Does stress cause skin problems?

profile photo of Dr Helen Hartley
Medical Director, Healthcare Management, Bupa Insurance
29 September 2021
Next review due September 2024

Did you know that stress can cause skin problems such as itching or rashes? In this article, I look at the links between stress and skin problems. I also look at ways you can manage when they happen at the same time.

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What is stress?

Stress is mainly a physical response to situations or events. It’s caused by your body releasing ‘fight or flight’ hormones. These are chemicals produced by your body, such as adrenalin. They contribute to this fight or flight response.

Stress also affects how you feel when you find it difficult to cope with being under pressure. For example, moving house, changing job or having a baby.

Everyone reacts to stress differently. The way you respond can depend on your personality and how you respond to challenging situations.

Stress effects on skin

When you’re stressed, your body releases ‘stress hormones’, such as adrenaline and cortisol. They affect different functions, like the flow of blood to your skin. A common sign of stress is skin irritation or a rash. There are some other stress-related skin problems to look out for.

  • You might have temporary hair loss and a sore scalp after a stressful event like bereavement or a major operation.
  • Extreme or sudden stress may also lead to vitiligo if it runs in your family. This is a condition where pale white patches develop on the skin. 
  • There’s a type of hives called ‘adrenergic urticaria’ that are caused by stress. Hives are red, itchy, raised bumps that appear on the skin.

Ongoing stress can also weaken your immune system. This makes you more vulnerable to infection and skin diseases like vitiligo (loss of skin colour) and urticaria (another name for hives). These are autoimmune diseases. This means your body thinks it’s fighting an infection and produces chemicals that attack normal cells.

Stress may also lead to inflammatory conditions like rosacea. This is a common skin condition that can cause redness and visible blood vessels on your face.

If you’ve already got a skin condition like acne, stress can make it worse. Stress may also trigger flare-ups of problems caused by something else, such as an infection. One example is the herpes simplex virus, which causes cold sores. It lies dormant (not active) in your body but can cause symptoms when you’re stressed or run down.

Responding to stress

Stress can be hard to avoid. How you respond to it can affect your skin too.

Stress can keep you awake at night. It may also increase the urge to scratch itchy eczema and urticaria. This can make it even harder to get a good night’s sleep.

You might find you turn to sugary and fatty comfort foods, alcohol, caffeine or smoking to cope with stress. But they aren’t good for either your overall health or your skin. Alcohol and caffeine, for example, can cause skin redness, such as rosacea. They can also trigger the itchiness of urticaria and eczema. Smoking and drinking too much can make psoriasis worse too.

Stress can also trigger habits called ‘body-focused repetitive behaviours’. This includes things like pulling at your hair and lashes or picking at your skin. These addictive habits release a ‘feel-good’ hormone called dopamine. They can seem a form of short-term stress relief but are damaging in the long term.

Breaking the cycle

Skin conditions may also cause stress because of how they make you feel about yourself. They can also impact your everyday life including your social activities and relationships. You can end up in a ‘vicious cycle’. For instance, you might worry about stress causing a flare-up and this can make it more difficult to cope with whatever’s making you stressed.

It’s important to break this cycle. Talk to your doctor about tackling both problems together. Relaxation techniques can help to reduce stress and the ‘habit scratching’ that makes eczema worse.

Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) can help you react differently to potentially stressful situations. It can also teach you to cope with the psychological effects of a skin condition. You might find it helps to address any body-focused repetitive behaviours too.

Mindfulness is about being present in the moment. It makes you more aware of how you feel, both emotionally and physically. It can help you be kinder to yourself and others. It can also help reduce stress symptoms that affect your skin, such as anger. Anger, for example, causes flushing (redness) in rosacea.

One study even suggests that combining CBT and mindfulness can help to treat psoriasis.

Physical activity can also reduce your risk of stress, boost your mental and physical wellbeing. Exercise done at least four hours before you go to bed can also help you sleep better.

Your doctor can talk to you about ‘good sleep hygiene’ too, so you get the rest needed to deal with stress.

Getting help and support

Speak to your doctor, who can suggest local support groups and healthy lifestyle advice. These may help you feel better able to cope with both stress and your skin problem.

You may not be able to avoid stress altogether. But there are ways to reduce stress levels and its impact on your skin.

If you’re worried about your mental health, our direct access service aims to provide you with the advice, support and treatment you need as quickly as possible. You’ll be able to get mental health advice and support usually without the need for a GP referral. Learn more today.

profile photo of Dr Helen Hartley
Dr Helen Hartley
Medical Director, Healthcare Management, Bupa Insurance

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