Me too! I hate it.
Doesn’t hardly matter what the stressful thing is, whether it’s my young daughter being bullheaded and frustrating again, or money problems, or even spilt milk.
Or waking up to see a surprise breakout in the mirror, at the worst possible time… which makes me stress out, and gives me worse acne… what a vicious cycle!
Stress makes my skin more red and inflamed (or it used to, anyway, when I was dealing with acne regularly).
I still occasionally get a small breakout from eating a really “off” meal (lots of veg oil, fried foods, PUFA, synthetic stuff, etc.), and I notice it’s much worse if I’ve been really stressed out.
The second I’m able to relax, go into nature, take a walk, take a break, scream into a pillow, cry into a pillow, play some music, vent to a friend, or somehow blow off some steam, it’s like my skin shows it almost immediately. Less red, less inflamed, less angry, more relaxed-looking.
I wanted to see if the scientific literature backed this up – specifically, the stress and acne connection – so I did a little digging.
A number of studies have been done on stress and acne, it seems! Here’s some great evidence for our theory:
- Kids in Singapore had worse acne right before midterm exams, and better skin during summer holidays. (Interestingly, it was not due to excess sebum production, but some other mechanism.)
- Adult women in Italy with high levels of psychological stress had worse acne. .
- 6th-year female medical students in Saudi Arabia with higher stress levels had worse acne than students who felt more relaxed overall.
Now, a word of caution…
Before you jump to the conclusion that stress directly causes acne, let’s back up a second.
You know how when you’re really stressed out, you tend to crave sweet, fatty, carby foods? (That’s ecause such foods give you an insulin rush, and a dopamine wave, which relaxes you and reduces your stress levels!)
Is it possible that people who are more stressed out just eat more junk food, and get worse acne that way?
It’s possible… but I think stress also directly contributes. I think it’s important to think about why stress triggers acne, to help us design better solutions and strategies for how to reduce stress in a way that actually works, and is sustainable. (I.e., not just Prozac!)
So let’s hash out some theories of why stress might trigger acne.
I believe stress leads to more acne for a number of reasons:
- When you’re more stressed out, you tend to crave sweet, fatty, carby junk foods. Eating such foods, if they’re high in polyunsaturated fat (veg oil), added sugar, iron-fortified white flour, etc., is going to worsen acne in a big way.
- When you get stressed, your body dumps a bunch of fatty acids into your bloodstream to burn for energy. If you’ve got a lot of polyunsaturated fat stored up, from years of eating high-PUFA foods (like vegetable oil), your body dumps a bunch of PUFA into your bloodstream, which reacts with oxygen and pro-oxidant toxins in your body (fluoride, chlorine, free iron, free copper, PCBs, dioxin, etc.) to form lipid peroxides, which damage and inflame your pores (causing zits). (And indeed, one study found that people with acne who were chronically stressed out had more MDA in their blood , a sure sign of lipid peroxides from PUFA overload, possibly caused by stress-dumping of fatty acids, all leading to more acne.)
- When you’re stressed, you get more insulin-resistant. Your blood sugar control doesn’t work as well, which means you tend to store more fat (which is bad news for acne if you’re eating high-PUFA foods like vegetable oil, chips, mass-produced cookies and junk food, peanut butter, etc.).
- Chronic stress puts the keebosh on your immune system. That’s bad news for your skin, because your immune system is what pushes toxins out of your body (and cleans up acne). If it’s not functioning well because you’re stressed all the time, that’s going to lead to worse acne. Your body just won’t have the juju to deal with the constant influx of modern-world toxins.
- When you’re stressed out all the time, you tend to want to escape into screens. Like Netflix, social media, video games, etc., to try to fill that hole of anxiety, to feel just a little bit better. But it doesn’t fill the hole very well, and causes other issues, like sleep dysregulation from blue light exposure, and lymph blockage from high EMF exposure and sitting in one position for too long (lymph blockage means poor detox function, and more pore-clogging toxin buildup in your skin). Escaping into screens and media, as a strategy to try to deal with stress, generally leads to social isolation and worse health (and acne). It’s not a great long-term way (in my experience, and that of many others) to deal with stress.
- When you focus on your acne too much, you feel like sh!* about yourself. That just adds to the stress, and worsens all the above problems. (That’s why my mirror mantra – from the CSF Podcast Episode #002 – is so important and powerful for your skin and self-healing.)
- When you try to be “perfect” with your diet, your social life suffers. I know this one from DEEP personal experience, having done some of the most isolating and extreme diets for months and months (like 80/10/10 raw vegan). When you won’t allow yourself to eat food that other people eat, you can’t connect with other people. Food is one of the main ways we gather together and share our gifts and love. When we turn our backs on food that doesn’t meet our hyper-strict “imagined perfection” of the ideal clear skin diet, we send ourselves into a cycle of isolation, estrangement, disconnection, and despair. Nothing kills us faster than having no friends. We are social beings, and we must have that rich community connection to thrive. (Incidentally, that’s one reason I recommend exploring intentional communities if you’re not actually finding good, genuine, authentic, compassionate community near you! Sonia and I met in an intentional community in Palo Alto, CA, and currently live in one in Indianola, WA. We’re on a quest to start our own land-based, low-tech permaculture community in the next year or two. Anyway… tangent done!)
I’m sure there are more reasons why stress causes acne, but for me, these are the main contenders.
How can we use this knowledge to go about reducing our stress in an effective and sustainable way?
Do we download a meditation app? Do we take stress-reducing supplements? Do we get massages? Do we hope for a divine gift of unlimited, paid time off?
Or do we need to dig deeper?
If you’ve read much of our writing, you know that I’m always a fan of digging deeper – as deep as possible, really – to find the root causes of acne. That’s because it’s the absolute best way I know of to become truly acne-proof for good.
So with that, let’s dive into…
I want to invite you to do the hard work of figuring out how to reduce your stress by finding the root causes of your stress, and working on those things.
That might be things like:
- Living in a difficult life situation
- Living with people who don’t share your core values
- Working a thankless job
- Working a night shift
- Having an abusive boss or snotty co-workers
- Raising kids (so joyful and so frustrating!)
- Emotional troubles with your partner or spouse
- And so many more…
Sonia explained it beautifully on the CSF Forum:
Though many of us prefer to ignore the effects of “stress” – breakups, moving, new relationships, dissatisfaction with your job or school or social life or partner, money troubles, promotions, and other life changes (or stagnant lack of changes) – your mental and emotional wellbeing have a huge impact on your hormones, and therefore your skin. One reason people don’t like this topic is because it’s less tangible than the food you eat, and it’s tougher to make changes and measure their impact. But every little thing makes a difference, from meditating for 5 minutes every morning, to taking one unnecessary thing off your schedule, to taking that drawing class you always wanted to try, to quitting your job and moving across the country.
We did a personal consultation with a young man in high school a few years back, and he ended up deciding to quit the high school soccer team because it was stressing him out so much. He didn’t have any time left over to spend time with friends, nourish his spirit, or take care of himself at all, really.
Some folks LOVE being on the soccer team, whereas it causes lots of stress for others – just really examine all the things you’re doing in your life, the major commitments, the big stressors, and think about whether they’re really adding to your life. Are they a net positive? Or a drain on your life energy?
Here are my top 10 ways to reduce stress. (Remember – these are just the ones I use. You might have a completely different list of things that work for you!)
With that, here are my go-to ways of reducing my stress levels:
- Fixing relationship issues with my life partner (Sonia). This requires incredibly difficult deep work, letting go of ego attachments to “being right” (a constant and difficult practice), compromising on things I don’t want to compromise on, putting myself in Sonia’s shoes to see my faults through her eyes, making scary and difficult agreements and commitments, healing my own past traumas with cathartic journaling, mind programming, belief repatterning, Law of Attraction practices, rage release, grief work, and EMDR.
- Walking outside in nature. Experiencing nature directly is probably the most primal, deeply healing act we can ever do. I would encourage you to go into nature unplugged, meaning no music or podcasts, but if you feel blocked around that and want some tunes or voices to keep you company, please indulge that desire! I do find it more nourishing to myself when I can be fully present in nature, and cultivate a sort of “diffuse awareness” where I let my attention drift around to the amazing (and often subtle) sounds and sights of nature. I feel tree bark and moss with my hands. I put my hands in the stream and listen to the gentle babbling as the water tumbles around joyfully. This is one of the most healing acts you can do for your soul, and your skin, as well – I’ve experience time and time again that time out in nature makes my skin look better, as I feel more relaxed, centered, balanced, and at peace. (Or at least more so than when I started!)
- Playing music. I am a musician to my bones, and nothing feels quite as nourishing to me as sitting down at an early 1900’s walnut piano and improvising slow, melancholy and yearning melodies. Or playing around on a hammered dulcimer, or guitar, or mandolin… I have many such axes. Do you have a hobby like this that nourishes you to your deep soul core? If so, do you allow yourself to do it regularly, even if just for a few minutes at a time? If not, did you used to have a hobby (or dream) that you gave up on for one reason or another? Can you allow yourself to rediscover it very slowly, very gently, just dipping your toes in the water? (Like Sonia – she got a banjo right before our daughter Juniper was born, and while she hasn’t strummed on it much since then, I can tell she is just waiting for a good moment, and until then, we have started singing together!) I’ve just started getting back into drawing (thanks for the inspiration, Peter Draws!), and am always open to cultivating new hobbies for the simple joy of it. The world is so serious, and in so much pain, right now… I think we really need to be gentle with ourselves and allow ourselves to do things for the pure joy of them. It’s easy to get caught up in the need to fix all the scary sh** going on in the world right now, and while this sounds absurb to the logic-bound egoic mind, I promise you that indulging your nourishing hobby (or hobbies) will help us all get there, because everything is interconnected and every act of healing, however small, ripples outward in time and space in unfathomable complexity and power.
- Doing improvised Qi Gong right before going to bed. I.e. slow movements coordinated with my breathing. (I say “improvised” because I haven’t learned much traditional Qi Gong yet!) Yoga, dancing, stretching, slow calisthenics, etc. are all great ways of getting the same benefits.
- Going 80% speed on everything I do. Instead of my normal “100% full speed ahead” at everything – the “rush” thing we all do so much these days – I’ve tried to cultivate a practice of 80% speed. Whenever I notice I’m doing something really quickly – even something like washing the dishes after a meal – I deliberately check in with my body, relax my abdomen/gut, breathe, and then say, “Okay, what would 80% speed look like?” and then move from there. I still get the thing done about 95% as fast, but am 345.67% more relaxed. This applies to walking from place to place, writing blog posts for Clear Skin Forever, writing emails and texts, cooking, playing the piano – I’ve started to ask, not how fast can I do this thing, but how slow can I do this thing? It’s maddening to the ego that wants to get sh** done as fast as possible, which is why it takes practice, and it cascades beatifully into full-body relaxation, breaking free of negative thought loops, being present, etc.
- Rage-screaming into a pillow. Amazingly cathartic. This has allowed me to move incredible amounts of deeply stored rage from 1) 18 years of compulsive schooling and being given thousands of hours of meaningless lectures and meaingless homework, 2) the maddening experience of raising a child, 3) living closely with another stubborn person (Sonia) and bumping heads constantly, 4) the many small traumas and awful experiences I’ve had over the years, 5) having to worry about “making a living” when my soul wants to play music, grow food, build community, and do art… and so on.
- Crying into a pillow. Grief is the cousin of rage. I often find that rage is what I feel first – I have to move through the rage first, by screaming and raging into a pillow (or whatever other method, but ideally not shouting at Sonia or my daughter, Juniper). Once I move the rage, and release it, THEN I often find a deep well-spring of grief underneath that was hiding under the mask or film of rage. Once I can find an emotionally safe space – in my case, the bathhouse, since we currently live in a 1-room yurt – I take a pillow in there and cry. I cry into a pillow because it makes me feel safer knowing that other people won’t hear me as much (drat this emotionally repressive culture and our collective shame around crying!!!). It was very difficult at first, to allow myself to cry, because I spent so many years growing up in a world where boys, especially, are not supposed to cry.
- Practicing the Law of Attraction, by constantly choosing slightly better-feeling thoughts. For example, when I realize I’m thinking, “Goddammit, another zit?! What was it this time?!”, I reach for a slightly better-feeling thought, which might be, “Ah! My body is still telling me that something’s out of whack with my diet or stress levels.” And so on. I’m not talking about instantly leaping from “I hate myself!” to “I constantly experience the bliss and magic of creation and the continual unfolding of this joyous life”. That’s too big of a jump. Abraham Hicks teaches us to just reach for a slightly better-feeling thought, and then another, and then another. It becomes a well-worn path, a strong muscle, an old friend, when you practice it over and over.
- Saying a blessing before I eat food. I grew up hating Grace, because I felt awkward around it, and my dad once asked me to do it at a big family dinner when I was really young and I was terrified and ashamed. Nowadays, I don’t say Grace exactly, but I try to just say something like, “Thanks to the farmers who grew this food. Thanks to the sun for providing energy, and the Earth for supporting life. Thanks for this food, for nourishing my body so I might continue to serve all life in my own small ways.” (Sometimes I say it in my head, just briefly, if I’m in a public place and feeling self-conscious.) Something simple like that really helps ground me before a meal, and totally changes the energy of my body. Tension flows out like a long-held breath finally released. I tend to eat more slowly, chew more thoroughly, digest better, and enjoy the flavors of the food more. Psychosomatic study teaches us that eating in these ways lead to greater vitality and greater nourishment from food. If I forget to say a blessing, I tend to eat faster and have more tension in my gut while eating, which worsens digestion and I don’t get as much from the food. Saying a simple blessing, even just “Thanks for this food”, really helps reset the body and tell yourself that you’re glad to have this food, that it’s good for you right now – which is such a powerful energy to have if you’ve been stuck in diet paranoia for a long time (as I have, for years and years). Try it! 🙂
- Saying my Mirror Mantra whenever I look in the mirror and see acne. Listen to the CSF Podcast Episode #002 for more on this – this is VERY POWERFUL tool for reducing your stress and learning to accept yourself for who you are right now!
I used to recommend taking magnesium supplements to reduce stress levels, but I no longer think that’s a very good root-cause solution. I’m always trying to trace root causes farther upstream, as that’s where the most effective (and often difficult) acne fixes are to be found!
Magnesium levels dump fast when you’re stressed out, so taking magnesium supplements can replenish that lost magnesium and rebalance your brain chemistry and help you relax. That said, it’s not really fixing the source of the stress – it’s just making you dependent on magnesium to manage your stress. It’s better than Prozac, but it’s still a crutch.
From Sarah on the CSF Forum:
"I honestly think that the answer for me was stress. But I also think I misunderstood stress. Stress, to me, was busyness and exhaustion and a never-ending to do list. Granted, I had my fair share of all of that while planning a wedding! But acne has been an issue for me for 10+ years. I think that moving out of my parents’ home – much as I love them! – was actually part of the answer for me. Stress doesn’t always come in those forms. Other things (feelings of frustration, guilt, etc.) can also cause a stress response. Life is really different now that I live with my husband, and it’s awesome. I no longer feel a lot of the emotions I previously felt, and my skin looks miles better for it. I just wanted to share in case anyone else has a similar misunderstanding of stress. Anything you can do to improve or change any negative thoughts, feelings and emotions you have is well worth a try – alongside a good diet!"
David on the CSF Forum shares his go-to strategy for reducing stress levels:
As I have found, the best thing for stress is Transcendental Meditation, which I have be doing for 22 years now. The meditation started to reduce my stress after just a couple of weeks, just 20 minutes morning and evening. Now I do not really suffer with stress any more wich helps my acne.
Vicki, also from the forum, adds her thoughts on Transcendental Meditation:
You can read more about TM [here](http://www.tm.org/), and if you search Maharishi Mahesh Yogi on Youtube, you can find amazing videos of him talking about Transcendental Meditation. I strongly recommend it, just learned the technique one week ago and my mind and body is already responding and starting to heal from underlying stress and strain. This is really powerful stuff. Definitely worth checking out.
Nancy chimes in as well!
I highly recommend meditation to manage stress, especially the Headspace app. It will bring mental clarity, ease and calmness in addition to reducing stress!
(I’m hestitant to recommend an app becaue I dont think appifying our lives is the way to true human freedom and happiness… but it can be a useful crutch for cultivating a meditation practice.)
Alex chimes in about emotional problems at home leading to chronic stress:
The problem was my stress. And now, I understand that is and always as been THE problem for me. The missing piece. What I now understand is that there is no additional benefit from following a more advanced diet template UNLESS in the context of optimized sleep and stress management. This is like putting premium fuel in a car that’s missing a wheel. Not gonna be a smooth ride. Fix that big piece first so that you at least have a chance at milking additional benefit from premium fuel. I now realize that the last missing piece for me is social connection. I haven’t made any friends in college (in my third year currently). There are reasons for this besides naturally being introverted in nature. One reason being my mom’s Addison’s disease. The amount of stress this put on the household was incomprehensible. She was throwing emotional tantrums daily for 1-2 years when I started college and it’s not until early last year that she could start to understand how to control it. I had absolutely no one to talk to about the mental destruction taking place. My dad and I were too far in our own holes to even talk to each other. I went into depression at one point and had arguably the worst acne in my life despite following a beautifully structured diet.
Chris shares his wisdom on stress:
There’s no doubt we deal with some form of stress every day in our lives. It’s unavoidable and necessary for our survival, but MUST be managed in order to live healthy lives and avoid the MANY effects it has on our health and our lives. Mental stress effects your physical stress and vice-versa. We can manage physical stress by keeping our bodies healthy (balanced diet, the other factors on this list, active lifestyle, relaxation, etc). We can manage mental stress by practicing relaxation, self-talk, working on controlling our thoughts, etc. “You are what you think” by Dr. David Stoop is a great book to learn to control your emotions/thoughts.
And Mallori too:
I have struggled with acne for quite a few years. I found that the main cause of my acne is emotional stress, physical stress, and diet (dairy products being the main trigger) *[possibly due to iodine causing a beneficial fluoride purge – Devin]*. However, if my emotional and physical stress levels are in-check, along with the CSF diet, I do pretty well.
Ben talks about the joys of travel clearing his skin:
I traveled to Australia for a month and my acne completely went away. My diet, stress levels, etc. were all similar when I came back, but I had a really bad breakout since returning to the US.
Lisa shares her experience with stress and acne:
Mid-June my face broke out really bad but it was bearable, but by July 2 my skin was horrible. Unfortunately, this was also the day we started our 6-week road trip across the country. I was sleeping in weird places, had a lot of stress, wasn’t getting enough sleep, and was eating whatever people fed me. My skin reached it’s climax of the worst it has ever been. August 4 I discovered your book, and tried to implement the changes! I’m smiling because I have hope again! After only a week, it went down quite a bit! However, fast forward 2 weeks, and college was about to start. I started getting super stressed and anxious, and still wasn’t getting enough sleep because I was traveling. I also started eating crappy again because I moved onto campus early, and had to eat the campus food (and my willpower started to fade, lol).
Blaine shares how exercise really helps her stress levels:
I also struggle with mental/emotional instability causing a cycle of breakouts. Exercise reall helps me. I notice the difference in my skin immediately. I have very sensitive and reactive skin, in fact I am a sensitive person in general lol. I’m actually grateful for acne because it’s allowed me to live a lifestyle that is aligned with preventative health measures. the main thing I am currently working on is remaining stable emotionally and not allowing the little stuff to get to me. Stressing really never helps, but it’s a bad habit that takes practice to control, which is why exercising has been my therapy. I am also considering going to an actual therapist, because family and personal relationships have also affected my stress levels, in turn causing breakouts.
Vaish’s reply to Blaine:
I totally resonate with the emotional stability piece. I get worried even with the smallest thing going wrong, being a control freak and having acne is not helpful either for me. But every time I lose my cool I tell myself that “Nothing else triumphs over my skin and no issue is worth me ruining my health”. This is not the easiest to practice, but this has helped me calm down quicker than I used to.
My acne did not go away until I inadvertently reached an equilibrium in my life and had greater stability / was better at managing stress due to the fact that I 1) got into a happy relationship, 2) started to practice yoga regularly, 3) bought a house with my brother and had a more predictable routine, 4) started to cook meals at home more often and steam green vegetables, 5) happened to begin drinking green tea or fresh ginger tea first thing every single morning at work, 6) exercised somewhat regularly.
(These posts are all from the CSF Forum, which you get free lifetime access to when you buy the CSF Master Guide.)
- Stress makes breakouts worse because it drives up inflammation, depresses your immune system and detox abilities, and makes your body dump fatty acids into your bloodstream, which can trigger acne if you’ve been eating a high-PUFA and high-toxin diet like most modern people (even if you’ve been eating “healthy” – there are tons of sneaky, hidden toxin sources that I was shocked to learn about despite years of health research).
- I don’t recommend “stress-reducing” supplements or herbs, because they just cover up the sources of stress.
- I recommend digging into the hard, painful work of fixing the root causes of your stress, whether that’s relationship problems, money issues, a soul-sucking job, emotionally difficult home environment, emotional repression, buried trauma from your past, and so on. I highly encourage working with a therapist – I have lots of friends who are doing this regularly, even those I consider pretty well-balanced, and they get lots of healing from it.
- Re-examine my list above of my top 10 stress-busters, and see if any jump out at you that you want to try. Think about any other ones you might want to experiment with, too.
- Don’t stress too much over your diet. Get 80-90% of the food right, and don’t worry about the rest. Nourishing your spirit by allowing yourself to eat foods you crave sometimes will do you more good than being 100% strict with your diet. Dozens of CSF readers have told me this over the years!
- Say my mirror mantra – “I deeply and completely love and accept myself” – three times to yourself whenever you look in the mirror! This is huge. Learn more about this Jedi mind trick in CSF Podcast Episode #002 – Mirror Habits.
- Stress is 1/3 of the acne story. For more stress tips, and for concise solutions for the other 2/3 of the acne story (diet and environment), pick up a copy of the CSF Master Guide and join over 10,000+ readers who have started their journey to acne freedom.
Be easy on yourself, and please share this article on social media if you found support and nourishment in it! (But don’t spend too much time on social media, and get some face-time with real people, too!)
- Yosipovitch G, Tang M, Dawn AG, et al. Study of psychological stress, sebum production and acne vulgaris in adolescents. Acta Derm Venereol. 2007;87(2):135-9. ([link](https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/17340019)) ^
- https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27542588](https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27542588″>https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27542588) ^
- https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29255370](https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29255370″>https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29255370) ^
- https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28631890](https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28631890″>https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28631890) ^