How to Relieve Stress Breakouts

May 11, 2020

Woman looking in the mirror at stress breakouts

Stress is such a chronic problem in the U.S. that there’s an entire research foundation dedicated to researching it by conducting annual surveys and providing a Stress in America Report that offers more information about how and why we’re all experiencing such high levels of stress. In light of recent events surrounding the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, many of us have good reason to be experiencing unprecedented levels of stress this year. The U.S. Dermatology Partners team is committed to keeping our patients safe and healthy now and beyond the pandemic, recognizing that the added stress our patients may be under means caring for their skin is more important than ever. Between stress and retail limitations making it difficult to get all of your skincare products, many people are dealing with more breakouts, especially if you already have acne-prone skin. Your dermatologists can help you better understand the way that stress can trigger breakouts, help you prevent issues before they happen, and offer recommendations to treat breakouts that do occur. We’re here for you with teledermatology appointments using video chat, so you don’t even need to leave home to address your breakouts. Keep reading to learn more about dealing with stress breakouts.

Why Does Stress Trigger Acne Breakouts?

Our body’s response to stress is an evolutionary imperative that exists to keep us safe from environmental and internal dangers to our health. Unfortunately, when stress is long term and unabated, it can lead to some serious health concerns, including elevated blood pressure, weakened immune system, and yes, acne breakouts and other skin issues. Stress impacts the body because it activates responses from the endocrine and immune systems. This additional pressure on the body from a heightened stress response means that the body is overtaxed and needs to reroute some nutrients and resources from the skin, hair, and nails. Even though the skin is the body’s largest organ, when stress is draining your energy, the body will send its resources to more essential areas of organ function and immune response. That means, your skin cells aren’t turning over as quickly, breakouts or skin flareups aren’t clearing up as rapidly, and you generally just don’t look or feel your best.

When you think of how your body responds to stress, it’s no surprise that many chronic and systemic illnesses have early warning signs that manifest in the skin. When the body needs vital vitamins and nutrients for more pressing health issues, your skin’s health needs take a backburner. Similarly, during times of stress, acne breakouts can be more severe and take longer to heal.

In addition to the body using vital nutrients in other areas due to the excess stress, the endocrine and immune responses also directly trigger skin health issues. The clearest link between stress and breakouts may actually sound a little counterintuitive. Spikes in adrenaline caused by stress strip moisture from the skin to prevent dehydration within the body, but in order to counteract the resulting skin dryness, the skin produces higher levels of sebum oil to replace the lost moisture. This excessive oil production means it’s easier for pores to clog, leading to more breakouts, especially in patients who already have acne-prone skin.

Hormone fluctuation, specifically the increases in cortisol that occurs during stress, is a major cause of acne breakouts. There’s a reason most people develop acne during adolescence. The dramatic changes in hormones at this developmental stage lead to high levels of cortisol in the blood. Increased cortisol will cause skin inflammation and excess sebum oil production.

Stress can also make individuals more likely to pick at their skin or pop pimples. Sometimes, stress causes us to pick at our skin and we don’t even notice we’re doing it. In addition to making breakouts worse, picking at the skin can increase inflammation and expose skin to bacteria that can cause infection. Both of these issues increase the risk of scarring from acne breakouts.

Stress creates a perfect environment for skin breakouts and flareups, makes it harder for the body to repair itself when damage occurs, and leaves people struggling with severe breakouts that last for weeks. Pile onto that the depressive response many people have when burdened with elevated stress levels which may lead to a decreased attention to basic skin care, and it’s no surprise that people struggle with acne breakouts due to stress.

How to Get Rid of Acne

How to Handle Stress-Related Acne Breakouts

If you and your dermatologist already have an acne treatment plan in place, you should continue to maintain your daily routine during stress-related flareups. If you notice that the breakout is severe, very painful, or not clearing up, you should consider contacting the U.S. Dermatology Partners team to schedule an in-office appointment or a teledermatology appointment or to discuss your concerns and make adjustments to your treatment plan. If you’re experiencing a breakout caused by stress but you don’t usually have acne-prone skin, you may need to make some pretty significant changes to your daily skincare routine. Namely, you need to incorporate the three ingredients that help to combat breakouts – salicylic acid, benzoyl peroxide, and retinols.

  • Salicylic Acid – unclogs pores and reduces oil buildup
  • Benzoyl Peroxide – anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial to combat increased inflammation and bacterial infection
  • Retinols – accelerates cellular turnover

You don’t necessarily need to use all three products at once or even every day. Instead, retinols are usually good everyday skincare products for cellular renewal that have numerous benefits, including helping with acne breakouts. Salicylic acid and benzoyl peroxide products can be used only during breakouts or as spot treatments.

Pimple patches are a good option if you have large, cystic acne that is below the skin. These patches allow acne treatment products to sit on the skin where they are absorbed deep below the surface to help clear up large pimples and cysts, and they may offer pain relief as well. If your acne breakout includes numerous large, painful cysts, you may need to visit a dermatologist for steroid injections. However, if an in-office visit is not possible because you’re in a high-risk group for transmitting or contracting COVID-19, we recommend scheduling a virtual telehealth visit. This will allow is to provide prescription topical treatments for you to use at home and walk you through some preventive steps to help you deal with stress and your breakout.

How to Prevent Stress-Related Acne Breakouts

We can’t avoid every source of stress in our lives, but we can increase relaxation. During these unprecedented times, finding ways to de-stress and relax can be just as important as actually treating skin conditions. If stress is causing flareups or breakouts, your first step is to make some time to rest and recuperate. Next, you need to start limiting your stressors. Spending five hours a day watching COVID-19 news reports? Find one good news source and spend 30 minutes or less checking in every day. Feelings of isolation have you glued to your smartphone or computer? While it’s nice to connect with the outside world any way we can, too much screen time can actually increase stress, so try to take breaks from your screens, especially right before bed. Speaking of bed, get some sleep! For many of us, a good night’s rest is the first thing that goes when we’re stressed, but getting enough sleep is essential to maintain good skin health and overall wellbeing. Don’t forget that stress strips essential nutrients from the skin to feed other overtaxed parts of the body, so maintaining a healthy, nutrient-rich diet and staying hydrated can help to limit the damage. Finally, get some exercise. A few yoga poses or a quick dance party in the living room can work wonders in relieving stress.

In addition to stress relief, you can also improve your skincare routine. Obviously, this will help your skin, but spending a little extra time pampering yourself will also relieve stress. It’s truly a win-win! Even when stress has you feeling less-than-enthusiastic about your skincare routine, don’t skip it. Make time to thoroughly clean and moisturize your skin every morning and evening. You should also be following all of your dermatologist’s recommendations for skin care. Feeling extra stressed and seeing the impact on your skin? Ask your dermatologist about acne-friendly at-home face masks or other fun pampering treatments to relax, unwind, and unclog those pores!

Other Breakouts & Flareups Triggered by Stress

In addition to acne, other chronic skin conditions can be triggered by stress. You should be aware of your skin health needs, and make sure you’re taking care of these issues to avoid extreme flareups. Some of the other skin conditions that may be triggered by stress include:

  • Eczema – The elevated immune response and hormone levels cause the production of more mast cells. These cells release histamines and immunoglobin antibodies that cause itchiness and increase eczema symptoms.
  • Plaque Psoriasis – the most common form of psoriasis, flareups in this skin condition are often related to stress, specifically the elevated immune response. The increase in immune function triggers the production of psoriasis plaques, the thick layers of patchy skin common during psoriasis flareups.
  • Rosacea – characterized by redness and inflammation that is usually most noticeable on the cheeks, rosacea flareups are commonly triggered by the spikes in cortisol and adrenaline caused by stress.

When is it Time to Visit a Dermatologist?

If your stress-related acne breakouts or chronic skin condition flareups aren’t improving after a few days, are very painful, or cause serious difficulty in your daily activity, it’s time to call U.S. Dermatology Partners. As part of our ongoing commitment to help our patients and communities stay healthy in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, we’re still offering quick, easy teledermatology sessions, so you don’t even need to leave home or add any extra stress to your schedule to talk to us. Simply get in touch with our team or request an online appointment using our scheduling request form. Then, sit down with your computer, phone, or tablet to chat with our dermatologists about your concerns and start feeling better right away.

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