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Skin conditions aggravated by stress and anxiety

Stress isn’t always avoidable. But you can help decrease its impact on your skin.

Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
Updated on Jul 7, 2023 • 6 min read
Medically reviewed by Donna McIntyre, NP-BC
skin problems caused by stress
Curology Team Avatar
by Curology Team
Updated on Jul 7, 2023 • 6 min read
Medically reviewed by Donna McIntyre, NP-BC
We’re here to share what we know — but don’t take it as medical advice. Talk to your medical provider if you have questions.

Most people experience stress and anxiety, whether it’s from a complicated relationship, demanding job, or heavy course load. And those feelings don’t just do a number on your brain—they can also manifest in the skin. 

From acne breakouts to excessive oil production and increased inflammation, skin conditions can tell a lot of surprising stories about your emotional state. Here, we’ll break down the connection between the brain and the skin, the skin conditions stress and anxiety can cause or aggravate, and strategies for reducing stress.

The connection between the brain and the skin 

The skin’s relationship with the brain is not a myth. What happens in the brain has been clinically documented to show outwardly, since the skin is both an immediate stress perceiver and a target of stress responses.¹ If you’ve been experiencing stress and anxiety, this may manifest in your skin in the following ways:²

  • Increased inflammation: Stress is linked to the release of cortisol, our primary stress hormone. When the body releases cortisol, the brain responds to these signals, which may in turn influence stress responses in the skin, like inflammation.

  • Increased sebum production: Psychological stress releases prolactin, a hormone that may stimulate the skin’s oil production. If your skin seems extra shiny during trying times, this may be why. 

  • Slower wound healing: Research shows that stress may be associated with impaired healing or the dysregulation of healing biomarkers in the skin. Anxiety and depression are associated with delayed healing in chronic wounds, and another study showed that caregivers under stress required 20% more time for complete wound healing.

Skin conditions that stress can trigger

If you’ve ever wondered what an anxiety rash looks like, if stress can cause peeling on your hands, or why you always seem to break out before a big exam, one of these skin conditions might be the root of the problem.

Psoriasis

Psoriasis is a chronic inflammatory condition that may be triggered by stress. It affects approximately 2% of populations worldwide and results in psoriatic plaques commonly seen on the elbows, knees, and scalp.³ People with psoriasis may experience flare-ups due to stress and anxiety. At the same time, psoriasis flare-ups may also cause stress and anxiety.⁴

Acne

Acne is a prevalent skin condition characterized by increased bacteria, sebum production, and inflammation.⁵ Many patients in recent research studies report that emotional stress worsens their acne, a claim supported by a significant percentage of affected adolescents and adults in additional studies.⁶ In one student examination stress study, increased acne severity was significantly associated with stress levels.⁷ And in a study of medical students, increased stress was correlated with symptoms like rash, itchy skin, and pimples.⁸

Rosacea

Rosacea, which may cause redness, flushing, and visible blood vessels on the face, is another skin condition that may be exacerbated by stress.⁹ While the role stress plays in the development of rosacea hasn’t been sufficiently explored,¹⁰ research shows that it may aggravate facial flushing. Rosacea patients also have an increased risk of developing depression and anxiety and avoiding social situations, which can create a vicious cycle of symptoms.¹¹

Eczema

The dry, itchy, irritated skin that goes hand in hand with eczema may be triggered by stress. Eczema is associated with atopic dermatitis, the symptoms of which are linked to—you guessed it!—stress. Psychological distress may negatively impact the skin’s barrier function, which can increase sensitization to allergens, transepidermal water loss,¹² and more. Stress also contributes to immune system dysfunction and inflammation in individuals with atopic dermatitis.¹³

Don’t forget, everyone’s skin is different, and the impact of stress and anxiety on skin varies between individuals. If you’re concerned about how your mental health impacts your skin, we recommend speaking with your primary healthcare provider or a dermatologist for customized advice.

Anxiety releases stress hormones 

When you’re anxious, your body enters into a state of stress. This activates the “fight or flight” response, releasing hormones like cortisol, adrenaline, and norepinephrine, which may cause physical symptoms like increased heart rate, sweating, and pupil dilation. It may also increase the skin’s sebum production. While sebum is necessary for hydrating the skin, overproduction may lead to issues like clogged pores and acne.¹⁴ Managing stress and anxiety may help control hormone levels and keep sebum production under control. 

Pro tips for stress management 

Did you know that stress may impact how the skin ages? Stress hormones break down collagen and elastin and interfere with the skin’s rejuvenation, which may speed up the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles.¹⁵ Reducing stress helps to lower the cortisol levels that can contribute to oiliness, inflammation, and more. Stress reduction is also a great way to help improve your sleep and mental health. Our experts have a few tips for reducing stress, which may lead to more radiant skin. 

Drink plenty of water and eat a balanced diet

Staying hydrated and eating a nutritious diet can go a long way toward improving well-being. Aim to make water your main choice of drink, and enjoy a variety of fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, healthy fats, and whole grains. Minimize the number of processed or packaged meals and snacks you eat for the best results. 

Get a good night’s sleep

Exhaustion may exacerbate stress and anxiety, so getting enough quality sleep is crucial for mental and physical health. Our experts suggest getting between seven and nine hours per night, depending on your unique needs. To wind down, try turning off the phone and TV and reading a book before bedtime. 

Don’t leave your social life behind

Spending time with friends and family may help boost your mood and reduce stress. Whether you prefer a chill movie night in, a fancy dinner, or a night out on the town, seeing the people you love most is a great way to release feel-good endorphins. And a good laugh never hurts!

Seek professional guidance

If you’re feeling overwhelmed and stressed, consider seeking guidance from a therapist or counselor. Speaking to a professional can be an incredibly effective way to improve mental health—they may be able to help you get to the bottom of your stress and anxiety and suggest coping strategies that may work for you.

Curology can help treat some skin conditions aggravated by stress and anxiety 

If you’re struggling with skin problems linked to stress and anxiety, getting professional advice is a great way to help you find a skincare routine that’s right for you. Curology offers full-service skincare products made with proven-effective ingredients. Our licensed dermatology providers help take the guesswork out of skincare by determining the ingredients that will benefit your skin and creating a custom formula to help you meet your skincare goals. Just snap a few selfies and take a quick skin quiz, and then we’ll pair you with a medical provider trained and licensed to practice dermatology care in your state. 

Get your personalized skincare routine with Curology

Get your personalized skincare routine with Curology

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If Curology is right for you, we’ll send you a personalized prescription formula designed to address your unique skin concerns. You’ll also have access to any of our recommended products, such as our cleanser, moisturizer, sunscreen, and lip balm. Remember, we're here to support you throughout your skincare journey! 

FAQs

What skin conditions can be triggered by stress?

Everyone’s skin is different, and the impact of stress and anxiety on skin varies between individuals. However, there are some common skin conditions that may be triggered by stress. These include psoriasis, acne, rosacea, and eczema.

How can I manage stress to avoid skin problems?

Reducing stress helps to lower the cortisol levels that can contribute to oiliness, inflammation, and more. Stress reduction is also a great way to help improve your sleep and mental health. The following tips may help reduce stress level:

- Drink plenty of water and eat a balanced diet. Staying hydrated and eating a nutritious diet can go a long way toward improving well-being.

- Get a good night’s sleep. Exhaustion may exacerbate stress and anxiety, so getting enough quality sleep is crucial for mental and physical health.

- Don’t leave your social life behind. Spending time with friends and family may help boost your mood and reduce stress.

- Seek professional guidance. If you’re feeling overwhelmed and stressed, consider seeking guidance from a therapist or counselor. Speaking to a professional can be an incredibly effective way to improve mental health.

• • •

P.S. We did the homework so you don’t have to:

  1. Chen, Y., & Lyga, J. Brain-Skin Connection: Stress, Inflammation and Skin Aging. Inflammation & Allergy Drug Targets. (2014).

  2. Chen, Y., & Lyga, J. Brain-Skin Connection: Stress, Inflammation and Skin Aging. Inflammation & Allergy Drug Targets. Ibid.

  3. Chen, Y., & Lyga, J. Brain-Skin Connection: Stress, Inflammation and Skin Aging. Inflammation & Allergy Drug Targets. Ibid.

  4. Chen, Y., & Lyga, J. Brain-Skin Connection: Stress, Inflammation and Skin Aging. Inflammation & Allergy Drug Targets. Ibid.

  5. Chen, Y., & Lyga, J. Brain-Skin Connection: Stress, Inflammation and Skin Aging. Inflammation & Allergy Drug Targets. Ibid.

  6. Kostovic, K., et al. The Impact of Psychological Stress on Acne. Acta dermatovenerologica Croatica: ADC / Hrvatsko dermatolosko drustvo. (2017).

  7. Chen, Y., & Lyga, J. Brain-Skin Connection: Stress, Inflammation and Skin Aging. Inflammation & Allergy Drug Targets. Ibid.

  8. Bin Saif GA, et al. Association of psychological stress with skin symptoms among medical students. Saudi Med J. (2018).

  9. Heisig, M., & Reich, A. Psychosocial aspects of rosacea with a focus on anxiety and depression. Clinical, Cosmetic and Investigational Dermatology. (2017).

  10. Manolache L, Petrescu-Seceleanu D. Stress involvement as trigger factor in different skin conditions. World J Dermatol. (2013).

  11. Heisig, M., & Reich, A. Psychosocial aspects of rosacea with a focus on anxiety and depression. Clinical, Cosmetic and Investigational Dermatology. Ibid.

  12. Chen, Y., & Lyga, J. Brain-Skin Connection: Stress, Inflammation and Skin Aging. Inflammation & Allergy Drug Targets. Ibid.

  13. Chen, Y., & Lyga, J. Brain-Skin Connection: Stress, Inflammation and Skin Aging. Inflammation & Allergy Drug Targets. Ibid.

  14. Chen, Y., & Lyga, J. Brain-Skin Connection: Stress, Inflammation and Skin Aging. Inflammation & Allergy Drug Targets. Ibid.

  15. Feeling stressed? It can show in your skin, hair, and nails. American Academy of Dermatology. (n.d.).

Donna McIntyre is a board-certified nurse practitioner at Curology. She obtained her Master of Science in Nursing at MGH Institute of Health Professions in Boston, MA.

* Subject to consultation. Subscription is required. Results may vary.

• • •
Our medical review process:We’re here to tell you what we know. That’s why our information is evidence-based and fact-checked by medical experts. Still, everyone’s skin is unique—the best way to get advice is to talk to your healthcare provider.
Curology Team Avatar

Curology Team

Donna McIntyre, NP-BC

Donna McIntyre, NP-BC

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