All of us are experiencing elevated levels of stress in one way or another right now. So what even is stress? Stress is a hormonal response that is activated when a threat is perceived to be greater than our ability to adapt or cope. We experience two different types of stress; acute & chronic. Acute stress is experienced short term & is often situational or incident based, like an argument or a physically strenuous task. Acute stress may even bolster or increase the bodies innate and immunologic responses. Chronic stress tends to have the opposite effect and is defined as the response to the emotional pressure suffered for a prolonged period of time during which an individual perceives they have little to no control; work/home conflicts/expectations, anxiety, mental worrying, global pandemics…. I bet this sounds a little bit familiar right now.
In a healthy body cortisol levels naturally cycle throughout the day in tandem with you circadian clock, peaking sometime mid morning and falling to its lowest level just before midnight. Chronic and acute stress both disrupt this natural cycle – this is part of the reason we have trouble settling in or falling asleep after a particularly stressful encounter – our cortisol level was peaked late in the day and is interfering with our physiological ability to relax.
Many different cellular interactions occur along the hypothalmic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis when stress is perceived, that lead to the secretion of glucocorticoid hormones including cortisol and norepinephrine. These hormones are responsible for our fight or flight response that physically manifests as increased blood pressure, heart rate, body temperature, slowed digestion, changes in blood flow and blood chemistry that in acutely stressful situations, like self defense, are actually life saving mechanisms.
When a person lives with chronic stress the hormonal response of the HPA axis is actually decreased due to fatigue, while at the same time we become even more sensitive to stress causing stimuli. Chronic stress manifests itself in several physical forms including insomnia/disrupted sleep, high blood pressure, poor appetite/indigestion, muscle tension, headaches and you guessed it – skin problems! The skin actually has it’s very own periphery HPA axis so it communicates directly with your brain about stress! Stress signals from your brain activate your skins HPA axis leading to the release of inflammation creating cells and hormones that increase damage from oxidative stress & UV stress, suppress immune activity, increase irritation cause by allergen exposure and susceptibility to infections. Stress also activate skin cells called mast cells – mast cells are implicated in a variety of chronic dermatologic diseases including acne, atopic dermatitis, psoriasis and pruritus ( itching ). The onset or start of these chronic skin diseases are frequently preceded by a traumatic or emotional event in the previous 6 months.
TLDR; Stress is hard on your skin, ages you faster, reduces your immune function and ability to heal. Stress is literally poison.
Stress can seem insurmountable at times but DO NOT STRESS ANY FURTHER! There are a whole bunch of things you can do to reduce your perceived stress, support and heal your body! Ive pulled together some basic information and instructions for three evidence based stress reduction techniques that you can learn on your own and practice ANYTIME, ANYWHERE, FOR FREE! The most important part of any stress reduction practice is giving yourself enough time to learn these practices and be consistent in their daily use!
Technique : Progressive Muscle Relaxation (PMR)
PMR was developed by American physician Edmund Jacobson in the 1920’s. Dr. Jacobson believed that by learning how to consciously relax the muscle tension that accompanies anxiety one could also conciously “relax” or lower their anxiety levels. PMR focuses on the intentional and focused tensing and relaxing of specific muscle groups in sequence. PMR practice consists of tensing up a muscle group for 10 seconds and then resting for 20 seconds before moving onto the next muscle group. PMR requires a person to focus on differentiating the feelings of tension and relaxation in various muscle groups and is both mentally and physically involved. Start with the muscles in your feet, flexing and relaxing your toes, arches, ankles, calves, quads/hamstrings, buttocks, abdomen/lower back, chest/upper back, neck, facial muscles and then working your way backwards in order to your toes. PMR is an excellent relaxation technique, especially before bed , I personally have been using this technique to fall asleep since my grandfather taught it to me as a little girl! To see the greatest stress reduction results PMR should be practiced for 15-20 minutes daily; long term benefits have been show to include reduced salivary cortisol levels, reduction in anxiety, lowered blood pressure and heart rate, and fewer headaches.
Technique: Diaphragmatic Breathing
Focus on breath or intentional breathing is a well established relaxation technique that is traditionally seen in yoga and has been incorporated into many modern relaxation programs. Diaphragmatic breathing also known as belly, abdominal, or deep breathing; Deep breaths through the nose that focus on the expansion of the diaphragm and abdomen when inhaling and forcefully expelling air through the mouth when exhaling by pushing from the abdomen, defined as breath manipulation. The physiological responses characterized by diaphragmatic breathing are decreased oxygen consumption, heart rate, blood pressure, increased theta brainwave expression and increased parasympathetic activity accompanied by the experience of alertness and invigoration. Current hypotheses are that voluntary slow breathing resets the autonomic nervous system and synchronizes autonomic functions. Diaphragmatic breathing can be used as needed; in stressful situations, to increase alertness or even just take a moment to rest and re center. To get the greatest benefit, Diaphragmatic breathing should be intentionally practiced for at least 3-5 minutes a day; with regular practice people have experienced reduced fatigue and anxiety. Diaphragmatic breathing has also been used to influence autonomic function to help reduce hypertension, aggression, stress and migraines.
Technique: Relaxation Response
Developed at Harvard in the 1960’s by Herbert Benson. It was discovered that there is a counterbalancing mechanism to the stress response; just as stimulating an area of the hypothalamus can incite a stress response so activating other areas of the brain results in the reduction of the stress response- this state of non stress and the transition to it is called the relaxation response. Relaxation Response is a simple practice that requires 15-20 minus of focus per day, the most important characteristics of any Relaxation Response program are 1) the repetition of a word, sound, prayer, thought, phrase, mantra or muscular movement through which concentration is achieved and 2)a passive return to the repetition when other thoughts intrude or interrupt. Stress creates a specific physiologic response in the body and when the perceived threat has passed the body will return to its baseline, reducing heart rate, blood pressure, body temperature and other physical fight or flight symptoms, this is referred to as the relaxation response. By focusing your practice on your own relaxation response you can build greater control over your autonomic response to stress, the long term benefits of a focused relaxation response program have been observed to be lowered systolic hypertension and improved cardiac rehabilitation. Evidence also exists to suggest that relaxation response practice in short term and long term alters certain gene expressions, it is believed that this may be the mechanism for the long term health effects of Relaxation Response practice.
On top of trying out one or all of these tested stress busting methods you can also remember the good old rules of feeling good; eat whole foods that make you feel good, get at least 6-8 hours of rest in each 24 hour cycle, drink more water, and be kind to yourself. Learn more in the next post about specific ways you can support your stressed out skin! Stay safe, stay sane , and feel free to leave any comments, questions or suggestions or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Source materials ; Brain-Skin Connection ; Stress, Inflammation and Aging Ying Chen & John Lyga , A Molecular Psychosomatic Update on Stress Causes – Effects in dermatologic disease Eva M.J. Peters , Stress Management Techniques: Evidence based procedures that reduce stress and promote health Liza Varvogli & Christina Daviri