If you struggle with worrying about everything and anything, you know how consuming an anxiety disorder can be. The uneasy feelings settle into your very skin, demanding all of your attention, like a festering wound that no one but you can see. No matter how many times you deal with it, this stress dominates every facet of the brain when it comes, impacting your whole body. But did you know that anxiety can affect your appearance too?
That's right, the angst you're feeling inside might not be as invisible as you once thought. As it turns out, anxiety can definitely impact outward appearance, and there's science to back that up. Basically, that nervous energy triggers our fight or flight response, which is our body's way of preparing for imminent danger and leads to changes in physical chemistry, as Angela Retano, R.N., M.S., P.M.H.N.P. explained to Anxiety.org. The main culprit behind the negative side effects is cortisol, as Christopher Bergland explained to Psychology Today; cortisol is the hormone that gets released when we feel fear. Cortisol can impact the digestive, integumentary (aka skin, hair, and nails), and nervous systems, all of which end up influencing how we look.
Our emotions are connected to the health of almost every part of the body, as Medical News Today reported, with negative feelings potentially causing symptoms as varied as digestive issues, chest pains, and trouble sleeping. So why would the outside part of your body be immune to this kind of damage? Read on for seven ways anxiety can influence your appearance — as well as tips on how to prevent the changes when the stress hits.
1. Your Hair Might Fall Out
Same, Tina, same. Thinning hair or hair falling out is a pretty rare side effect of anxiety, but it does happen. A sudden increase in stress or anxiety can cause can cause telogen effluvium, which is when your brain literally tells your body to stop growing hair, according to The Mayo Clinic. The hair will then thin and start to fall out in clumps after a few months when you're combing or washing your hair, which would be a pretty unsettling turn of events when trying to take a relaxing shower. The good news is that telogen effluvium is temporary, and the hair will grow back once your stress levels return to normal.
Anxiety can also cause trichotillomania, a disorder in which people pull out their hair compulsively because of stress or trauma, according to Mental Health America. Individuals affected will not be able to stop pulling their hair out, whether on their head, eyebrows, or eyelashes, and the compulsion will continue until the anxious feelings are under control. It's not super common, but about 0.5 to 3 percent of the population will experience trichotillomania at some point in their lives. Plus, the number is probably higher because so many cases go unreported, as people feel too embarrassed to talk to a doctor about the problem. Trichotillomania is nothing to be ashamed of, and it's important to remember you can't help it if you happen to have it. A behavioral therapist can help affected individuals get to the bottom of the cause of the anxiety and provide strategies to help stop the compulsive pulling, as well as provide medication, so definitely reach out to a professional if you're struggling with trich.
2. Or It Could Turn Gray
I have an uncle who constantly jokes that he didn't have one gray hair on his head until my cousins and I were born, but it turns out his jokes about stress causing the pigment change might not be so far off. Anxiety cannot literally change the color of your hair, but it can cause cause alopecia areta, in which the body attacks its own hair follicles and thus causes hair loss in patches during times of stress, as explained by the American Academy of Dermatology. The disorder generally targets darker patches of hair, according to Calm Clinic, so people who already have a few gray hairs will feel like they've gone totally white overnight because of the lack of dark hair they suddenly have. Like telogen effluvium, alopecia areta is temporary, so normal hair color will return once the anxiety is under control. But definitely talk to your doctor about any sudden changes in your hair to be sure there isn't some other cause for the change.
3. You Could Gain Weight
Gaining weight is one of the most common physical side effects of anxiety for multiple reasons. On a physiological level, the fight or flight response anxiety triggers can increase glucose levels in the bloodstream, which can cause weight gain. Anxiety Center also reports that being upset can make you literally crave foods that are high in calories, so there's an explanation for those french fry cravings that seem to come whenever you're having a meltdown.
A 2011 study in Psychiatriki also found that indulging in good food leads to a release of endogenous opioids in the brain, a.k.a the body's natural version of heroin, so we trick ourselves into eating things that are bad for us when we're anxious because it makes us feel good in the short term. Plus, people also tend to eat foods that aren't as great for them when they're having a bad day because it's quicker to grab fast food than to make a full meal. To put it simply, anxiety creates a perfect storm for weight gain.
If you're finding yourself binging and gaining weight when you're anxious, reach out to a medical professional about how to better cope with your anxiety. You might also want to give working out a try; Elle Woods was right when she said exercise gives you endorphins (WebMD agrees) and it provides a myriad of other benefits for people with anxiety.
4. Or, You Might Lose Weight
Remember that fight or flight response I mentioned? Well, some people actually end up losing weight as a result. They might feel nauseated when they're anxious, as Harvard Medical School's Health blog explained, so they end up not eating and then... goodbye, pounds. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America also reports that Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) is more common in people with anxiety and depression, which can lead to weight loss since people with IBS often have diarrhea or avoid eating because of stomach pain. Sudden weight loss isn't healthy, so be sure to get in touch with your doctor if you find yourself struggling to eat during times of anxiety.
5. You Might Have Inflammation
Inflammation is a little different from the other items on the list because it can actually cause anxiety rather than the other way around, but I still included it because of the physical impact it can have on the way you look. Chronic inflammation impacts millions today, and, bad news bears, it's correlated with higher levels of anxiety and depression. As Kelly Brogan, M.D., explains on her website, if you're experiencing inflammation in the brain, your brain could stop producing hormones that make you happy like serotonin and melatonin and replace them with ones that cause anxiety instead. The inflammation can make you sleep less and become less motivated, making you look tired or gain weight. Getting rid of inflammation throughout your body can lessen the symptoms of anxiety, so talk to your doctor about the best way to move forward without it.
6. Your Skin Could Breakout
This one is pretty instinctual, so you might be less-than-surprised to find that higher rates of anxiety and acne are correlated. A study conducted by Dr. Sandhya Ramrakha of the University of Otago in New Zealand found that people with anxiety were about 10 percent more likely to suffer from acne, as Dermatology Times reported. But anxiety doesn't actually cause acne, according to WebMD, it just makes breakouts worse for people who already have skin problems. So if you're an acne sufferer, talk to your dermatologist about how you can prevent worsening breakouts during times of high stress.
7. Your Skin Could Wrinkle Faster
Apparently, there's some truth to the old wives' tale that your face could get stuck like that if you furrow your brow too often. A 2011 study published by the PLOS (Public Library of Science) found that there's a correlation between anxiety and shorter telomeres, which are caps at the end of DNA strands that protect cells from aging. When telomeres are shorter, cells die more quickly, making your skin look wrinkled at a younger age. The correlation between anxiety and telomere length was found in women who had anxiety over a long period of time, so prevention is the key. If you don't want your skin to lose its perky glow, start an anti-aging skincare routine early and talk to your doctor about getting your anxiety under control.