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Sense and Sensitivity: Why your stressed-out personality could be affecting your skin

May 23rd 2014 / Judy Johnson Google+ Judy Johnson

Stress and sensitive skin

Do body and soul go together in a way that means your emotions affect your skin's reactivity?

"Your skin isn't sensitive; it's reactive, because you are a reactive person," said facialist and skin educator Donna Glazer breezily as she soothed a lovely cold serum onto my face. "Your skin has a sort of alarm system. It's not necessarily the product you're reacting to - the alarm is going off and we need to work out how to calm it down."

Laying there under the ridiculously soft blanket in her Face It clinic in Highgate, I felt like I'd just been slapped around the face with a truth I've been hunting for since my teens. Though of course there are products I've instantly reacted to - usually due to strong scents or chemicals - this theory made complete sense. Having answered Donna's multiple questions about my lifestyle, personality and skincare regime I'd painted quite the picture of a stressed-out twenty-something who had been feeling anxious since her late teens and whose skin has become progressively more sensitive. I can't quite believe I hadn't seen the connection before. I'm not just sensitive-skinned; I'm sensitive full stop.

Though it works both ways and bad skin can cause me stress, anxiety is something that has plagued me for years and my skin is without a doubt trickier to handle when stress starts to tip me over the edge; be it a breakout of spots, that patch of eczema below my elbow that flares every so often or rosacea-like redness on my cheeks.

As Padma Coram, Holistic Health & Wellness Mentor at Grace Belgravia tells me, the theory of emotions affecting our skin is not a new one. "Our skin is the first point of call or mirror to our “insides” and the skin speaks to us like no other organ does," she explains. "It is the most visible, visual, dramatic and vocal organ and will not keep quiet until we sort the real problem out. When we have fever it burns, when we are cold it shrivels, when we are fearful we sweat, when we are at peace and joyous we glow. Babies have great skin when they are at peace and have not had any terrible experiences; people with loads of heavy experiences show their story on their face."

My story shows all over my body, be it my legs, arms or face, which is why Donna was sure it wasn't simply my product choices that were letting my skin down. Her words played on my mind for a few weeks as I tested this cream and that face oil with little effect on my sensitivity, until in popped an email from Emma Coleman, founder of Inner-Soul Organics, who was concocting my own unique skincare range in response to a questionnaire I had filled out previously.

"When I read your bespoke questionnaire, my initial thoughts were that your skin’s profound sensitivities not only clearly display reactions to external circumstances, but also act as a mirror to how you are feeling inside," Emma wrote, confirming Donna's earlier comments. With a theory that circulation problems cause skin imbalances, and that my circulation was disrupted by high blood pressure and anxiety, she set to work on creating something that would calm the skin, and me, down. (I'll be testing and reporting on those very soon - watch this space.)

Emma explained the science behind her thinking. "The theory is based on our body’s ‘fight and flight’ reactions to situations. In a stressful or anxiety-provoking scenario, our body's hormonal and nervous systems respond very quickly in many ways, including increased production of the hormone adrenaline via the adrenal glands which sit on top of each kidney," she tells me.

"This in turn leads to a significant rise in heartbeat, which directly affects the amount of blood being pumped into and out of the heart. Blood is also diverted to areas where it is needed, away from internal organs and thereby closer to the surface of the skin. This can lead to us looking flushed when we feel particularly flustered and if we feel stressed and burned out longterm, we are more likely to develop erratic skin problems - such as outbreaks, excess greasiness and discolouration. How many times have you been in a meeting or watched someone giving a speech and noticed their neck and face become increasingly flushed? This is a very common pressure-stress reaction and a good example of how the skin can speak the mind."

The skin experts are convinced - but what about a psychologist? I asked Elaine Slater, a Wimpole Street Psychologist, what she thought of the connection between stress and the skin. "During development in the womb the brain and skin are derived from the same cells; so there is a connection. A lot of nerve endings are connected to the skin which wraps around the organs. So as emotions are played out neurologically they can be expressed through the skin."

"During times of stress and anxiety, inflammation in the skin increases as a way to protect the skin from harm. Chronic skin irritation and inflammation is triggered by the immune system as a response to mental stress."

It's not just reactions that can occur, either; it's a breakdown of the skin's strength which in turn makes it less protected when it comes to testing out products, as well as causing premature ageing. Think about it - how many happy, healthy people do you know with bad skin? When they say stress ages you, they're not kidding; it's all down to hormones.

"When we are stressed, stress hormones are released into the bloodstream; cortisol, adrenaline, noradrenaline, ACTH and androgens amongst others," Elaine explains. "When the body’s level of cortisol rises, this causes an increase in oil production, which can lead to oily skin, blemishes and increased sensitivity. Cortisol is also responsible for collagen breakdown and inhibits the skins ability to repair itself naturally and continue to form collagen and elastin to deal with damage. Chronic stress can shorten telomeres; the protective caps on the ends of cell chromosomes, causing cells to age faster and thus exacerbate premature ageing."

"Simply put, an individual’s lifestyle and approach to their lifestyle will determine how ‘reactive’ they are," says Elaine. "Inevitably our body will begin to show signs of our internal suffering."

So, in order to reduce my reactions and ensure I don't look 40 before my 30th birthday, I need to calm myself and my skin down. With a little help from the experts, here are my top three ways to calm both body and mind…

1. Rescue Remedy

This is my tried and trusted resource when I'm feeling anxious; I have the Liquid Melts, £8.45 in my handbag at all times and have one whenever I am particularly stressed. There's also a Rescue Cream, £7.99, which contains no nasties, but has the same remedial ingredients to help calm the skin if it reacts with dryness or soreness.

2. Deep breathing

It's not rocket science but it's something we are rubbish at, particularly when stressed out: breathing. Someone told me to count 20 deep breaths, in through the nose and out through the mouth, if a panic attack is coming on and it works; I know once I get to 20 I will be calmer and in control.

“Taking some meditation classes or simply learning how to 'breath-out stress’ when feeling overwhelmed can prevent the cycle and help to save your skin!” Emma assures me. Check out Catherine Turner's expert article on how to breathe here.

3. Mindfulness

A buzz word taking over the wellbeing world, mindfulness involves focusing on the present, acknowledging worried thoughts and stresses but not letting them take over. I am terrible at it, obviously, but with the help of Andy Puddicombe's app Headspace I've been getting better. Download it and listen to it for 10 minutes a day - you'll feel a difference. Download it for free here.

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