April is National Stress Awareness Month. Most of us don’t need a special month to know that we have stress in our lives. It’s inevitable – the demands of work life, family life, illness, etc… I don’t know anyone who lives a stress-free life.

But, what exactly is stress? Stress is a state of mind created by emotional or mental strain. It begins as a thought or perception of a situation, but eventually becomes something physical. We all react differently. For some, the heart rate increases, we sweat, our stomachs hurts, we can’t sleep, or maybe our skin breaks out. What begins as a mental state of mind becomes something tangible in our bodies. Recognizing stress and being mindful of what causes it in our lives is the first step in dealing with it and preventing physical distress.

As a provider of holistic skincare solutions, we know that stress impacts the condition of the skin as well. In fact, there is a fairly new field of medicine, called psychodermatology, that focuses on the intricacies of the mind-skin connection. Doctors who specialize in psychodermatology treat skin problems that are caused or worsened by stress.

The mechanism behind the skin-stress connection is multi-faceted. When a person becomes stressed, the level of the body’s stress hormone, called cortisol, rises. This increase signals your sebaceous glands to produce more oil, which leads to oily skin and acne. The extra cortisol also causes a biochemical reaction that depletes your C and B vitamin stores (Vitamin C is required for collagen formation). Therefore, when under stress, it’s even more important to eat five to seven servings of antioxidant-rich fruits and vegetables per day, and consider some supplementation as well. Additionally, stress makes it more difficult for skin to heal because it reduces the barrier function of the skin, resulting in water loss and an inability to repair damage after injury. Finally, stress increases blood flow, which leads to inflamed capillaries and exacerbation of conditions such as rosacea. The skin is our largest organ and is the first line of defense from all sorts of environmental toxins–from UV radiation to pollutants. Keeping your skin healthy is critical to maintaining overall health.

The challenge is to recognize your triggers and take small steps to manage your stress. Some suggestions for learning to put stress in its place:

  • We are all busy, but take time to just be! Even if it’s just 10 minutes per day, find a quiet spot, sit and just relax and meditate. Mark this time on your calendar. Some like to use guided meditations that can be downloaded to your iPod, while others use this time to pray or just sit quietly and reflect. You will be surprised at how powerful this exercise is once you get the hang of it!
  • Keep a gratitude journal. Studies tell us that the simple act of being thankful causes a reduction in stress hormones. Put a journal next to you bed and at the end of the day write down three things that you are thankful for. Be open to the small things–think beyond just being thankful for your family and friends. Are you thankful that the traffic was light today? Did it make you feel happy to see the beautiful blue sky this morning? Look around and reflect on the small things that enrich your life. Consider doing this with a partner so you are making a commitment to the practice.
  • Exercise! Find time every day for physical activity. Physical activity helps to increase the production of your brain’s feel-good neurotransmitters, called endorphins. Even if you only have 15 minutes, take a walk, do some sit-ups and push-ups or yoga poses. You don’t have to put in a full hour at the gym to realize the benefits–just move your body.
  • Try essential oils. Frankincense is a botanical superstar in this category and has been clinically shown to provide calming mood support. Lavender, mandarin orange and neroli are three other essential oils with solid evidence to support their calming ability.
  • Be mindful. Take time to notice how certain people, places and things make you feel. Do you have a co-worker who irritates you and gets your back up? You can’t change the other person, but consider how you might change your perception of a situation. A 2013 study by researchers Taren, Creswell and Gianaros showed that after an eight-week course of mindfulness practice, the brain’s “fight or flight” center (the amygdala) appears to shrink. This primal region of the brain, associated with fear and emotion, is involved in the initiation of the body’s response to stress.

Remember, stress comes from your perception of a situation. We can all choose to let stress take over, or we can put it in its place and preserve our mental and physical well-being. With some practice we can take control of our stress and not let it harm our beautiful skin.

Click here to read Ginger Hodulik Downey’s book The Esthetician’s Guide to Outstanding Esthetics.