What Is Stress Doing To Your Skin?

The old adage - fight or flight - applies to more than just our physical reaction to a perceived threat. Our skin also has the same physiological response to stress and exhibits a smorgasbord of reactive responses to counteract stressors we come across throughout our daily grind. And it shows. 

Have you ever wondered what it is that connects your complexion with your mental and physical stress levels? With many facets of life contributing to continuously diminishing levels of emotional wellbeing, you can be forgiven for feeling constantly between a rock and a hard place when it comes to weathering life’s ups and downs whilst maintaining consistently flawless skin. The combination of a ridiculously high bar set by the barrage of digital media that saturates our daily lives, with the demands we place on our physical appearance, means a vicious cycle is established that can begin a rapid decline in the health and appearance of our skin. 


Back to the fight or flight analogy. Stress induces a chemical reaction in our bodies. This causes the production of a barrage of hormones like cortisol and adrenalin, the slowing of digestion, and the activation of the eccrine (sweat) glands. These all lead to varying degrees of skin deterioration. 

Our bodies are, collectively, finely tuned environments that can be easily thrown off kilter by playing around with any number of things. Specifically, it’s been proven that messing with a persons sleep, diet and exercise can quickly lead to stress and vice-versa and, depending on the length of time the body remains out of sync, the stress can be defined as ‘acute’ (intense and immediate) or ‘chronic’ (ongoing) leading to all sorts of physical manifestations of the skin such as psoriasis, eczema, dermatitis or even acne. 


Let’s look at how we can counteract stress by breaking down the triggers into the three stressors mentioned above; sleep (or lack of), diet and exercise.


When we are stressed, one of the first things to fall by the way side is the quality of our sleep. Whether our sleep is disrupted, broken or just of inferior quality, the result on our mental and physical health can be severe. When it comes to the skin, lack of quality sleep leads to a break down in the restorative processes that happen throughout the body while we are resting. The eradication of toxins, continued cell regeneration, maintenance of pH levels, and collagen growth are all severely handicapped without essential sleep, leaving the skin dry, dull and prone to break outs. 

Moral: Make sure you consistently get at least 7 hours quality (!!!!!) sleep each night. If stress is making it hard to get some shut eye, try some sleep cues in a ritual each evening. Turn off any and all screens to decrease brain stimulation half an hour before bed time and instead try reading quietly with a cup of herbal tea to give your body the sleep cues it will learn to recognise.


Stress can often be the result of overwork. Long hours at work can challenge the most efficient persons’ time management and many of us are guilty of reaching for unhealthy snack foods and eating on the go for prolonged busy periods in our lives. Sometimes in a scarily ongoing capacity.  Our diet has a direct link to our gut health though which, in turn, plays a major role in maintaining protein secretions which can ultimately irritate the skin and lead to flare ups like eczema. Unhealthy gut environments can also worsen existing skin conditions and we now know that low GI foods (like chocolate and fast food) can cause exacerbate acne. 

Moral: Even at times of extreme work/lifestyle stress, eating right is paramount. Food is fuel and, without good fuel, the body will pack in eventually no matter how much we ignore the signs our skin is giving us. 


Exercise is not only good for our complexions, it’s an essential element for ensuring good mental and physical well being too. Dumbing down the ‘why’ is all about the physiological effect the increased blood flow has on the body. Blood carries oxygen, so when we increase our heart rates and consequently our blood flow, nutrients are delivered to working cells throughout the body, including the skin. 

Moral: Go for a walk at the very least. You can multi-task while you’re at it!  

The daily combination of good sleep, a healthy diet and a little exercise is like the keep-it-simple-simon mind frame. Exercise makes us hungry and stimulates our brains. Eating a good meal make us feel sated and tired. Makes sense right? Finding the right time and order for daily ritual creates a profound symbiosis that decreases stress and leaves your skin glowing and your complexion radiant.   

Words by Tiffany Jade.

Photographs by Simon Shiff (diet, exercise) Anna Tyrrell (sleep). 

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