Your Body On Stress

Photo:Eric Ogden/Trunk Archive

Who isn’t stressed these days? Seriously, from two-year-olds applying to top notch pre-schools in NYC to retired grandparents living longer than expected, we’ve all got a lot on our plates. And as if the actual feeling of stress isn’t enough, its accompanied by a string of both annoying and painful physical effects, including pimples, hair loss, headaches, and stomach issues—the latter of which is by exacerbated by the sugar cravings brought on by said stress.

You know that exercise and a healthy diet will help, as will a solid 8 hours of sleep. But what else can you do to prevent all the terrible stuff that comes along with stress? A psychologist, a dermatologist, and a gastroenterologist weigh in on how and why your body freaks out under pressure and what you can do to remain cool, calm, and collected.

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“A stress response starts with the increased release of corticotrophin-releasing hormones,” says Dr. David Sack, psychiatrist and CEO of Promises Treatment Center in California. “There are positive and negative consequences in this increased release of cortisol. In short, it makes you resilient: your blood sugar stays up and you can tolerate stress, but chronic stress affects every organ in the body.” Norepinephrine released in the brain, heart, and blood vessels increases your blood pressure and makes your heart work harder, while an acute increase in epinephrine (essentially adrenalin) makes your heart rate go up.

There are two kinds of stress: acute stress, like the loss of a family member or a job, can be challenging, but your body responds and does recover. But chronic stress, checking emails at all hours and non-stop deadlines that force us to be continuously focused and attentive—actually does the most damage. (It even affects your immune system, making you more susceptible to colds and viral infections.)

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Sack says there are many methods of self-regulating stress. “Regular meditation, mindfulness, and yoga can decrease hyperactivity, making your stress reaction less and the duration shorter,” he says. “Set time aside and make a commitment. Regular aerobic exercise can greatly reduce stress over time, but running for two miles when you’re under pressure won’t cut it.” Sack says breathing exercises like biofeedback helps bring your heart rate down and diminish stress; even meditation and relaxation self-help tapes work.

The last factor: adhere to a strict bedtime. Stress levels shoot way up when you’re sleep deprived. For those who find TV meditative, Sack says vegging out is fine—just don’t let your “Scandal” marathon get in the way of your shuteye.


“You will show your stress on your face—you can’t hide it,” says Dr. Ava Shamban, a Beverly Hills dermatologist. “Skin is the biggest organ so it’s the biggest target for stress.” Under stress, your cortisol levels go up, manifesting as inflammation, hives, acne, or exacerbating any underlying skin conditions you may have like eczema or psoriasis. Shamban says the tiny hair follicles along your neck, jaw, and even back become “testosterone factories” and cause the acne. Taking birth control pills can potentially help, since it picks up the excess hormones and cortisol in your body. “To regain control make sure you wash twice a day with noncomedogenic cleansers, and if acne prone, use a product with salicylic acid or benzoyl peroxide followed by a moisturizer,” she says.

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“When you’re stressed, you’re in fight or flight mode, so your body doesn’t do anything frivolous,” says Shamban. “When people are starving, for example, their hair stops growing so the body can focus on essentials like keeping the brain nourished and repairing cells in the heart. Same thing goes here.” Your hair may stop growing or fall out as a result of trauma. And if you are growing new strands, it may come in dryer since your oil glands are putting out less oil. Shamban swears by taking 500 micrograms of Biotin vitamin B supplements (available at places like Whole Foods) to make your hair fuller. You can take it preventatively—just check with your doctor if you’re taking other medications.


Aside from nail biting and cuticle picking that may occur under tough times, if you experience a serious illness or extremely stressful situation you can get horizontal dents in your nails called Beau’s lines. They’re caused by a momentary cessation of cell division in the nails. They can be a little painful, but will grow out eventually overtime as the nail grows in.


“Our mind and digestive tract are very interconnected since nerves line the entire thing,” says Dr. Roshini Raj, a New York City-based gastroenterologist. “Stress can affect people in different ways—for some people the intestines contract more, resulting in diarrhea, while others go into shock and become constipated.” Raj says stress is also to blame for acid reflux and in some more severe cases Irritable Bowel Syndrome. For most people stress creates that feeling of butterflies in your stomach. Raj says this occurs when neurotransmitters are affecting the movement of the intestine so food moves too quickly. Nausea occurs when these neurotransmitters slow down the passage of food.

To reduce stress and keep your digestive tract moving, Raj says she’s a big believer in exercise, meditation, and yoga. “If you’re someone prone to diarrhea load up on bananas, but if you’re prone to constipation drink a lot of water and eat more fiber when you’re stressed,” says Raj. Keeping a food diary can weed out any potential dietary issues. Those with more chronic stress-related stomach issues should consider seeing a doctor and a counselor and look into your family history. “If your symptoms are recurring, you’re losing weight, or a pain wakes you up from sleep that’s something more physical going on and you should see a professional,” she says. “If you only have symptoms during the week when you’re working, and not on the weekend or vacation, then you know it’s stress.”

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