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How Anxiety Ruined my Skin and How to fix It

young woman sitting in a chair and looking at herself in the mirror with undereye mask on

The stress of recent months has taken a very real toll on my skin. I first noticed it in the spring, a few weeks into the new routine of quarantine. All the time at home meant I was less concerned with my appearance — my nails were grown out, my roots were showing, and my skin was a mess. Despite all the extra time at home, I wasn’t eating well, my stress levels were through the roof and I had completely neglected my skincare routine. When my anxiety peaks, I commit basically every skincare sin there is.

Anxiety is a reaction to stress — and my reaction was avoidant. Put on an oversized sweater, forget about the makeup and let my long, overgrown bangs hide the forehead of acne that my skin hasn’t seen the likes of since I graduated high school 10 years ago.

Related: How to nail the “no makeup makeup look”.

The way anxiety impacts skin is more complicated than simply saying when you’re stressed out — you’re more likely to break out (although that can be true). To find out more I chatted with Canadian experts, Psychotherapist Danielle Hulan and Dermatologist and Co-Founder and Director of DermCafé Annie Liu to get the scoop on what was really happening with my stressed-out skin, and how I can begin to socially distance myself from my skincare crisis.

Brunette woman with her head in her hand

Too stressed for skincare?

There were days when I found it daunting to put on makeup, or conversely to take it off at night. Psychotherapist Danielle Hulan explains, “Stress can also halt behaviours that help keep acne-prone skin at bay – behaviours like following through on our skincare regimen and having great sleep hygiene suddenly fall off the wagon.” This may seem like laziness or a lack of care, but for those struggling with their mental health, even simple tasks can feel overwhelming.

Plan a routine

On the days when I just can’t deal with my full skincare routine, I keep makeup wipes on hand (often in my bedside drawer for super-easy access). They’re a great one-step solution. Okay, you didn’t do your 10-step Korean skincare routine today, but you did do your skin this small favour of letting it breath. Hulan advises for those struggling with daily skincare routines to, “Try to reset yourself for the following night. Plan a time for your evening skincare routine, and put on your favourite song while you do it.”


Existing skin problems are exasperated

When dealing with periods of high stress and anxiety “your immune system changes to get ready to do battle. It does this by releasing inflammatory signals in order to protect your health,” explains Dermatologist Annie Liu. This inflammation then causes skin to “misbehave in whatever way it’s prone to misbehaving.” For me, that usually means the odd pimple or two on my chin or forehead. Lately, it’s meant an entire field of breakouts concentrated on my forehead (this location will make sense more sense later). Others with different skin concerns might find themselves more prone to flare-ups of whatever that concern may be. Hulan adds, “People who experience dermatitis, eczema, rosacea, or acne-prone skin are going to be more vulnerable to this inflammatory response.”

Related: How to identify your most destructive habits.

Find an outlet for stress

Different skin concerns all require different treatments, and so do individuals dealing with stress. Hulan suggests addressing your stress and anxiety in order “to ‘turn off the taps’ of the stress hormones that are likely fueling the inflammatory response in the skin.” This will look different from person to person and can be further explored in your own therapy practice. For some, it can be active, some will enjoy indoor activities that are more creative. I found repetitive tasks that kept me away from my phone helped a lot (which was how I got into my most unusual hobby this summer, basketry and coaster making).

Woman applying handcream


Nervous habits cause breakouts

I noticed that when I’m at my absolute peak stress, I develop fidgety, almost compulsive habits. Liu shed some light on these, telling me, “A lot of people, they tend to touch their face more when they’re stressed and that can really trigger a breakout of acne.” Nail meet head. If you’re like me, you may find yourself doing this habit (despite the fact that we really should be touching our faces less to prevent the spread of Covid-19). In more extreme cases, stress can also cause skin picking (dermatillomania) and hair-pulling (trichotillomania) disorders, which can lead to acne and sores. I realized this constant touching was likely the cause of my pimples that were mainly located on my forehead, as I constantly touch my bangs or pick at dry skin on my forehead.

Swap for better habits

Hulan suggests swapping out these negative habits with a less aggravating one. “You might try pressing your palms (or the pads of your fingertips) together with a few deep breaths, or massaging a naturally scented hand cream over your palms and fingers,” she suggests. Liu suggests that if these are your concerns, you don’t have to go it alone. “That’s what dermatologists are here for,” she says.

I’ll likely never be completely stress-free or without any skin concerns, but identifying some of my issues and the possible solutions have definitely been the first step in taking the stress out of my quarantine skincare.

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