Life isn’t what it used to be say, 2,000 or so years ago. Gone are the days of hunting, gathering and carving out a meager existence from bare rock, under the constant threat of becoming a larger predators next meal. Unfortunately, your body doesn’t see it that way. Our bodies’ response to stress has been an important part of our survival. However, it hasn’t yet adapted to being exposed to high levels of stress for a long time. And that, as it turns out, is really bad for us.
Besides preventing some serious immediate effects to our hair and skin, a balanced approach to coping with stress can contribute to our overall wellness. And when it comes to beauty, it’s what’s on the inside that counts.
What we mean when we say “Stress”
Stress is an important part of life, as a matter of fact, it’s what actually keeps us alive. Stress motivates us, increases our awareness, and even acts as a sort of alarm system. When something happens that could be perceived as a threat, your body goes through a complex series of steps in response, all designed to keep you alive and safe. Your vision and hearing get slightly better, your muscles tense and get ready to fight—or, let’s be honest here, for most of us to run away as fast as possible.
However, your body anticipates these responses to be pretty short-lived —as in, a bear spots you in the woods and you suddenly realize how delicious you are and need to beat a hasty exit. These days, we are normally exposed to stressors for longer periods of time (ie. looming deadlines, sick relatives, parenthood) which means that those sophisticated responses designed to keep us safe and healthy are being drawn out, which has the exact opposite effect.
Prolonged exposure to high levels of stress has all kinds of negative health impacts, and one of the ways that we can start to see those impacts is in our hair and skin.
This is Your Hair on Stress
When your body is alerted to danger, it releases a flood of hormones, namely cortisol and adrenaline. The combination of these two can lead to an increase in testosterone, and if you are already genetically predisposed to hair loss, those surges in testosterone levels will only speed up the process.
As if your body chemistry working against you wasn’t enough, most people also experience a loss of appetite when under extreme amount of stress. Over long periods of time, this could lead to deficiencies in vitamins and minerals which will lead to increased hair shedding. If these dietary changes persist, hair structure can become significantly weaker, leading to increased breakage. Put simply, one way that prolonged high levels of stress impact your hair is to cause you to have less of it.
Increased stress can also disrupt your scalp health. High levels of stress releases hormones that cause inflammation. These hormones cause skin to release moisture, which causes it to get dry and sometimes flaky. This increased dryness actually causes the scalp to increase the amount of oil that it produces. Combine increase oil production with flakiness and you get dandruff.
Besides being itchy, uncomfortable and embarrassing, increased oil and skin flake production can impact the microflora of your scalp. This can cause long term changes to your scalp’s overall health.
Its a popular belief that stress can cause your hair to turn grey. Until recently, there hasn’t been a lot of scientific evidence to back up that claim. However, recent studies have shown that prolonged exposure to high levels of stress can speed up the aging process. This slows down the replacement of important pigment-producing stem cells in your hair, which results in a loss of color.
How to Lessen the Impact
When it comes to reducing the impact that stress has on your health and appearance, there are two approaches: you can work to reduce the amount of overall stress in our life, or you can work on strategies to help you manage your existing stress, in healthy ways. It’s highly unlikely that any of us can life a life that is totally devoid of stress, so finding healthy ways to cope while you work on reduction can have the most immediate impact.
How you cope with stress is a personal preference. Just keep in mind that your body cannot differentiate between healthy and harmful stress. It has the same reaction to you running long distances as a way to cope with a recent breakup as it does helping you escape from that bear attack. While releasing pent-up aggression and anger via exercise is a very healthy coping mechanism, it is equally as important to give your body a rest.
Sleep, breathing exercises, and quiet time spent alone are highly effective tools for managing stress. And while indulging in a little “self-care spa day” won’t resolve your stress, it can be a great way to impart a little extra moisture and nutrition into your hair and skin while it’s under attack. Using a nourishing hair treatment or indulgent mask can help you do just that.
Believe it or not, stress is a natural part of life. But like most things, it can get out of balance really quickly. If you find yourself suffering from the effects of long term exposure to high levels of stress, try to remember to press pause and make some time to take care of yourself. Your hair will thank you (and so will the rest of your body and probably your family and friends as well).