelly candles or essential oils a try? Scents like lavender, bergamot, lemon, orange, ylang ylang, rosemary and peppermint are popular, but personal preference is key because of this link to our brain’s emotional center.

11. Reach out to friends and check on your family and neighbors.
Set up a zoom, social distance picnic in the park, a phone call or social distance walk. Or, leave a note for your neighbor and offer to drop off groceries.

The interaction will boost your serotonin levels which helps our mood. Serotonin enables the brain and nervous system connection and helps with sleeping, anxiety and depression. There’s a good chance you’ll smile or laugh which flexes the good muscles in your face. If you choose to walk and talk then this is exercise, facial exercise and boosting your serotonin all in one. If you cry, that’s good too because crying releases tension and stress and restores the body’s balance. Just be sure to rehydrate afterwards. 

12. Take a break from frenemies.

The pandemic has limited our social lives and one upside is not crossing paths with frenemies. Take it a step further and mute them on social media. You’ll feel better.

13. Take a break from screens and the news cycle.

Social media affects self esteem and contributes to social comparison, loneliness and inadequacy as well as feelings of depression, anxiety and stress. Because news and media is ‘on’ 24/7 it’s important to schedule breaks for yourself. Keep a log and monitor how long you’re plugged in.

14. Organize a drawer.

Or de-clutter a closet or room - pick a project that fits your time commitment so you don’t get overwhelmed. It feels good to organize, de-clutter and clean because this creates a sense of calm and order - it’s something you can control and is stress reducing. Typically this process eliminates dust, dirt and mold which will improve allergies, skin allergies, and air quality in your space.

15. Listen to music.

Music changes our mood because it activates the senses that compete with pain pathways in our brain and stimulates emotional response. Music helps us process emotion and is valid therapy for depression, stress and anxiety.

Songs allow you, and those around you, to help to calm your nervous system, relax and heal your soul.

"It brings up memories. It takes us back to places and times that we remember fondly. And it's healing in that way. Music has a way to let us express our feelings and emotions where sometimes words fall short." - Bob Huffman, Certified Music Therapist, U-M Rogel Cancer Center (2)

16. Sing.
Sing out loud, proud and maybe off key. it’s ok because singing is good for the soul.

Singing is said to release endorphins and is an effective stress reliever and helps promote healthy sleep. It exercises your lungs which help circulate oxygen to your brain and body. Just don’t do it in crowds for now.

17. Create a daily mantra.

Practice positive thinking by creating a daily mantra (or two) and repeat to yourself throughout the day. Sing it, mutter it under your breath, and talk yourself through the times when you are feeling anxious or stressed.

18. Read a book.
Or listen to an audio book or podcast that interests you.

Exercise and stimulate your brain in a positive manner to feel rejuvenated and recharged rather than feeling drained as we often do at the end of a long day of Zoom meetings and email.

19. Have a dance party.

Put on your favorite 80s music and dance by yourself or with your house mates. Remember, even five minutes of aerobic exercise will help boost your mood. Plus, it’s fun and no one’s watching.

20. Watch a movie or binge watch a series. 
A form of escapism, this is a great way to get carried away, relax and take your mind off pressing issues for a while. 
  • Recommended to me: 'Derry Girls' on Netflix (watch with subtitles on so you can follow the accents), and ‘The Social Dilemma’ on Netflix.
  • Recommended by me: 'The Queen’s Gambit’ also on Netflix.
21. Manage the amount of UV exposure your skin gets.

There is a brain to skin connection between stress, inflammation and skin aging with a UV exposure component. We recommend managing your daily UV exposure with sun protective clothing and accessories like face masks, gloves, a hat and sunglasses, and wearing sunscreen.

"The exact mechanism of how stress impacts skin aging is still quite elusive. However, recent research has provided evidence of possible pathways that might contribute to skin aging. UV irradiation is one of the major extrinsic stressors responsible for premature skin aging, thus the term “photoaging”. UV irradiation is one of the major stimulants of skin HPA axis. It induces expression of CRH, POMC peptides, ACTH, cortisol, and β-endorphin

Considering that skin is under daily UV stress, the repeated activation of the HPA axis can have detrimental effects on the skin. Long term glucocorticoids (GC) therapy for treating skin inflammatory disease has severe skin atrophy side effect, including decreased epidermal thickness, flat dermal-epidermal junction, reduced number of fibroblasts, and disruption of the dermal fibrous network, which are also hallmarks of skin aging. Several extracellular matrix proteins are negatively impacted by GC, including collagen I, collagen III, proteoglycans, and elastin” (3)

22. Take a day trip.

A change of scenery or change of routine will boost your mood and contribute to relaxation.

23. Be a rebel and disobey your mind.
Mute the negative voice inside your head. Tell your brain that you’re ok. Also tell yourself to accept that you can’t control everything. 

Psychologists say we are collectively experiencing trauma and loss over what could have been this year. Missed graduations, family reunions, social isolation, sickness and death. Practicing this type of mindfulness will help manage the stress and anxiety that’s been building up this year.

24. Go get fresh air.
Spending time in nature, breathing fresh air and smelling flowers and plants helps alleviate stress and anxiety and boosts your mood. Sit outside if even for a few minutes or take a brief walk and give yourself a pep talk. You are stronger than you think.

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Sources cited:

Election Stress Getting To You? 4 Ways To Keep Calm, npr.org

  • Cellular and molecular mechanisms of cutaneous agingYaar M, Gilchrest BA, J Dermatol Surg Oncol.
  • Free radicals and extrinsic skin agingPoljšak B, Dahmane R, Dermatol Res Pract. 

Using Music In Times of Anxiety, University of Michigan (Quote 2)

  • Psychological Stress and skin aging: a review of possible mechanisms and potential therapies, Dunn JH, Koo J, Dermatol Online J.
  • Cutaneous hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis homolog: regulation by ultraviolet radiation, Skobowiat C, Dowdy JC, Sayre RM, Tuckey RC, Slominski AAm J Physiol Endocrinol Metab. 
  • Glucocorticoid therapy-induced skin atrophy, Schoepe S, Schäcke H, May E, Asadullah KExp Dermatol.

Do You Have 'Sugar Face’?

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6266525/
  • Self-Esteem, Social Comparison, and Facebook Use, Elisa Bergagna and Stefano TartagliaEur J Psychol

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