Face It — You Need to Relax

Face It — You Need to Relax

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When I looked in the mirror I couldn’t believe my eyes. A trail of red blotches was streaking across my upper chest and neck, and rapidly ascending up the side of my face. I was one of those people who could try anything on my face and, since I worked in the skin care industry, I often did. What I had applied to my face the night before, however, was what I had been using for weeks with no ill effects.

What I was experiencing was the aftermath of emotional stress. My perfectly well-behaved skin was suffering from a cascade of stressful events. In that now long since passed three-month period, I experienced three of what are widely considered to be the “Top 10 Stressors.” I was barely holding it together and my face decided that I should let the world in on my emotional turmoil.

Later that week, after the problem was more or less under control, I spoke with my uncle, who is a physician, about what had occurred. He did a simple test on the inside of my forearm by running his thumbnail from my elbow to my wrist with moderate pressure. Even before he had reached my wrist an angry red welt began to appear. He explained that this simple diagnostic test indicated that my elevated level of stress had sent my immune system into overdrive and that my entire body, but most obviously my skin, was on red-alert for anything and everything.

As a skin care educator, when I talk about this phenomenon I call it “The Barney Fife Syndrome.” Just like the hyper-vigilant deputy, our immune system can become far too responsive for our own good. We can blame this little “cherry” on top of our stressful sundae on our relatively primitive internal mechanisms that still deal with stress the same way our woolly-mammoth-fighting-ancestors did. This was a handy mechanism at a time when the appearance of one’s complexion was a comparatively low priority to being eaten by a wild boar; because it allowed our lower body and critical organs the internal support they needed to “run or rumble.”

Vasu Nargundkar, who writes about wellness topics from an Ayurvedic* perspective, explains it this way: “The 'fight-or-flight' mechanism is the body's built-in way of responding to stress. In times of 'fight-or-flight,' the flow of blood (and nutrients) is directed to the areas of the body considered vital for responding to the stress and withdrawn from areas considered non-essential, such as the skin. So is the flow of oxygen, making it difficult for the skin to 'breathe.' When 'fight-or-flight' situations become frequent, the skin is consistently starved of both blood and oxygen, making it dull and lifeless, less supple, less hydrated and more prone to clogged pores and breakouts.” To that list I would also add hypersensitivity.

With this internal system functioning largely beyond our control, the result of our high-stress existence can often be seen on our faces. According to Dr. Wilma Bergfeld in her book A Woman Doctor’s Guide to Skin Care, there are “a multitude of skin disorders that are triggered or worsened by stress.” This is no surprise to those who work in the skin care industry. Our treatment rooms have become havens for our multi-tasking clients and our services often provide the only form of real relaxation these busy individuals may indulge in. But, in addition to sending our clients home with a topical treatment for their occasional breakouts, perhaps the best remedy would be a regimen of deep relaxation.

Relaxation may not only be the most obvious offering of the spa environment, it may be the most profoundly therapeutic. The benefits of deep relaxation are supported by numerous studies and these positive physiological responses enhance the more subtle functions of the skin by improving circulation, penetration, oxygenation, and the mechanisms of healing. Some of the documented effects that directly relate to the health of our skin include:

  • Decrease in levels of the stress hormone cortisol**
  • Boosting of immune function
  • Increase in serotonin levels in the brain
  • Increase in peripheral blood flow
  • Decrease in the skin’s inflammatory response
  • Lessening of the skin’s resistance to electrical impulses

While a trip to the spa may help you take a short cut to a state of relaxation, it should be said that, just like daily skin care, it is your daily practice of deep relaxation that will have the most profound benefits. It is important to note however, that not all relaxing moments are created equal. As calming and relaxing as certain activities (such as reading a book or walking though the park) may seem, they do not elicit the same physiological response that is engaged by developing a formal habit or method of relaxation.

I have even suggested that my super-stressed clients consult someone in their area who specializes in stress management techniques. My best local resource for stress reduction is Jimi Merk who has a studio for his clients in the Mainstrass in Covington called Shine Your Light. Jimi developed his daily practices to foster his own healing process and now he provides personalized assistance or class instruction to help others in developing a relaxation or meditation practice of their own. If you are not quite ready for a one-on-one session, there are also hundreds of books on relaxation techniques such as meditation and guided imagery, just bear in mind that a bit of experimentation may be required to find the one that is a perfect fit for you.

While the path to tranquility may vary, those who have made relaxation techniques a part of their daily lives all agree on one thing; that, in additional to all of the health benefits, the short amount of time that they set aside each day for deep relaxation is made up many times over by their increased productivity, ability to focus and the sense of having more control over their state of mind. These people would also agree with the Tibetan saying: “If you have time to breathe, you have time to meditate.”

* Ayurvedic medicine is an ancient system of health care that is native to the Indian subcontinent. The word "Ayurveda" is a compound of the word āyus meaning "life" or "life principle", and the word veda, which refers to a system of "knowledge". Thus "Ayurveda" roughly translates as the "knowledge of life". Ayurveda is concerned with measures to protect "ayus", which includes healthy living along with therapeutic measures that relate to physical, mental, social and spiritual harmony.
** The so-called "stress hormone", cortisol, is released in the body during times of stress along with other hormones associated with the “flight or fight” response. But, while other hormone levels quickly return to normal, cortisol levels can remain elevated over a longer time period. In fact, they can remain persistently elevated in the body when a person is subjected to chronic stress. Numerous studies have shown that stress and elevated cortisol tend to cause fat deposition in the abdominal area. Whether or not your stress levels will result in high cortisol levels and weight gain is not readily predictable. The amount of cortisol secreted in response to stress can vary among individuals, with some persons being innately more "reactive" to stressful events. But it may be worth noting that studies have indicated that women who tended to react to stress with high levels of cortisol secretion also tended to eat more when under stress than women who secreted less cortisol.

Photo: Neysa Ruhl Photography
Location: Fischer Homes Granite Spring Model Home
Model: Michelle Landon, BeautiControl Spa Consultant