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Mood and Mind

What stress is doing to my face

Healthista editor Anna Magee worked with forensic artist Auriole Prince to get a picture – literally – of what her face will look like in ten years if she remains under her current levels of stress

I work as a full time health journalist for national newspapers and magazines with about two deadlines a week. I edit Outside work I am rebuilding my kitchen and bathroom, showering in the gym (due to being shower-less) and eating take-away off my lap most nights (due to being kitchen-less). Each day I wake up  between 4.30am and 5.20pm to start the day. It’s safe to say I am stressed.

Yes I go to the gym most days but I barely do any yoga practice (I used to do it daily) and where I used to practice a little mindfulness meditation, now I just can’t fit it in. I barely take time out to breathe. Mind you, I am the co-author of a book on stress The De-Stress Diet: The Revolutionary Lifestyle Plan for a Calmer, Slimmer You with nutritionist and stress expert Charlotte Watts so I know what I should be doing. Taking regular breaks (I am currently working through lunch), having time out (I work seven days a week), doing regular deep breathing (forget it) and eating well (doing my best but until the kitchen is finished it’s looking like one Indian take-away after the other).

Today Auriole Prince, a forensic artist I have worked with before got in touch.  Auriole is am ex-FBI forensic artist who in the past has worked with investigators on ageing images of missing persons in order to release pictures of what they might look like today.  She now runs a website called that provides ageing software so people can see their faces in the future (they have created the app Drinking Mirror which allows you to see the effects of cutting back on alcohol on your skin in ten years – great motivation).  I have worked with Auriole before on stories in which she aged my face ten years according to the effects of alcohol, smoking and eating too much junk food. She mentioned that it was National Stress Awareness Day and did I want her to doctor an image of my face to show what stress might be doing to it. Did I ever.  One of the best motivators for me is after all, vanity.

Today, Auriole has aged my face according to what I will look like if I continue under my current levels of stress. It makes for sober viewing. This is me now. I am 45.

Anna best headshot
Anna Magee, now at 45 and stressed – already showing the effects on her face

According to Auriole, I am already showing the effects of stress on my face. Bags under my eyes from lack of sleep, crow’s feet and skin that sags around my cheeks.  ‘I can already see from your image that you have slightly dark bags under your eyes, this can be a real sign of stress and not sleeping properly or in your case, not sleeping enough. These will get much worse over the next ten years,’ she explains.

Stress has a dehydrating effect on skin because when you’re under stress, the body takes blood flow away from peripheral organs – such as skin – to provide muscles with energy. This is for the ‘fight to flight’ response that stress requires from our bodies. It’s perfectly natural. But it’s meant to be over quickly. Think about it. When we were cavemen fighting off predators we would fight or flee from the threat and then rest and recuperate.

Today, our threats are deadlines, bathroom and kitchen renovations, social media overloads and websites to run. And if it’s not one thing, it’s something else pressuring us to perform or deliver or decide. Unlike our cavemen sisters, except for a few weeks holidays a year,  our stress doesn’t end. That means we are always and forever in this state of flight or flight. The result, our peripheral organs especially the skin, but also our sex organs suffer – the latter is why stress affects fertility so profoundly.  Here’s what will happen to my skin in ten years if I continue under this amount of stress.

Scary. Anna in ten years if she continues under her current levels of stress

My face on stress – what’s going on?

Lack of radiance – this occurs because my blood flow has slowed down and blood is being pumped into my muscles to rule my fight or flight reactions.

Accelerated ageing – One US study found that women who were most threatened by the anticipation of stressful tasks looked older at a cellular level, some by as much as ten years.

Bags under the eyes – in my case, this is because I don’t sleep enough and have an obsession with waking up early to get a headstart on the day. I know I don’t sleep enough and according to Auriole, the effect isn’t reversed by weekend lie-ins. Other people might wake in the small hours because of their stress load. It’s all the same – stress is the enemy of sleep.

Increased jaw size – this comes from tooth grinding, typical of stressed out Type-As like myself. I now have a mouth guard but according to my dentist the brilliant James Goolnik at Bow Lane Dental, I need to find a way to deal with my stress because a mouthguard could stop my teeth wearing down but it doesn’t stop the grinding itself.

Sagging skin – the result of decreased blood flow and dehydration from stress leeching the vitamins, blood and moisture from my skin and focusing it on the muscles.

Fine lines and dry skin – stress reduces the skin’s own protective barrier made of healthy oils known as lipids, causing them to evaporate. This rich, moist barrier is hard to replace, even with the best creams, which is why stressed people’s skin always looks so desperately dry.

Anna_stressBefore and After
Time to learn those breathing techniques

Redness – Stress is also a key element in inflammatory skin conditions such as rosacea, which is exacerbated if you’re dealing with stress by using alcohol (red wine increases the likelihood of rosacea and broken capillaries). Moreover, other inflammatory skin conditions including eczema and psoriasis are directly linked with stress. Read Healthista’s feature on skin conditions exacerbated by stress.

Increased grey hair – This is no myth, research last year found that high levels of stress hormones in the skin can cause hair follicles to be stripped of a type of stem cells that give hair its colour.

More spots – Acne and stress are directly related so if you’re experiencing adult acne, whatever your age, look at your stress levels. Stress causes an inflammatory response in the body and leads the pores to become clogged and break. When this happens you get redness and pus – a pimple. Moreover, under stress your adrenal glands (two small kidney shaped organs that sit on top of your kidneys administering stress hormones cortisol and adrenalin) go into overdrive. This leads to the release of more androgens – make hormones – from your sex organs and more androgens leads to pimples. In women this effect is magnified as we have more androgens made in our darnel glands than men do.

More information about forensic lifestyle ageing


The truth about skin and stress 

7 surprising signs you’re stressed (and exactly what to do about it)


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