Be it finals week, school prom or a big job interview, people always fear the worst and are convinced their breakout of spots is down to the stress of the event.
And this is probably not just your imagination, says Lisa A. Garner, MD, FAAD, a clinical professor of dermatology at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. "When you already have acne and you get into a stressful situation, that seems to be when your acne really flares up.”
In other words, emotional stress won’t trigger a new case of acne, but it may worsen matters in someone who already has the skin disorder.
According to the American Academy of Dermatology, stress makes the skin more sensitive and more reactive. Stress, they say, makes psoriasis or rosacea worse and acne becomes more inflamed and persistent.
The AAD also points out that skin neglect sometimes comes with stress, so scratching, rubbing, pulling and picking act to increase problems that already exist.
Inflammatory skin conditions
Different studies carried out by board-certified dermatologist Richard D. Granstein, professor and chairman of the department of dermatology, Weill Cornell Medical College, New York, have been looking into the impact stress has on inflammatory skin conditions and how this research could change treatment options.
“Nearly everyone has some form of stress in their life, so it’s difficult to determine whether stress can actually make the skin’s appearance worse,” says Dr Granstein.
“However, it’s been known for a long time that the nervous system, which processes our stress, has an impact on conditions such as psoriasis.”
Role of nerves
Granstein says that if the nerves' path to an area of a patient's skin affected by psoriasis is interrupted, the psoriasis improves, showing that nerves play a key role in how skin conditions operate.
The dermatologist adds that experimental data supports the idea that the nervous system and stress affect inflammatory skin conditions in humans.
Many types of cells in the skin can be regulated by neuropeptides and neurotransmitters, which are chemicals released by the skin's nerve endings. Stress can result in the skin's nerve endings releasing an increased level of these chemicals.
When this occurs, it can affect how and at what level our body responds to many important functions, such as sensation and control of blood flow, and can contribute to the symptoms of stress that we feel. In addition, the release of these chemicals can lead to inflammation of the skin.
"If we could block specific steps in certain pathways between the nervous system and the skin -- without impacting the whole body -- we would likely have new ways to prevent or treat some skin disorders," says Dr Granstein.
"We're gaining a greater understanding of the mechanisms underlying many skin conditions, which will help us develop new therapies."
Granstein says that more research needs to be done to further understand the role of the nervous system and stress on inflammatory skin conditions, especially since other factors play a role, including genetics.