It has been an incredibly difficult 18 months to say the least, and for most, stress levels have been hitting an all-time high. We are seeing the effects of this on a daily basis, not just relating to our state of wellbeing and how we function mentally, but on the skin as well. Let’s delve into what goes on within the body when we’re stressed, and what we can do to improve this.
Most of us don’t realise the far-reaching of consequences and the knock-on effects stress has on various systems in the body. It isn’t just a period of unpleasant emotion that simply leaves without a trace. When we become stressed, a cascade of hormones are released that can wreak havoc throughout the body, not just on how we process information but acting on the skin, our sleep, even our digestive system.
Evolutionarily-speaking, stress has always been critical for our survival. When we are alerted to danger (or what we perceive as threatening) stress allows us to act quickly and respond as efficiently as possible in order to keep us alive until the threat passes. However, prolonged or frequent incidents of stress is where the danger lies.
When we look to understand stress, the basic mechanisms are described by what is called our body’s HPA Axis, or hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis. It’s a complex process, but put simply – when we encounter stress, the hormones epinephrine and norepinephrine are secreted. Our brain’s hypothalamus responds to this by secreting corticotropin-releasing hormone into the bloodstream. This results in increased sympathetic nervous system activity including elevated heart rate, and also triggers our brain’s pituitary gland to secrete adrenocorticotropic hormone. This enters our blood stream as well, travels to our adrenal glands, and causes them to secrete the most well-known stress hormone, cortisol. This is crucial for increasing cardiac output, which propels more blood to our skeletal muscles – evolutionarily useful in case we need to run away from the threat or fight an opponent (ie, the fight or flight response). During this phase, the body switches off functions which it deems less important or not required while you are ‘fighting or running for your life’ – such as your digestive system or your reproductive activity.
Repeated activation of this HPA axis has shown to lead to countless diseases, from type II diabetes to cardiovascular disease.
Now that we know a little about how stress and the HPA axis works, let’s discuss how this cascade affects our skin. We could go for days, but there are a few main points to keep in mind when discussing stress’ impact on skin health.
As stress impacts digestive functions, it means we aren’t absorbing as many nutrients through our digestive system as we normally would. Inefficient nutrient supply of course means our bodies aren’t functioning at their best, and this includes our skin. Our nutrients are distributed throughout our bodies in a sort of medical triage system whereby they are delivered to the most important organs first. Our skin receives very little nutrients from our food in the end, so if you’re running low to begin with, your skin will suffer. Speaking of nutrients, our bodies rapidly chew through high volumes of vitamin c in order to regulate these stress hormones. On the skin, vitamin c deficiency results in hindered wound healing ability and reduced capacity to produce collagen, among other things.
Another impact is the direct impact corticotropin-releasing hormone has on skin cells, halting their proliferation. It can also have a pro-inflammatory effect, leading to conditions like psoriasis. It can also lead to heightened sebaceous activity, leading to breakouts or worsening acne. Epinephrine, norepinephrine and cortisol have all been found to increase DNA damage, leading to cellular destruction.
All of these responses are just a small selection of many damaging results that ongoing stress has on the body, our skin, and our minds.
This is why it is so crucial to keep self-care top of mind. Stress is an inevitable, common occurrence in the modern world, so mastering methods in which we can deal with it and reduce its effects will go a long way in improving our health and quality of life. Simple breath work can make all the difference, as this has been heavily researched and shown to achieve a reduction in cortisol levels. Reducing the regularity of stimulation of our HPA axis even prior to cortisol release could be as simple as learning some of our stress triggers and introducing methods of self-care to lessen these triggers, or in gifting ourselves with daily relaxation techniques to lessen the possibility of feeling overwhelmed.
This is one of the many reasons we love Gua sha. It gives us the opportunity to improve skin health; enhancing circulation and draining toxins, while simultaneously creating a soothing, relaxing self-care ritual we can look forward to each and every day. Grab your favourite deliciously-scented facial oil, apply and breathe it in deeply. Allow yourself to slow down, take your time to create smooth, deliberate Gua Sha moves, and your body and mind will slow down with you. As something that we do every day, in the winding-down hours before bed, our skincare application provides the perfect opportunity for me-time, and lends itself to a relaxing, rewarding experience. Revel in the fact that you have taken this time to dedicate to improving your health and wellbeing, feeding your mind with happy hormones instead of stress hormones, and thereby decreasing your risk of disease or malnourishment.
Sometimes, our skincare routines can be the thing stressing us out. If this is you, remember that there is no pressure to have a complicated skin routine. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, simplify things by pairing back to your basics, like your cleanser, hydrating serum and moisturiser or face oil. And of course, your Gua Sha!
Self-care isn’t just for the spiritually-minded. It is for anyone wanting to live a longer, healthier, and happier life.