Turns out, sweating because of anxiety has a unique source—and that means it requires its own set of coping strategies
Sweat is perfectly acceptable on a 90-degree day in New Orleans or while setting a personal record for burpees—not so much in a climate-controlled conference room during the morning meeting. And before you can battle this unwelcome perspiration, you need to know that not all sweat is created equal. Heat, activity, and stress are the main causes of swampy pits, but the sweat caused by anxiety has a unique source and requires its own set of coping strategies. But don't stress out about it—read on to find out why it happens and how you can stop it.
Why Stress Sweat Is Different
“Stress sweat is unique because it comes from a different gland,” says Kati Bakes, a sweat scientist—yes, that is her title—for Procter & Gamble. The moisture that results from a CrossFit session or your typical August day originates in your eccrine gland, whereas the “I have to make a PowerPoint presentation” sweat comes from your apocrine gland.
Apocrine glands are mostly located in your underarms with a few in your groin region and, oddly, your inner ear, Bakes says. Eccrine glands are located all over your body and help regulate your temperature by releasing moisture that evaporates and cools your skin.
But when you break out in a cold, nervous sweat—when you try chatting up the Ryan Gosling lookalike in your office, for example—the blood vessels in your skin don't dilate as much as they would with heat sweat, explains Ramsey Markus, M.D., associate professor of dermatology at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. Your hands and feet might actually feel cold, because your blood is going to other vital organs when you’re under stress.
Why We Need Stress Sweat
The signals for stress sweat come from a different part of the brain than heat sweat, Markus says. “When you’re feeling anxiety, the sympathetic system causes your hands, feet, and underarms to perspire,” he explains. “That’s priming you for action under the fight-or-flight response.” He suggests that the added moisture could have helped our ancestors grab weapons or hold on to saber-toothed tigers. (Makes whatever is stressing you out seem a little less intense, doesn't it?)
“There may be an evolutionary role in why we emit odors when we’re stressed,” Bakes says. If something larger than a house cat is chasing you, smelling bad can repulse a predator as well as let surrounding people know there is danger, she explains. [Head to Refinery29 for the full story!]