Occasional stress comes and goes, but ongoing stress due to repetitive negative stressors can turn into chronic stress, which takes a big toll on the body, the mind and emotions. However, while the effects of stress on the body are invisible, long-term manifests visibly on the skin in telltale signs of aging like lines, wrinkles and loose sagging skin.
Stress Impairs Normal Functions
Stress produces hormonal imbalances, dampens the immune system and elevates inflammation, now known to be a prime cause of aging. When it activates the fight or flight response it triggers a surge in stress hormones like adrenaline (epinephrine), cortisol, norepinephrine, testosterone and corticotropin-releasing hormone. This increases the heart rate and activates the immune system; its intent is to help us run away from immediate stressors like animals in the wild.
Stress Causes Damage
Unfortunately, repeated stress causes damage. It affects the circulatory and nervous systems (among others), dilates blood vessels, impedes circulation and makes us more acidic. The resulting inflammatory response breaks down proteins like collagen and elastin [structural proteins that provide support for the skin]. For a detailed scientific explanation see Stress, Hormones and the Skin.
During the stress response, eating, growing, reproducing and cell renewal take a back burner, as your body’s no. 1 priority is survival. Consequently, the skin does not reproduce its structural components, such as collagen and elastin, as it would when stress-free. Naturally, this inhibits the repair process and speeds aging.
Chronic stress also causes a release of neuropeptides and signaling molecules that tear down the skin and speed up the aging process. It also causes more signs of aging via the oxidation and free radicals it produces. This explains why aging skin is most evident in those who have high-stress jobs. Multiple studies on people with high-stress lives (caregivers, etc.) showed shortened telomeres, lower telomerase activity and greater oxidative stress [the scientific basis of this aging].
Consequently, aging skin results from aerobic cell metabolism compounded by low-grade oxidative damage to telomeres. Images of presidents before and after their terms, illustrate the effects stress took on their appearance, not to mention the physical effects.
Lastly, stress can also lead to destructive behaviors that beget more aging, such as drinking alcohol, smoking, poor eating habits (not eating enough or overeating and poor food choices), inadequate rest and lack of exercise.