Conditions

Short-Term Stress Benefits Mice With Irritated Skin; Hope For Humans, Too

A woman scratching her skin
One study shows acute stress could benefit irritated skin. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock

The one stress benefit we hear of is that it prepares us for future, potentially harmful situations (fight-or-flight, anyone?). But one animal study, published in the Journal of Investigative Dermatology, suggests stress can equally benefit irritated skin.

When exposing mice to common skin irritants — soap, poison ivy, and eczema — researchers returned one group to their cage and put the other group in a “stressful situation.” They’re mice, so that meant enclosing them in a small space for up to 18 hours a day, four days out of the week. These situations render what’s called acute stress, the most common form of stress, according to the American Psychological Association (APA).

In healthy doses, the APA says acute stress can be exciting since it doesn't last long. Mice with acute stress, researchers found, healed significantly quicker than non-stressed mice due to a steroid hormone called glucocorticoids. This hormone is released in response to stress, and it works to reduce inflammation.

"Under chronic stress, these same naturally-occurring steroids damage the protective functions of normal skin and inhibit wound healing, but during shorter intervals of stress, they are beneficial for inflammatory disorders and acute injury in both mice and humans," senior investigator Dr. Peter Elias, a UCSF professor of dermatology based at the San Francisco VA Medical Center, said in a press release.

Elias also said that despite having treated mice, short-term increases in glucocorticoids have been shown to benefit humans undergoing stress therapy — which means acute stress may equally benefit those of us on two legs.

What exactly does acute stress look like? The APA has identified feelings of anger, anxiety, and depression as symptoms, as well as muscle aches, back pain, stomach problems, and elevated blood pressure. If acute stress doesn’t subside, as it should, then it should be treated as chronic stress.

As evidenced by the APA’s most recent Stress in America survey, chronic stress is in no short supply: 42 percent of adults report that their stress level has increased, and 36 percent say their stress level has stayed the same over the past five years.

Staying on top of stress levels helps to keep them in check. This means taking the time to relax, exercise, engage in positive self-talk (an example the American Heart Association give is turning "I can't do this," to, "I'll do the best I can), and getting to bed on time. These proven stress remedies ensure your levels err on the acute side. It just may soothe your skin in the process, too.

Source: Elias PM, Lin T-K, Man M-Q et al. Paradoxical Benefits of Psychological Stress in Inflammatory Dermatoses Models Are Glucocorticoid Mediated. Journal of Investigative Dermatology. 2014.

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