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Consoling Stressed Skin

By: Rebecca James Gadberry
Posted: June 29, 2009, from the July 2009 issue of Skin Inc. magazine.
woman with painful neck

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Because most don’t think of stress as having anything more to do with skin than its well-known connection to acne, its impact is often missed on those who don’t suffer from the skin disease. This is especially true nowadays with stress levels at record highs and caring for health at record lows. All the measures taken to keep yourself in shape, such as eating healthy and exercising, goes by the wayside when chronic, unrelenting stress enters your life. You feel out of control—drinking too much, eating the wrong things, not getting enough sleep—all of which exacerbate stress instead of helping regain the balance that is craved.

Yet, say psychologists, that’s exactly the time a routine of personal care should be adhered to that really is, well, personal. You need to eat your veggies, steer clear of sugar and empty carbs, take moments to focus inward, paced with slow, gut-level breaths, maintain your skin care routine and be sure to make quality time for family, friends and, most sacred of all, yourself.

Stress and touch

To anyone who’s watched a tightly wound client lie down on a massage table then listened as the snores of deep sleep overtake the person receiving a relaxing touch, it comes as no surprise that touch lowers stress. Studies show that those who don’t have friends or family in daily life—who don’t have anyone at all to touch or be touched by—feel more out of control and suffer stress-related illnesses at higher rates than those who do.3 The elderly, widowed, divorced and people who are at odds with their spouses or children are especially susceptible because they don’t just lack the touch of someone who cares, they frequently feel unloved, unwanted and unattractive. They have the worst kind of stress, and perhaps the most common: feeling abandoned and not knowing how to revive their connections with other people. This is especially true with older members of society. Oddly, feelings of aloneness are often emphasized by a lack of oxytocin, the bonding hormone that’s triggered most simply by a caring touch.

Oxytocin is what University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) psychologist Shelley Taylor, PhD, says underlies women’s need to “tend and befriend” during times of stress, opening them up to deeper connections with those around them, reducing the fear of being alone and even lowering blood pressure and heart rate.2 At least one UCLA study has shown that women release this hormone when they’re simply in an environment with other women.4 Although the study was conducted on women who worked in the same office, it’s not too far of a stretch to expect this stress-reducing hormone will be released when women enter the cocooning atmosphere of a spa, or are touched by a caring esthetician or massage therapist during a treatment. That said, it is important to make sure your touch is more caring than cursory, more gentle than clinical. You need to show you truly care for the people who place themselves in your care.

As one esthetician recently told me, “We need to remember that we’re often the only person who touches a client. During these times where so many of our clients are suffering from intense stress and feelings of loneliness or abandonment, we need to build touch into every phase of our facials, extending beyond massaging the face and neck to making sure we give everyone that extra hand and foot massage while a mask is drying, even if it’s not included in the price of the treatment.”