Behind the Physical Toll Stress Takes On Your Body

Stressed Woman Stock Photo
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Stress—we all have it, but some of us deal with it better than others. If you look at any recent U.S. president from their first day in office until their last, you will see that all aged appreciably in only four years. Why? Because carrying the weight of the world on their shoulders took its toll on their appearance. Whether you're a CEO at a Fortune 500 company or a stay at home mom, stress can cause you to age before your time. According to New York-based neuropsychologist Sanam Hafeez, PsyD, there is science behind the correlation between stress and aging.

“Aside from the unattractive scowl that stress brings to the face, it creates direct physiological changes," says Hafeez. "Stress is defined as the reaction of the body to a stressor or stimulus that causes stress. Stress can be acute, which affects the body in the short term, or chronic, affecting the body in the long term. Synonyms for stress include anxiety, nervousness, apprehensiveness, impatience, fear, and restlessness.”

Hafeez explains that stress that is not controlled most certainly affects the body’s physical characteristics or beauty. "It affects skin, hair, fingernails, digestion, and sleep patterns," Hafeez says. "Stress-induced conditions include hair loss, heart disease, obesity, obsessive-compulsive disorder, sexual dysfunction, tooth and gum disease, and ulcers or indigestion.”

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Here, Hafeez shares some common symptoms of stress-induced beauty busters:

  • Under-Eye Bags: Tomorrow's to-do list can weigh on your mind, keeping you from getting enough beauty sleep. This can cause fluid to pool below your lower eyelid area, and what you end up with is a puffy mess in the morning. Stomach sleepers, bad news: You can expect the puffiness of your under-eye bags to be even worse because of gravity.
     
  • Flushed Face: “When you're stressed, you breathe in short, shallow breaths and can even find yourself holding your breath for periods of time, which can lead to flushing and redness,”  says Hafeez.
     
  • Hair Loss: Stress can trigger alopecia areata, which causes patches of baldness anywhere on the body, including on your head. Stress can also trigger a tick where you pick at head hairs out of bad habit; a condition is called trichotillomania. Usually, this hair can grow back, but it doesn’t even have to fall out in the first place—pay close attention to your own habitual responses to daily stress to avoid similar sparseness.
     
  • Gray Hair: In addition to the skin, hair can also age prematurely due to stress. If you are genetically predisposed to have premature gray hair, stress will further decrease your production of melanin, easily increasing the number of gray or white hairs. By increasing your consumption of biotin, protein, and vitamin E you can reduce these negative effects to keep your hair strong and youthful.
     
  • Pimples: Stress alters the body's hormones. It increases cortisol production, which in turn increases the oil production in your skin. All of this leads to greater odds of clogged pores. Stress can also multiply the number of acne-causing bacteria in the body, which might require a high-dose antibiotic prescription from a dermatologist. 
     
  • Wrinkles: Anxiety, crying, feeling down, and a lack of sleep can cause deeper lines around the eyes, forehead, eye area, and mouth.
     
  • Dark Circles: Stress can break the fragile capillaries under your eyes, leaving skin with under-eye rings and a tired appearance. 
     
  • Finger Nail Lines: The appearance of vertical lines on your fingernails is fairly common and is related to both the natural aging process and nutritional deficiencies. But when they extend from the cuticle to the tip of the nail, it’s a clear sign that your stress is having an effect on the body.
     
  • Weight Gain: Many people become overeaters when we're feeling a lot of pressure. This happens thanks to the fight-or-flight response, or survival mode. Once your body reaches a certain stress level, it does what it feels it needs to. In most cases, that means overeat. Why? “Your body thinks you’ve used calories to deal with your stress, even though you haven’t, says Hafeez. “As a result, it thinks you need to replenish those calories, even though you don’t.” Levels of the stress hormone cortisol rise during tension-filled times. This can turn your overeating into a habit. Increased levels of the hormone also cause higher insulin levels, your blood sugar drops and you crave sugary, fatty foods. 

So how can we mitigate stress? “The first step is recognition," says Hafeez. "To help deal with your stress, write down a list of what you are most worried about before any event, or what chronically causes worry in your life. Identifying your stressors is the first step in managing them. If you are chronically late or find that it hard to get organized, figure out what you do that makes you late or disorganized. Write it down and acknowledge it. Then, you can come up with a plan to preemptively tackle what may drive you and your loved ones into a stressed-out situation.” 
 

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