It's not your imagination: Your feelings really are written all over your face.
Photo: Bunlue Nantaprom / EyeEm/Getty Images
The link between our skin and our emotions is becoming more understood as researchers and dermatologists see firsthand the effects feelings have on their subjects and patients. We now get that our mood really does show up on our face.
“In fact, skin is one of the biggest indicators of our state of mind,” says Merrady Wickes, the head of content and education at the Detox Market. Happy and calm? Your skin tends to maintain its clarity and even adopt an allover radiance and a healthy flush. But when you’re angry, stressed, or anxious, so is your skin; it can turn red, break out in pimples, or flare up with rosacea or psoriasis.
Here’s the empowering news: There are things you can do to stop negative emotions from affecting your face. Read on.
Why Your Skin Gets Moody
It goes back to the fight-or-flight response, that super-adaptive instinct that enables us to kick into action.
“When you face something stressful, your adrenal glands secrete hormones, including cortisol, epinephrine (commonly known as adrenaline), and small amounts of testosterone, which trigger a cascade of reactions that can lead to excess oil production, decreased immunity (which can spur cold sores and psoriasis), and increased blood in your vessels (which can cause undereye circles and puffiness),” says New York City dermatologist Neal Schultz, M.D., a Shape Brain Trust member. You may also get acne breakouts or rosacea.
Compounding the situation, “recent Olay research has shown that cortisol can lower the energy metabolism of your skin cells by up to 40 percent, and therefore reduce their ability to respond to stress and the resulting damage,” says Frauke Neuser, an associate director of science and innovation communications at Procter & Gamble.
Plus, our negative emotions—sadness from a breakup, deadline anxiety—can disrupt our positive lifestyle habits. “We tend to let our skincare routines fall by the wayside, failing to take off our makeup and clogging up our pores, or skipping moisturizer, which can leave us looking weathered. We might also lose sleep, which triggers the release of cortisol, or stress eat foods with refined sugar, which causes insulin to rise and then testosterone,” Dr. Schultz says. (Related: The #1 Myth About Emotional Eating Everyone Needs to Know About)
At the same time, we’re finding that feeling joyful can manifest physically as well. “For cases in which something positive happens, you get the release of chemicals like endorphins, oxytocin, serotonin, and dopamine, the so-called feel-good hormones,” says David E. Bank, M.D., a dermatologist in Mount Kisco, New York, and a Shape Brain Trust member. These have been less well studied in terms of what they do to our skin, “but it wouldn’t surprise me if these chemicals could have an effect on barrier function, helping our skin stay better hydrated and appear more radiant,” Dr. Bank says. “It’s even possible that the release of feel-good hormones causes the little muscles around the hair follicles all over your body to relax, leaving your skin feeling softer and smoother.” Dr. Bank stresses that while these are just hypotheses, “there is plenty of science to support them.”
How to Help Your Skin Chill Out
Taking steps to manage your emotions can help address the skin reactions they spur, says Jeanine B. Downie, M.D., a dermatologist in Montclair, New Jersey. The most common negative emotion we face is the daily stress of being pulled in a million directions. It’s imperative to find ways to offset it. “If the stress isn’t going to disappear, then the self-care shouldn’t either,” Wickes says. Research-backed relaxation treatments—like aromatherapy, sound baths, meditation, biofeedback, and hypnosis—are especially effective. “All of these have helped my rosacea patients who experience emotion-related flares,” Dr. Downie says. (Related: How to Keep Stress Granules from Wreaking Havoc On Your Body)
Ideally, these mindful practices begin to act preventively. “In so many instances, we treat the manifestation, not the cause,” Dr. Schultz says. “And that’s not really solving the problem.” Acupuncture is especially preventive. “It has been shown to stimulate the release and synthesis of serotonin, which helps boost your mood and balance the nervous system,” says Stefanie DiLibero, a licensed acupuncturist and the founder of Gotham Wellness in New York City. She recommends scheduling a visit to a licensed acupuncturist every four to six weeks to maintain calm. (Here's everything you need to know about acupuncture.)
Your skin-care regimen and diet can also help you sustain a positive status quo. Clinique iD’s Hydrating Jelly Base + Active Cartridge Concentrate Fatigue ($39, sephora.com) concentrate contains taurine, an amino acid that may boost cellular energy, which in turn makes your skin look less tired. And cannabis (or CBD or sativa-leaf extract) is rich in fatty acids that have skin-soothing properties. In testing, Kiehl’s Cannabis Sativa Seed Oil Herbal Concentrate ($47, sephora.com) was also proved to strengthen skin, making it less susceptible to stressors. Applying or consuming adaptogens, which can reduce cortisol, may help too. Mix Sun Potion Yin Power ($115, amazon.com) into your smoothie or coffee to help lower stress. (Related: How to Buy the Best Safe and Effective CBD Products)