Last week I wrote a post about the emotional impact of skin conditions and how they can take over your life. So I wanted to do another post on the effect of stress on your skin – both physically and psychologically – and some tips and tricks that you can utilise to gain control over your stress. I hope you find this interesting and/or helpful!
One of the most interesting talks at the Skin Matters conference was Dr Susan Baron, who is a consultant dermatologist, talking about the connection between the mind and the skin. This is something that has been obvious to me since I was first diagnosed with rosacea as stress is – by far – my biggest trigger. It can be something as small as that low-level panic you feel when you can’t find your phone in your handbag. As my hands start scrabbling wildly through the detritus in the bottom of my bag, I can feel the heat climb up the sides of my face, and my skin will start to prickle. So when it comes to things like job interviews, my wedding, talking on the panel at the Skin Matters conference … well, you can imagine the effect that has on my face!
For some people times of stress will often result in an outbreak of spots (thought to be due to the cortisol produced by stress creating a shift in your hormones), some people come out in hives or a rash (due to dysbiosis – an upset in the good and bad bacteria in your gut), or others may find they can’t stop itching, or picking (otherwise known as ‘tick behaviours’).
The problem is that the mind/skin connection is a never ending cycle. You experience stress (for whatever reason) and your body senses a threat and your neuropeptides get busy, relaying information between your mind and body, telling it how to feel and act. This is what makes us sweat, shake, and immediately need the loo when we are scared or feel stressed: it’s the body’s way of preparing us for fight or flight. Cortisol makes us breathe quicker, raises our blood pressure, makes our heart beats faster. And these things are not good for those of us who already flush easily! So now you’re in a situation where your body’s natural way of trying to protect you causes you irritation and then – surprise, surprise! – this irritation causes stress. You feel the flare up warming your face, you feel the familiar itch in your skin, you worry if others have noticed and you are right back at the start of the cycle. Stress, threat, irritation, stress… and so on, and on, and on.
So how can you break this cycle? There are a few things that were covered at the conference that may help:
- Guided visualisation – Bear with me, because this sounds a bit woo-woo! But alongside traditional medication and therapies, many dermatologists now ‘prescribe’ guided visualisation. The idea is that you imagine the way you want to look or feel in your mind, and really focus on it. You are supposed to do it every day for about 10 minutes and I’ve been trying it out (when I remember!) since the conference. I lie down on my bed in the dark and try to picture my face as it looks when I have a rosacea flare up. I picture my skin starting to feel cool, as though someone is trickling cool water over my head, I focus on how it feels: the heat leaving my skin and the soothing feeling. I picture how it looks: the redness fading as the cool feeling seeps down my face. Dr Baron said that a great technique with children is getting them to pretend they’re a character from Harry Potter and to picture aiming their wand and casting a spell on their psoriasis, eczema, rosacea etc. I suppose it’s a form of meditation and I’ve been finding it really useful – I’ve even done it on the Underground (although I didn’t lie down, obviously!) and it helped me to calm my breathing, I felt less hot and my skin felt calmer. The brain is a powerful tool – if it has the power to make your skin worse, why not harness it to make your skin better?
- While we’re talking about rerouting your brain to work with you rather than against you, we should talk about positive affirmations. If you haven’t heard of them I have a whole blog post on how they work and why they can be so useful for those of us who struggle with our appearance.
- Belly breathing is a fantastic way to calm yourself, whether you’re nervous, stressed or scared. I do this on flights and before events where I feel apprehensive about talking to new people. It’s really simple and doesn’t take very long:
- Put one hand on your chest and the other on your stomach.
- Breathe deeply in through your nose, feeling your belly rise (your chest shouldn’t move).
- When you breathe out, purse your lips as though you were whistling. Feel all the air leave your body as your belly falls with your hand on top of it.
- Do this 10 times, concentrating on your stomach ‘filling’ and ’emptying’.
- I’ve recently discovered the Headspace app and I’m really enjoying using it. If you prefer a more traditional form of meditation then you may enjoy this. Once you’ve done the intro (10 days of Headspace practice) you have access to all sorts of tailored sessions – for example one focuses on good sleep, another on fear of flying. If you want to try meditation but don’t know where to start, then I really recommend this.
- Yoga – I’ve tried so hard to get into practising yoga regularly (and the closest I got was Yoga With Adriene – a whole channel of free yoga workouts if you want to take a look) but I think I’m just an inherently lazy person! However, it is something that has been proven to reduce stress, lower heart rate, and make you more aware of your body – all things that are helpful to those with a skin condition. Try these poses at home, chosen specifically for their stress-busting benefits. Don’t worry if you can’t do them perfectly at first and don’t push yourself too hard. Not being able to touch your knee with your nose shouldn’t be another cause of stress!
Do you notice the effect of stress on your skin? How does it manifest itself with you? Do you have any tips for stress reduction?