Stress is often blamed as a major obstacle to maintaining healthy skin, interfering with the body's efforts to keep the skin in good, supple, effective condition.
But do we really understand why this is and more importantly, it there anything we can do to help?
When we feel stressed, frightened or threatened our bodies release stress hormones to help us to deal with whatever situation we are faced with. This is a clever and necessary process that is triggered when we enter into what's known as the “fight or flight response”, a mechanism in the body that enables humans and animals to mobilise a lot of energy rapidly in order to cope with threats to survival. The stress hormone “cortisol” is released into the bloodstream and puts various strategies in place to allow you the extra energy to deal with the immediate threat, one of which is stopping you feeling pain so you can deal with whatever is going on. Once the threat is over cortisol levels subside, pain kicks in and your body goes back to its usual chemical balance.
The problem is that our bodies are only designed to cope with short bursts of cortisol into the bloodstream and problems can occur when levels stay high when people are stressed for prolonged periods of time, which let’s face it, lots of us are. What with money worries, family and relationship issues, work stresses, school stresses and so many other tings to fret over on a daily basis, many of us have high leveles of stress hormones in our bodies much of the time. This is when cortisol can become our enemy rather than a helpful friend and negative side effects can occur, some of which are directly related to our skin.
One of the negative effects of prolonged cortisol is that it can collagen formation can be inhibited. Collagen is a fibrous protein that provides strength, waterproofing and elasticity to the skin and without proper regular production of collagen our skin can struggle to retain moisture, which is of course a key problem in maintaining healthy supple skin.
Another negative side effect of prolonged cortisol levels is that is can interfere with the body’s ability to regulate inflammatory responses. This can be a real problem for people with dry skin (and eczema sufferers in particular) as over-reaction to irritant triggers in the form of excessive inflammation (the heat, redness, itching and swelling we know so well) is a major symptom of this condition. Add this to a lack of collagen and its associated problems with retaining moisture and we can begin to see exactly how prolonged periods of stress can really make our skin struggle.
So what can we do about it? Yes...you guessed it...RELAX.
Sometimes it’s easy to identify what is causing stress in your or your children’s life or maybe it’s something that will subside naturally with time, or there may be a good possibility for change or solution in the near future. However, for many of us this is just not the case and stress is a regular fixture in our lives. This requires some day to day tools that we can fall back on to help us feel more relaxed, happy and calm and reduce the cortisol levels in our body. If you’re feeling super stressed and your skin is really struggling, see below for some stress relieving tips for adults and children.
STRESS RELIEVING TIPS FOR ADULTS (Tips for children are below this section)
Physical Activity – aerobic activity can really help to disperse high levels of cortisol. It doesn’t have to be full-scale gymnastics three times a week: even just a walk, bike ride, taking the stairs instead of the lift, a stroll to the shop instead of driving or a good old dance around the kitchen to your favourite tune can help! If you can fit it in though, a yoga class (particularly good as it relaxes the mind too), swimming, Zumba, jogging or any aerobic activity a few times a week can work wonders for reducing stress.
Meditation – for some people just the word meditation can cause stress but if that is you, maybe it’s worth a second thought. Meditation is really just a deliberate time when you empty your mind and feel calm for a bit. What’s not to like?! Even just taking a few deep breaths engages the vagus nerve, which triggers a signal to the nervous system to slow heart rate and decrease cortisol, so you can see that just a small amount of calming meditation can really make a difference. There are lots and lots of different techniques so you need to find one that works for you, but here’s a link to a very simple quick one to get you started. Meditation Tips for Beginners
Social Interaction – yes, that is a technical term for just hanging out with the people you love! Studies have shown that spending time with your loved ones (as long as it is pleasant) can reduce cortisol levels. Spending face-to-face time with people who make you feel good, including physical affectionate touch, increases oxytocin (the happy hormone) and reduces cortisol (the stress hormone). So more hugs, socialising and stroking is the order of the day.
Laughter – don’t underestimate the power of a good ol’ belly laugh! Studies show that increased laughter = decreased stress hormones.
Make time to hang out with people who make you laugh, watch some comedy (a live show is best of all) or watch giggling babies and silly kittens on YouTube perhaps.
Do whatever it is that makes you chuckle, it really does do you good!
Music – listening to music you love that fits your mood has also been shown to reduce cortisol levels in the body. Get yourself a set of headphones and put a selection of your favourite music on your phone, tablet or iPod. Next time you are travelling on a busy bus/train/tube, instead of reading more work related emails, over thinking the day’s events or worrying about how you can juggle three days worth of tasks into just one hour, plug in and drift off into your own little world for 10 minutes of lovely music – it’s proven therapy!
STRESS RELIEVING TIPS FOR CHILDREN
It is a sad reality today that children also sometimes suffer with stress. With clear links between stress hormones and skin conditions, it could be worth trying some of the tips below to help reduce stress in your child’s life.
Tell your child that it is ok not to be perfect - there is a huge amount of pressure on children and young adults to be high performers at everything. Hard work and achievement are an important part of life but it is equally important to remind children that not being perfect and getting things wrong is totally ok and an important part of life’s journey. We all do it! If your child is someone who feels this kind of pressure, it might help to remind them that there is no such thing as perfect and that the journey is where the gold is!
Focus on the positives – it's easy for children to get lost in negative thoughts and self-criticism, especially if they are prone to peer comparison. Take time to remind them of their positive attributes and make time to do activities with them that make them feel good. There is a lovely activity called “Sun In The Centre” that is amazing for boosting positivity and self-esteem: sit in a circle with your family or a group of friends and each person take it in turns to have a go at being the “sun in the centre”. That person sits in the middle of the circle and the other people one by one say something that they like, admire, respect or appreciate about the person in the middle. It is a wonderful feel-good activity that’s really easy to achieve and is particularly good if you have siblings that don’t always remember to be lovely to each other!
Make time for fun and silliness – so many of the activities our kids do are competitive and anxiety-generating. Make time for child-friendly fun and silliness that is pressure-free and not competitive. Climbing trees, a picnic, a tea party, cinema, painting, swimming, indoor play areas, a day out to a castle or the woods...
Model behavior – children learn from parent/grown up behaviour. Don’t forget to look after your own emotional and psychological wellbeing. If you are stressed and anxious then your children are likely to pick up on that and might feel the same. Try to take measures to be calm and happy as much as possible. Children will look to parents to determine how to react to situations so try to stay calm and react in a way that your children will feel safe and calm too. Often easier said than done but it is a good goal to keep in mind!
Encourage your child to face their fears – avoiding situations that make your child feel anxious can sometimes just prolong agony. By teaching your child to face their fears they learn that anxiety naturally subsides with time and the feeling goes away. There is a system in the body that reduces anxious feelings and calms the body down after 20-45 minutes of being in an anxious situation. By teaching your child to face their fears they learn that the anxiety goes away. Don’t forget to reward your children for brave behaviour with hugs and encouragement as motivation to try it again next time.
Healthy sleep – it is so important for children to get enough sleep. It really makes a difference to their coping abilities.
Try to stick to the same bedtime every night, even at weekends and in holiday times too.
A thirty minute pre-bedtime routine can work wonders for winding down before sleep.
Try to avoid using screens as a part of this routine as this can have the opposite effect.
Encourage your child to express anxiety – if your child seems anxious or scared try not to say phrases such as “no, you’re not!” or “you’re fine!” as this can lead them to believe you don’t listen or understand. Validate your child’s experience and have a loving discussion about their fears.
Help your child learn how to problem solve – encourage your child to find their own solutions. This helps to build confidence that they can deal with difficult situations. Don’t solve the problem for them but if they struggle to suggest a solution you could suggest a few and encourage them to pick one they feel would work, giving them the feeling they are in control of the outcome.
Relaxation techniques – you can practice simple relaxation techniques with your child that can help in high stress or anxious situations. Deep breathing will engage the vagus nerve which triggers a signal to the nervous system to slow the heart rate and decrease stress hormones. Just ten deep breaths in and out will do this. You can also do a calming visualization as you would in a meditation. Make it relevant and interesting to your child so they follow it. If they struggle to focus it can help to ask them to make up the visualization and say it out loud for you both to follow. Something like relaxing in a hammock on a warm beach and feeling the sand between your toes… just a five minute visualization can really help calm anxious feelings.