Unless you were born yesterday, you—and your skin—have probably seen some better days. But unlike the immediate consequences that, say, a Saturday night out can have on your face by morning, the effects of prolonged stress can often be sneaky, slowly messing with your skin barrier until it’s angry, irritated and leaving you to deal with one of these four issues:
It’s not necessarily the copious amounts of pasta, wine and baked goods we tend to consume when we’re emotional (all of which, sorry, can trigger pore-clogging inflammation in your system), but also a very real systemic effect: “When your emotions are high, your cortisol levels spike and trigger your oil glands to produce more oil,” says Mona Gohara, M.D., a board-certified dermatologist and associate clinical professor of dermatology at Yale School of Medicine. “That oil then feeds acne-causing bacteria in your skin, leading to, yes, acne.”
Though you can’t magically change the way your system operates, you can help decrease your cortisol levels with a quick meditation or workout session. And if you know you’re heading into a few days of stress, try pre-loading your skin care routine with gentle actives, like adding in a sulfur-based face mask or switching to a salicylic acid-spiked cleanser that’ll help keep your pores clear while your sebum cranks up.
The sudden urge to attack your face immediately after (or, ahem, during) a crying jag? That’s not completely on you. “There’s a major brain-body connection, and I think picking can be a manifestation of anxiety,” says Dr. Gohara. “It gives your brain a fake sense of control over whatever’s stressing you out, but in reality, the compulsion stems from anxiety.” Research also shows that stress can increase nerve signaling that triggers itching in your skin, so even low-grade yet chronic stress can make you extra susceptible to pressing your face up against a mirror and searching for bumps.
If you find yourself obsessing over a bump—or, let’s be real, picking at a dozen spots until they’re inflamed—Dr. Gohara suggests sticking on some pimple patches, like the COSRX Acne Pimple Master Patch, to keep the area clean and your fingers from doing more damage. “Even if it takes 12 pimple patches to keep your skin safe, so be it,” she says. And then tuck your magnifying mirrors in a drawer until your bout of stress subsides.
“Back in the caveman days when a lion was chasing you, your adrenaline was part of your survival instinct,” says Dr. Gohara. “It spiked your cortisol levels and sent blood to your vital organs so you could run away.” Very useful back then, but now? Those innate hormones just mess with your face. “Your skin isn’t a vital organ during fight or flight, so the cortisol spike can lead to dehydration and a compromised skin barrier,” she says.
“When your heart is pumping fast from stress, your blood vessels are more likely to be full and your capillaries dilated, which can cause immediate facial flushing and a flare in rosacea,” says Dr. Gohara. Because cortisol happens to be pro-inflammatory, the surge of hormones can cause a swell of acne, eczema and irritation, too. “You can decrease inflammation and redness with topical and oral medications, but you can’t necessarily restrict those blood vessels with anything over the counter,” she says.