How Holiday Stress Affects Your Skin

Photographed by Erin Yamagata.
The holidays are meant to be one big, jolly-good time, but let's be straight — they can be really stressful. Between the gift-giving, the parties to dress for, and the rush to turn in all your work before the end of the year, you may find yourself stuck in the center of an anxiety vortex that doesn't ease up until 2017. And while we know that stress is no good for your face, have you ever really stopped to think about what it's actually doing underneath the surface?
"Stress affects the body in many ways, but we really see the effects on the skin since it's our body's largest organ," says Patricia Wexler, MD. According to Dr. Wexler, the beauty-related signs of a stressed-out person can range from an increase in acne, dryness, redness, and, over time, rapid aging. Most of this has to do with the body's response to stress, which is to over-produce the hormone cortisol.
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But do we actually know what cortisol is? "Cortisol is a stress hormone with many functions," says Sanam Hafeez, MD. "It is critical for the regulation of our metabolism, and the body's use of proteins, carbohydrates, and fats, as well as regulation of blood pressure and cardiovascular function." This hormone is produced by the adrenal glands in response to signals from the pituitary gland and the hypothalamus, which is a region of the brain. So our bodies are constantly creating cortisol, but it spikes following a stressful event. However, it's different from adrenaline in that it remains elevated over a longer period of time after said event, while adrenaline, which you can feel, returns to normal levels.
Cortisol is responsible for inflammation in our bodies — the main culprit behind many of the above complaints. "It diminishes your body's ability to retain water, so your skin can become dull and dehydrated when under constant stress," says Dr. Hafeez. "It also leads to an increase of oil production in the hair follicles, which are attached to sebaceous glands where oil is produced," adds Dr. Wexler. "This is what causes acne." Dr. Wexler says that dehydrated skin can also cause flare-ups in eczema, rosacea, and psoriasis. And while being stressed out won't necessarily give you these skin ailments, if you're already prone to them, you're more likely to see them bubble up during a stressful period.
The effects of stress build upon one another: The longer you're stressed, the worse your symptoms will get. Both Dr. Hafeez and Dr. Wexler say that rapid aging, loss of skin radiance and elasticity, and uneven skin texture are all long-term results of stress. "Some patients also become more obsessive when they're under stress, which means they tend to pick at their skin more," Dr. Wexler says.
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Stress also affects our bodies in ways that have nothing to do with our skin. One of the more interesting effects that Dr. Wexler brought up had to do with our hair. "When you're under a lot of stress, your hair remains in a resting period for a longer amount of time," she says. That means that your body will actually behave similarly to that of a pregnant woman. Your hormones interrupt the regular shedding process, so you don't lose as much hair while you're stressed. Once hormone levels return to normal, you lose all of the strands you held on to at once, making it appear like you've lost a lot of hair all at once.
So what's the answer? While Dr. Wexler is a proponent of topical treatments, especially salicylic acid, mixed with prescription medication for acne. But she's adamant that unless something is done to reduce stress, little can be done for the skin and hair. "There are only so many things that can be done without eliminating the cause," she says. "When people are stressed, they may be less inclined to take good care of themselves, so their skin-care routines can slip and they may not take their medication." So the best course of action is to figure out ways to bliss out. Practice self-care, try a workout, or give yourself a little loving if need be. Do that, and good skin will follow.