The research is clear: Stress does ugly things to us. For example, one study found that women who experience high stress are 11 times more likely to experience hair loss than women with moderate or low stress. Work stress, too, is associated with weight gain over five years. And 74 percent of acne patients say that stress exacerbates their condition. We see the same sorts of effects in animals: Anxious dogs grey earlier, and stressed mice age faster.
But how does stress actually affect physical appearance? There are two big ways.
First, when we're stressed we do things that hurt how we look. For example, we furrow our brows or purse our lips, which can cause wrinkles over time. Or we anxiously, absentmindedly pick our skin or bite our nails. Lots of stress often means too little time, so we also tend to make hasty, unwise eating decisions and gain weight. "You're busy, so you might rely on preprepared foods, which tend to be high in sugar and fat," says Susan Torres, an Australian researcher who studies the relationship between mental health and dietary intake. In short, stress can incite self-sabotage.
The other way stress affects appearance is more complicated and systemic. When stress hormones like cortisol interact with other hormones and neurotransmitters, physiological changes occur that sometimes manifest externally.
For instance, stress hastens our hair's natural growth cycle, which can expedite hair loss, and prolongs the hair-loss stage in the cycle. It can also cause premature greying, since each hair follicle has a finite amount of pigment; when our hair cycle speeds up due to stress, the pigment drains sooner. Alternatively, sometimes stress signals the hair follicles to stop producing color, which can make hair duller and finer.
In contrast, stress slows the skin's monthly cell renewal process. Wrinkles, dry skin and delayed healing of acne scars can result. Meanwhile, excess cortisol sets off a hormonal chain reaction that stimulates excess oil production and can instigate, or at least exacerbate, breakouts. Indeed, in one study, increased stressed levels during college exams were significantly associated with increased acne severity. Perhaps most alarmingly, stress may impede digestion, thereby inhibiting absorption of vitamins that are essential for healthy teeth, skin, and hair.
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Chronic life stress is also causally linked to weight gain. When we're stressed, our bodies release cortisol, which then interacts with two hormones called neuropeptide Y and leptin to stimulate our appetite for high sugar and high fat food. Moreover, when we're stressed, good food stimulates an opioid release—your body's natural version of heroin. An addicting reward cycle ensues: We get stressed, and comfort food quite literally, physiologically, comforts us, and then we indulge in it to alleviate our stress. Stress "increases the reward value of highly palatable food," one study explains. The more stressed we get, the more we crave and love high sugar, high fat food, and the more weight we gain. Stress also affects a stress response system called the hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis, which may promote fat storage particularly in the abdominal region.
Stress can even trigger premature aging on a cellular level. Research suggests that stress is associated with shorter telomere length. Telomeres are those little pieces of DNA on the ends of chromosomes, which effectively tell researchers how old a cell is. Shorter telomeres are associated with, among other things, reduced lifespan, decreased physical capacity to recover from stresses like wounds and reduced skin elasticity. In one study, women with the highest perceived stress had telomeres the same lengths as women who were a decade older. In other words, stress ages us not just psychologically but also biologically.
Finally, stress affects our attractiveness in subliminal, instinctual ways. In one Finnish study, men judged the faces of women who had higher levels of cortisol to be less attractive than women with lower levels. Stress plays a critical role in this phenomenon: High cortisol levels make individuals appear less fertile, thereby reducing their attractiveness. This makes sense, says the study's lead researcher, Markus Rantala. Stress inhibits sex hormones, and sex hormones influence physical attractiveness.
There are better reasons to avoid stress than pure aesthetics. But the point is our bodies don't wait for us to "just get through this" or "learn to manage." In manifest ways, our bodies begin to degrade. Perhaps, once we notice these superficial effects, we'll realize the whole of what we sacrifice to stress.
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