Stress is an unavoidable part of life that can take a major toll on your body. And when you experience frequent or chronic stress, it leads to consistently elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol in your system. This hormone makes your body believe that it's in survival mode — so it shifts from its normal functioning to prioritizing the organs and functions that need more attention in a survival situation. And the prolonged elevation of this stress hormone can dramatically change the way you look.
From developing a cortisol belly to experiencing weekly break outs, the way high cortisol affects your appearance will show up throughout your entire body. This is because the influx of cortisol sets off a chain reaction across all bodily systems that leads to inflammation, fluid retention, excess oil production, and so much more. And the inability to get your body out of its stress response and actually release the excess cortisol you're storing is only compounding these physical effects.
Here are some of the shocking ways stress and high cortisol changes the way you look:
How Stress Changes Your Skin
Excess cortisol leads to inflammation, blood vessel dilation, and a weakened skin barrier — all of which worsens the visible symptoms of rosacea. Higher cortisol also overstimulates your facial oil glands, another contributing factor if you're prone to this sensitive skin condition.
Easier To Burn
When your body is under continual stress, elevated cortisol levels can compromise the integrity and function of your skin. This hormone imbalance inhibits new skin cell growth and reduces essential skin barrier proteins. As a result, your skin becomes much more sensitive and prone to damage from environmental factors — especially ultraviolet rays from the sun. If you already tend to burn easily, having a stressed out nervous system and high cortisol only amplifies this risk further.
Excess cortisol hormones over a long period of time will throw other systems out of balance, including vascular function. So if you live with chronic stress, you may notice the appearance of cherry angiomas — those bright red, small bumps on your skin. These benign growths of blood vessels are actually quite common, and research suggests high cortisol levels can increase your risk for developing them.
Excess cortisol suppresses lipid production, which is needed to keep your skin moist and supple. This leads to a depleted, weaker surface layer that struggles to lock in moisture and dries out faster. Additionally, cortisol restricts blood flow to your skin, reducing nourishment and nutrients. This means that environmental irritants can wreak further havoc on your skin’s depleted state. So when you're living with long-term stress, you'll probably start noticing tightness, scaling, redness, and itchiness.
Stress is one of the most common reasons people experience psoriasis outbreaks and worsened symptoms. This is because immune function, inflammation, and skin cell growth are all impacted by high levels of circulating cortisol, triggering flare-ups of psoriasis — the autoimmune condition that causes rapid buildup of skin cells. High cortisol inhibits new skin cell production and turnover, slowing down the regeneration of new skin cells and resulting in excessive old skin cells that pile up into thick, scaly patches rather than shedding.
Over time, having consistently elevated cortisol takes a major toll on your skin’s collagen supply and its elasticity — which directly translates to more noticeable wrinkles. The inflammatory signals and increased oxidation triggered by excess cortisol damage the collagen fibers that normally keep your complexion plump, smooth, and youthful. Collagen production also slows significantly when your body’s efforts are directed towards managing stress rather than up-keeping skin cell structures. By middle age, visible accelerated aging in the form of fine lines, sagging, dullness, and crow’s feet intensify if your nervous system remains overwhelmed.
Break outs are one of the most common physical manifestations when your nervous system stays dysregulated from stress. The internal hormone imbalance caused by high cortisol ramps up oil production, leading to clogged pores, bacteria growth, and eventual breakouts. Excess cortisol also triggers swelling and puffiness, as well as suppressing skin cell turnover.
Chronic stress will take a major toll on your body’s connective tissues and circulation — directly contributing to increased cellulite. The high cortisol levels and inflammation break down collagen structure in your skin and connective tissues. Meanwhile, impaired blood flow and fluid retention lead to swelling and fluid accumulation. Toxins also get trapped more readily in soft tissue. Over time, these factors cause stubborn cellulite to progressively worsen.
When your stress response is continuously switched “on”, the excess cortisol circulating through your veins directly activates your body’s histamine reactions, making those red, raised, itchy welts suddenly appear all over your skin. So even minor stressors or triggers can suddenly cause welts to erupt and flare up all over your body.
The influx of stress hormones ramps up various processes in your body — including sweating. Which is why you may find yourself sweating even when you aren’t exercising or overheated. This is because your overloaded nervous system is sending signals to your sweat glands that you need to cool off from “danger” — even when just sitting at your desk.
When you live with constant stress, you're far more prone to excessive bruising, even with minor bumps and knocks. Small bruises and purple spots will start to appear out of nowhere, and they'll take much longer to fade. These injuries happen more readily because high circulating cortisol makes your blood vessels more delicate and cell structures more brittle. So they'll easily tear under your skin at the slightest surface impacts, leading to visible pools of bruises for weeks — often times with no causal event you can even recall.
How Stress Changes Your Nails
When you live with chronic stress, your taxed nervous system has less energy to devote to the production of key proteins and lipids needed to form the sturdy keratin layers of healthy nails. And without building block nutrients to sustain growth and integrity, your nails grow in more thinly or start cracking and peeling easily. So brittle, uneven nails with ragged edges and a scarce half-moon become the norm when your body’s resources are directed towards managing stress overload. Additionally, high cortisol has been associated with a loss of biotin, a nutrient useful in nail growth.
How Stress Changes Your Hair
High circulating cortisol causes premature shifting of follicles into the shedding phase. Inflammation and oxidation from stress also damages follicles, deteriorating their functioning. As your stressed out adrenals flood your body with cortisol and inflammatory signals for survival mode, your hair essentially starts activating their own survival mechanism as well. This leads to increased scalp visibility, wider part lines, and progressed thinning.
Hair Texture Changes
High cortisol levels will break down the cuticle protective layer in existing hair strands. This leads the keratin proteins that determine your unique texture to degrade faster. And since continual nervous system strain also suppresses the rebuilding process, your hair simply cannot restore softness and manageability.
More Gray Hair
Cortisol accelerates the cellular aging processes — including pigment loss and graying of your hair. As your overwhelmed nervous system operates in fight-or-flight for an extended period of time, oxidation damage will increase systemically and circulation will carry fewer nutrients to nourish your hair follicles.
How Stress Changes Your Weight
The cortisol release that accompanies chronic stress is your body’s natural alarm system kicking into high gear. This means your body will start producing enough energy for any survival situation. However, when those high cortisol levels are prolonged, that rapid energy production will cause weight gain over time. Additionally, cortisol will stimulate increased appetite and cravings for quick-fix carbohydrates to replenish you; as well as disrupting healthy metabolism processes. So stress is actively working against any fitness goals you may have.
Elevated stress hormones will send signals to store more visceral fat cells as future energy reserves, leading directly to increased abdominal fat storage — commonly known as a “cortisol belly”. And despite diet or exercise efforts, you'll find stubborn weight gain around your midsection when you're chronically stressed.
Excess cortisol directly causes water retention and fluid accumulation in your abdominal region — instantly leading to a visibly distended, puffy midsection. High cortisol also increases inflammation and essentially paralyzes digestion, slowing motility while gases and waste accumulate. You’re left feeling painfully bloated, constipated, and irritated.
How Stress Changes Your Face
The prolonged release of cortisol in your body heightens oxidative damage and restricts blood flow that nourishes brow follicles. So over years and even months, your once full, shapely eyebrows start over shedding during each phase until fewer replacement hairs grow back. And as long as you stay in a stressful state, your body is accelerating the long term follicle deterioration and inflammation that will gradually diminish your eyebrow volume.
Weak Cheek Bones
Excess stress will disrupt nutrient flow, collagen production, and tissue support — all of which are needed to uphold youthful cheek volume and shape. The consistent cortisol bombardment aimed at managing high daily distress also accelerates skin thinning, muscle loss, and deterioration of structural fat pads. So chronic stress will eventually cause your lower cheek area to cave inwards and drop down prematurely, leading to a gaunt, aged appearance.
You'll start to notice your face often feels puffy, tight, and swollen when your cortisol levels are chronically high. This is due to lymph build-up, as well as water retention from being stuck in your stress response. And even when you wake from a full night of sleep, your complexion struggles to look refreshed and healthy.
Consistent high cortisol levels weaken connective tissue, muscles, and nerves around the eye area. And as that tissue elasticity changes, you'll notice that your upper eyelids will become hooded, heavier, and eve difficult to fully open or raise upwards.
How Stress Changes Your Mouth
High cortisol disrupts digestion, causing gastrointestinal issues that create an imbalance of microorganisms. Additionally, suppressed immune function allows for more yeast and bacteria to build up throughout the body. And when this build up occurs in the mouth, it will lead to a noticeable white or yellowish film on the tongue. Plus, nutrients that are vital for tongue and mouth tissue health will become depleted from high cortisol hormones and that will accelerate fungal breeding grounds.
Stress causes chronic jaw clenching, and over time, that jaw clenching can physically move your teeth into new positions. Additionally, the thinning of your gum tissues and the decrease of nutrients delivered to your tooth enamel can lead to visible chips, cracks, sensitivity and looseness in your teeth. And since cortisol makes your mouth a breeding ground for oral bacteria, cavities and decay will appear more suddenly.
Loss Of Lip Color
High cortisol causes your blood flow to get redirected to organs that are necessary for survival, resulting in less blood and less nutrients being delivered to your lips. If you live with stress for years, your lips will gradually lose their lush color and will instead appear pale, washed out, flat and thin.
How Stress Changes Your Neck & Shoulders
Excess circulating cortisol triggers fat storage along the shoulders and upper spine for quick energy access. These areas often respond by developing a noticeable “hump” at the base of the neck. As your postural muscles weaken under prolonged stress as well, forward head and rounded shoulders become the norm. Gravity then pulls neck fat deposits forward and downward, pronouncing a hump appearance at the top of your back.
Lower your cortisol levels to release the physical signs of stress throughout your body.
While long term stress can affect the way you look, there is good news! Working to release your overload of stress and lowering your cortisol levels can manage — and even reverse — the majority of everything listed above.
Once you release the excess cortisol, your body will stop thinking it needs to prepare for a threat or a survival situation, which means it will start re-establishing important processes that were previously impacted by your extreme stress. This means your bodily functions will return to their optimal efficiency.
You can release your excess cortisol with somatic exercises — gentle movements that initiate new neural pathways in your nervous system so your body can easily get out of its stress response and lower your cortisol levels.
Over time, dedicated somatic practice will recalibrate your stress reaction so you won't immediately default into a cortisol cascade every time you're faced with stressful situation.