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Stress and the Skin

By: Kirsten Sheridan
Posted: June 23, 2008, from the June 2006 issue of Skin Inc. magazine.

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The autonomic portion of the nervous system further divides into the sympathetic and the parasympathetic nervous systems. The sympathetic and parasympathetic divisions of the autonomic nervous system are opposing forces that have the goal of maintaining homeostasis and, therefore, achieving balance within the body. The sympathetic nervous system is associated with expending energy, while the parasympathetic division is associated with conserving energy. For example, heart rate is increased under sympathetic nervous system activity and decreased under parasympathetic nervous system activity. It is the sympathetic nervous system that rules the “fight-or-flight” response.

Fight or flight

You are taking a walk in the country, venture into a field and suddenly a raging bull is pounding toward you. Your body responds, the sympathetic nervous system kicks into high gear and you run for your life! Your body takes over, and fear sets in.

Daily occurrences, such as sitting in traffic, interacting with difficult colleagues, and dealing with clients and time constraints, also may elicit the fight-or-flight response. You want to run, but you can’t. It is these circumstances—the hassles of daily life—that can be the most detrimental to your health if they aren’t managed properly.

The body’s response to stress includes the release of adrenal hormones, such as adrenaline (epinephrine) and noradrenaline (norepinephrine), into the bloodstream. If you are running from that raging bull, for example, these hormone levels return to normal once the fear has been eliminated.

The more stress that is perceived, the more long-lasting the effects of the hormones, leading to intensified and prolonged responses by the sympathetic nervous system. Additional adrenal hormones, such as cortisol, are stimulated, leading to increased anxiety levels, compromised immune function and poor healing ability.

Facilitating stress