top of page

How Stress Impacts Your Skin- and How to Reverse It

Ever notices how in stressful times your skin tends to break out more, irritate more easily, and just look worse than normal? This is because unfortunately, your skin is not immune to the impact of stress.

And while bottled serums and face masks might help a little, to cure your stressed skin, you have to tackle the root of the problem. Keep reading to learn the many ways stress impacts the skin and what you can do to reverse it!

The brain-skin axis:

The skin’s role as an organ is often neglected. Your skin is a sensory organ, a biofactory for the processing, synthesis, and metabolism of a wide array of structural proteins, glycans, and lipids. Your skin is the largest organ in your body. And, like your other organs, your skin is not immune to the effects of stress on the body.

Similar to the gut-skin axis, there is an interconnected pathway between the skin and the brain (aka the brain-skin axis). This bidirectional pathway translates psychological stress from the brain to the skin and vice versa. Stress triggers the hypothalamus-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis. These three glands control stress hormones like cortisol, which can stimulate pro-inflammatory skin cells. In this way, cortisol in the bloodstream will trigger pro-inflammatory skin cells and directly contribute to a number of skin conditions.

Psychological stress can also harm the top layer of the skin, the epidermal barrier. This layer is responsible for locking in moisture and protecting us from harmful microbes. If damaged, the skin can become irritated and develop conditions like eczema, psoriasis, or wounds. Several studies have found direct links between stress and such skin conditions.

Below, we’ve described some of the most common ways stress impacts the skin, and what you can do about it.

Acne and increased oil production:

There’s a reason we’ve all heard of stress acne. It’s an unfortunately common phenomenon that many of us experience during times of increased stress. When you're stressed, the barrier between your skin and the outside world is weaker, which leads to more toxins on the skin and causes breakouts.

Moreover, stress is highly associated with acne, it can also mess up the skin’s nerve signals and cause a hormonal and chemical shift that will increase oil production. This is especially true for women.

Thinner, more sensitive skin:

If you suffer from chronic stress or have high cortisol levels, your skin might actually become thinner. This is because cortisol breaks down proteins in the skin, which causes it to appear almost paper-thin. Fewer proteins in your skin also leave it vulnerable to bruising and tearing more easily.

Tired-looking eyes and orbital skin:

During a stressful time, it’s likely that you’ll develop some dark circles underneath your eyes. While most people associate this with the sleep deprivation that often accompanies stress, dark bags are actually a symptom of stress as well. During a period of stress, your body is stuck in fight or flight mode, which means that adrenaline is pumping through your veins 24/7. This will further cause sleep disturbances and insomnia.

Luckily, you don’t necessarily have to resort to cosmetic procedures like fillers to fix your under-eye bags. We’ve compiled our favorite ways to get rid of those pesky under-eye bags:

  • Use a cold compress

  • Clear out your sinuses

  • Apply tea bags

  • Elevate your head when you sleep

Extra irritated skin and inflammation:

Inflammation in the skin is manifested as rosacea, eczema, psoriasis, hives, and dermatitis. But research has shown that these skin conditions could also be caused by stress, which weakens the skin's protective abilities.

Simply, this means that being stressed makes it harder for your skin to stay balanced and regulate properly. Think of times of stress in your life, did you see redness or maybe a stray pimple? It was probably the result of your body feeling the impact of stress.

Moreover, stress will negatively impact the immune system, making it easier for infections to occur. A weaker immune system can also lead to an imbalance of the gut microbiome, which can lead to skin redness and rashes.

Worn out skin defenses and sun stress:

Not all stress to the skin stems from how you’re feeling inside. Every time you step outside, you’re subjecting your skin to the sun and it's ultraviolet (UV) radiation. These carcinogenic rays will negatively impact the health of your skin. Too much UV radiation can lead to skin cancer, darkened blemishes, and moles.

Moreover, you shouldn’t only worry about your sun exposure in the summer. While yes, we tend to get less exposure in the colder months, your face is still exposed for hours of the day.

The best way to combat sun stress and UV rays is by applying sunscreen every morning. There are also several supplements that can be used to bolster the skin’s defenses. Heliocare is one of such supplements.

Heliocare is a powerful formula of antioxidants. Its active mechanism is derived from the Polypodium leucotomos fern. Polypodium leucotomos extract (PLE) has been used for centuries by indigenous peoples to treat skin-related conditions and promote skin resilience. PLE provides protection against free radicals.

Free radicals can damage the skin in their attempt to steal electrons from other molecules which cause direct damage to our skin’s DNA. Damage to our DNA results in accelerated skin aging. Heliocare prevents this damage by replacing the missing electron in free radicals.

Curing signs of stress on the skin:

While it’s unrealistic to cut stress entirely out of your life, there are some quick tips to get through a particularly stressful day:

  • Chew gum → Chewing gum for at least 3 minutes has been found to help lower the stress response. This is especially true if you chew your gum vigorously!

  • Drink relaxing tea → Even the act of stepping aside to make your tea has been found to be therapeutic. But adding apple cider vinegar or making matcha have both been proven to be especially stress-reducing.

  • Stretch at your desk → For times when you feel like you just can’t step away from your desk, try a nice desk stretch! The simplest stretch to do at your desk is for the arms and upper body, to do so:

    • Hold your hands together and push them up with your palms facing the ceiling

    • Stretch and hold and pose for around 10 seconds

    • Lean and twist your torso left and right for a deeper stretch.

  • Go for a walk → Going for a quick walk around the office helps to decrease stress in a number of ways. First, it lets you leave the situation. Secondly, exercise helps your body to release endorphins, which are the warm and fuzzy neurotransmitters.

If these simple tricks aren’t enough, you might want to think about targeting the physiological factors behind your stress. During a stressful time, it’s likely that your cortisol is high and your body is stuck in fight or flight mode. When this happens, your parasympathetic nervous system is unable to turn off your stress response and help your body return to normal. This will cause your body to stay in an elevated, emergency state.

Luckily, there are ways to boost the functioning of your parasympathetic nervous system to decrease your stress response. Some of these methods include:

  • Physical activity Exercise can be used to decrease the buildup of stress in several ways.

    • A brisk walk can help to relieve muscle tension while also deepening breathing.

    • Movement therapies like yoga and tai chi combine deep breathing with mental focus, which will help induce feelings of calmness.

    • Exercise will also help to lower your stress response by increasing your happy hormones, the endorphins. Endorphins signal to your body that you’re no longer facing a threat

  • Social support → Getting support from your friends, co-workers, relatives, companions, confidants, spouses, and siblings can all help you to destress and increase your longevity! The buffering theory maintains that when you have close relationships that provide emotional support, it will help you to remain calm during times of chronic stress or crisis.

  • Meditation and breathing exercises → Practicing these exercises will help to lower your sensory and neurological input to a minimum, which will help your PNS to take over and slow the stress response. Try exercises like these to stimulate calmness:

  • Touching your lips → While this method may sound strange, gently touching your lips can actually help to stimulate the PNS. This is because your lips have parasympathetic fibers spread throughout them. So, by gently running one or 2 fingers over your lips, you will help to boost your calming response.

  • Use visualization → Visualization and imagery can also help to boost your PNS functioning. By using all of your senses to visualize a relaxing place, you will slow your breathing and heart rate. If visualization is challenging for you, try a guided exercise like the ones below!

For more information on improving your skin and controlling your stress response, click here to contact us. If you have any more questions about your path to optimal health, email our office at or call 276-235-3205.

The Johnson Center for Health services patients in-person in our Blacksburg and Virginia Beach locations. We also offer telemedicine for residents of Virginia and North Carolina!