Feeling stressed lately? Maybe a little too stressed? Your skin might be trying to warn you.

As your body’s largest, most visible organ, the skin is constantly dropping clues about your overall health. And one of the most common causes of skin issues is stress. Your stress level could even be making some of your skin conditions worse.

So, what can you do? Let’s talk through some common stress-related skin issues, ways to decrease stress and when you should see a doctor.

Understanding your skin issues: What makes up the skin?

The skin is a combination of proteins, fat and water that operates as your first line of defense against heat, light, injury and infection. It regulates body temperature, produces vitamin D, and prevents germs and bacteria from entering your body. The skin itself is comprised of three layers: the epidermis (top layer), dermis (middle layer) and hypodermis (bottom or fatty layer).

The epidermis

Your epidermis is the layer of skin that you’re probably most familiar with – it’s the outermost layer you can feel and see. The epidermis is made of keratin and other proteins that stick together to form your skin, and it’s always making new skin cells to replace the ones you lose every day. This layer also contains melanin, the pigment that gives skin its color.

The dermis

This middle layer of the skin makes up 90% of your skin’s thickness. Known as the dermis, it contains collagen, which strengthens skin cells, and elastin, which keeps skin flexible. It also includes your hair follicles, blood vessels, nerve receptors, and oil and sweat glands.

The hypodermis

Your bottom layer of skin, the hypodermis, is comprised mostly of fat cells and collagen. It helps regulate temperature, protects your organs, and houses connective tissue that binds your skin to muscles and bone.

Can stress affect your skin?

Absolutely, stress can affect your skin in ways you may not expect. But why? What is it actually doing to you? Let’s start simple: Stress is your body’s response to challenges or pressure, and it can produce both an emotional and physical reaction. Getting close to a tight deadline at work? Stress. Coming up on a huge test at school? Stress.

And believe it or not, stress isn’t always bad. It serves a biological function – think “fight or flight.” Stress sends a rush of adrenaline and cortisol from your brain to your body, which can increase your heart rate and sends more blood flowing to your organs. But when we start to experience too much stress in everyday life, our health can take a hit.

In fact, studies show that even mild stress can compromise the health of your skin, both causing and exacerbating a variety of conditions. This chemical response might even make your skin not only more reactive, but it can also make skin issues harder to heal.

Skin conditions caused by stress and anxiety

Anxiety can cause quite a few issues when it comes to your skin, such as stress rashes (hives) and excessive sweating. These conditions can be uncomfortable, sometimes itchy or painful, and may even impact how you feel about yourself. Here’s what you need to know about why they might be happening and what you can do.

How to treat stress rashes (stress hives)

When you’re stressed, your body produces a flood of histamine, also known as the allergy chemical. This can make your skin respond as though it’s experiencing an allergic reaction, causing a stress rash made up of hives.

But what makes these different from regular hives and what do stress hives look like? These raised bumps (and sometimes large welts) can appear on the skin in both small and large patches, and they often itch or burn. Hives related to stress are typically not a sign of something life threatening and should not hinder your ability to breathe.

But the good news is that stress rashes tend to go away on their own, sometimes immediately or after a couple rounds of hives. Just make sure that your hives aren’t actually due to allergies. If you suspect your hives are an allergic reaction, it’s time to connect with your doctor.

Chronic sweating due to stress

Many of us have been there, right? You get nervous or anxious, and the next thing you know, you’re sweating up a storm. It’s actually a really normal biological response. Emotion-induced sweat is created and excreted from the apocrine glands located in your scalp, groin and armpits. And this kind of sweat is denser and fattier than what you’d produce while you’re exercising. Learning to mitigate stress will help, of course, but if you want to feel more comfortable in the meantime, make sure to wear breathable clothing and try to keep the affected areas of your skin as well-ventilated as possible. Antiperspirant and regular showering are also important, as sweat can be a breeding ground for bacteria that can lead to infection.

Skin conditions that stress can make worse

It’s important to remember that while stress may not cause every type of skin issue, it can certainly worsen ones you’re predisposed to or problems you’re already dealing with. Too much stress can trigger autoimmune issues, and lead to flare-ups for conditions such as:

  • Psoriasis
  • Rosacea
  • Eczema
  • Alopecia
  • Vitiligo

Stress breakouts and cortisol

It’s estimated that over 9% of the global population struggles with acne. And while it’s most common in teenagers and young adults, adult acne rates are on the rise. However, you don’t need to have clinical acne to suffer from the occasional stress breakout.

For a long time, medical professionals weren’t able to definitively pin down the relationship between stress and acne. But research done in the last decade suggests that when you’re anxious or stressed for prolonged periods, the body releases more cortisol. This can increase oil production and lead to acne. Your hormones and inflammation levels can also contribute – both things that are impacted by stress levels.

How to protect your skin from stress rashes and other issues

Knowing why your skin may be reacting to stress doesn’t really change the fact that you are stressed. But healthy lifestyle habits can go a long way in terms of managing stress levels and stress-induced skin conditions. Here are just a few things you can try.

Make sure you’re getting enough sleep

We know, we know – you probably hear this one all the time, but there’s a good reason for that. Sleep is a critical component of overall health, and it’s particularly important for your stress levels. According to the American Psychological Association, those who report lower stress levels tend to get more sleep than those reporting higher stress levels. But it can be more difficult to fall asleep when you’re stressed or anxious. Aim for anywhere between 7-9 hours of sleep each night, and make sure to establish a calming, reliable bedtime routine.

Adopt an anti-inflammatory diet

As we mentioned before, stress can increase cortisol production. Too much cortisol can cause inflammation, a big contributor to skin problems. But the good news is that you can help lower your cortisol levels with a healthy diet. Focus more on anti-inflammatory foods rich in vitamin B, magnesium and fatty acids, such as fish, whole grains, fruits and vegetables, and healthy fats.

Avoid regular consumption of processed foods, especially those high in sugar or salt – unrefined foods are known inflammation instigators. Also, remember to drink plenty of water. Dehydration can cause stress and vice versa. Aim to drink a third of your body weight in ounces each day – so if you weigh 150 pounds, try drinking 50 ounces of water per day.

Get moving in ways that feel good

Regular exercise is one of the best stress busters around. It can lower stress hormone levels, like cortisol and adrenaline, and stimulate your endorphins. Exercise increases energy levels, and it gives you a chance to get out of your head and into your body – in other words, mindfulness.

If you’re not someone who often gets up and moving, remember that it’s okay to start slow. You can begin with something low impact like walking before looking into more organized methods of movement, such as strength training or aerobics.

Prioritize your mental health

Stress can have a huge impact on your mental health. It’s completely normal, and you’re certainly not alone. If you’ve been struggling, it’s okay to need a little help. There are tons of mental health resources available to you both online and through your healthcare provider. A great first step is touching base with your primary care physician – they’ll be able to help you determine next steps and what will work best for you.

Experiment with stress management techniques

Remember, you may not be able to avoid stress, but you can change how you react to it. If you’re looking for things you can try right now to help you manage stress, try incorporating some stress management techniques into your daily lifestyle. We recommend trying out stress relief methods like meditation, guided imagery, deep breathing, yoga and journaling.

Create a regular skin care routine

Stress management is important, but so is regular skin care, right? Getting started can be more than a little overwhelming. There are so many products out on the market promising perfect skin and claiming to help with really specific issues, but what actually works?

The truth is that there’s no one answer, and general advice doesn’t account for the fact that everyone’s skin is different. You can do your own research, of course, but the best place to start is with your dermatologist. A professional will be able to help you assess your skin type and needs and use that information to plan a personalized routine.

See your doctor about stress breakouts and other skin issues

Do you have questions or concerns about a possible stress-related skin problem? Schedule an appointment with your primary care doctor, who can evaluate your condition, suggest treatment options or refer you to a dermatologist. If you don’t need a referral, you can also call to make an appointment directly with a dermatologist.

Looking for care immediately? Get 24/7 virtual care through Virtuwell online clinic, where you can be seen for a variety of skin conditions, such as acne, psoriasis, rashes and more.