It’s the most wonderful time of the year! So goes the classic Christmas song, in which Andy Williams sings about the happiest season of all, with “parties for hosting, marshmallows for toasting,” and “hearts that are glowing when loved ones are near.”

But while all of that is true, there are some things Mr. Williams didn’t sing about; along with all those warm, fuzzy feelings comes holiday stress. With so many parties (the office Christmas party, college friends’ get-together, high-school friends’ get-together, family reunions on both sides), relatives flying in, the mad rush to get your Christmas shopping done, and even worse traffic, sometimes you just don’t feel all of that good cheer—and it can end up showing on your skin. That’s unfortunate because this might be the one time you see some of your friends each year and you’d want them to see you glowing, not haggard!

Read on to find out how holiday stress can take a toll on your skin and some stress relief tips to help you relax and fully enjoy this most wonderful time.


Stress and Your Skin

You’re not imagining it—stress can take a toll on your skin, and science tells us how:

Stress releases cortisol, which is no good for collagen. You know that feeling you get right before a job interview or before speaking in public? Your palms get sweaty, your mouth gets dry, and your blood pressure and heart rate elevate. This is cortisol in action. The “stress hormone” is part of the body’s fight-or-flight response to a nerve-wracking situation. It’s a natural response that serves a purpose (like keeping you on your toes in a dangerous neighborhood, for example) but the constant release of cortisol due to chronic stress can really get under your skin: It can disrupt the synthesis of collagen, which is responsible for keeping skin taut, plump, and youthful. This means that stress can lead to sagging and wrinkles over time.

Stress can dry out your skin. A study published in the International Journal of Cosmetic Science looked at healthy female students during periods deemed stressful (i.e., final exams and returning from a long vacation) versus a control period. Researchers found that there was a significant decline in the epidermal permeability function of the skin during the stressful periods. This means that being stressed out can reduce the moisture in skin. This leads to dryness and flakiness and may exacerbate existing conditions like eczema.

Stress can lead to premature aging.Telomeres are the ends of chromosomes which naturally shorten over time. Research in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United State of America indicates that women “with the highest levels of perceived stress have telomeres that are shorter on average by the equivalent of at least one decade of additional aging compared to low stress women.” This means that stress can lead your skin to exhibit signs of aging, such as lines and wrinkles, earlier than what is deemed normal, on top of possibly leading to other age-related degenerative diseases.

Stress may bring about acne. Decades ago, dermatologists John H. Stokes and Donald M. Pillsbury hypothesized that there was a link between one’s emotional state and skin conditions like acne, and that it all began in the gut. The doctors believed that anxiety and depression could affect the intestinal microflora, leading to inflammation, oxidative stress, and even acne. Recent research published in Gut Pathogens concludes that, while further tests need to be conducted to find the degree of the effect of the condition of the gut on skin, “there appears to be enough supportive evidence to suggest that gut microbes, and the integrity of the gastrointestinal tract itself, are contributing factors in the acne process.”

Relieving Holiday Stress

While one of the best things you can do is take a break and rest, that isn’t always possible in the middle of this busy time of year. Luckily, there are little things you can do in a matter of minutes to help manage the stress:

Breathe in, breathe out. If you can sit still and meditate, even for just a couple of minutes, that may be enough to help calm you down. In his book Joy on Demand, a book about learning how to meditate and unlocking the joy that comes from it, Chade-Meng Tan, author and engineer who brought mindfulness to the Google workplace, extols the virtue of taking even just one mindful breath.

When you feel your blood pressure rising as you’re stuck in traffic from work to dinner with friends, to take a deep breath, hold, and exhale, focusing completely on your breath and nothing else.

Inhale a relaxing scent. Take your breathing exercise a step further by adding a soothing scent to the mix. In the book Smart Medicine for Healthier Living, authors Janet Zand, Allan N. Spreen, and James B. LaValle state that peppermint oil may help calm nerves and alleviate feelings of mental fatigue, among other benefits. Meanwhile, a study in the Journal of the Medical Association of Thailand has found lavender to be effective in lowering blood pressure, heart rate, and skin temperature. Plus, it puts you in a better mood!

Soak in a salt bath. If you have a bathtub, a salt bath can help relax tense muscles. Mix two cups of magnesium-rich Epsom salt in water and soak for about 12 minutes.

Try these tips whenever you feel the stress coming on this holiday season—and try to focus on all the good cheer!