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With the world facing a turbulent time, many of us have been experiencing physical signs of our stress, and one particularly pertinent change is in our skin. 

You may be perplexed by your so-called ‘lockdown acne’ but there’s a reason why your skin isn’t on top form right now. By spending more time at home our skin is inevitably exposed to less pollution and we’ve had more time than ever to dedicate to our skincare routines – so why is it taking a downturn? Here’s a couple of reasons why:

Hormones

Our skin is extremely sensitive to its surroundings, but it’s not only what our skin encounters on the outside that affects its condition; how we feel on the inside can have an impact too. Following environmental changes, our bodies are prone to enter a stress response. This response causes an influx of hormones like cortisol, which cease non-essential functions as your body enters a fight-or-flight response. While this would have been beneficial for the survival of our ancestors, in modern, less threatening circumstances the consequences to this reaction can add to our worries! As cortisol causes inflammation of the skin, and the skin glands to produce more oil,  it in turn becomes more acne-prone too.

The way stress indirectly impacts your skin

Poor Sleep

Nevertheless, there are more indirect impacts of stress that can also be affecting your skin. Poorer sleep is a common consequence of stress, with people reporting less sleep, more disturbances, and lower sleep efficiency (Kim & Dimsdale, 2007). With it being well-established that sleep is incredibly important for our bodies to rest and repair, interruptions to our sleep pattern inevitably make it harder to combat precursors to our skin troubles. For example, compared to poor sleepers, good sleepers showed less skin aging, better recovery from skin irritation or redness, and better perception of their appearance (Oyetakin‐White et al, 2014). Therefore, prioritising something as simple as sleep could help to contribute towards healthier skin and more positive self-perceptions even if the skin is troubled.

Poor Diet

Stress is also intrinsically linked to diet quality; the more stressed we feel, the worse the quality of our diet becomes (De Vriendt et al, 2012). While some of us have a propensity to over-indulge as a result of stress in order to comfort ourselves, others tend to restrain their eating and instead snack of highly processed, convenient foods (Wardle, Steptoe, Oliver & Lipsey, 2000). With our skin being extremely responsive to the food we consume, it’s likely that dietary changes during a period of stress can also contribute to changes in the skin.

3 things you can do to rescue your skin

If you too have been experiencing skin troubles during a stressful period, you can make a few simple changes to bring it back to life.

1.     Relaxation  

Taking just ten minutes a day to focus on yourself and be in the present moment can do wonders when it comes to relieving stress. Practicing yoga, meditation or mindfulness can help to ground the mind and bring things back into perspective when they feel a little out of control.

2.     Consistency

Maintaining a simple, sensitive skincare routine can provide your skin with the nourishment it needs to help it recover. Try to use unperfumed, natural products in order to avoid further irritation.

3.     Diet

Try to be mindful of the types and quantities of food you are consuming when you know you are facing a stressful period. As over and undereating can prevent the skin from making a speedy recovery, it may be helpful to plan meals in advance so you can assess the quantity and quality of what you will be consuming. Research has found a link between consuming foods with a high glycaemic load (e.g. sweets and chocolate) with the exacerbation of acne. Nevertheless, don’t be afraid to treat yourself to these as they can also provide a short-term mood boost

The whole situation with coronavirus has undoubtedly taken us by surprise, and in many ways, it has changed our daily lives – myself included. One of the habits that I have unfortunately, developed is being unconsciously glued to my phone 24/7. While watching everyone on Instagram becoming a yoga expert, among other popular lockdown activities, I started wondering what the effect of this was having on my mental health. Don’t get me wrong, it is fantastic that Instagrammers can offer us a form of escapism during these turbulent times. However, for many, seeing such visuals can plunge you into a rabbit hole of social comparison. Therefore, it’s a great moment to ask the question – could social media be the cause of our undoing?

The dark side of Instagram

We are social creatures. The human mind often defaults to social comparison – what other people are doing, eating etc. As the Social Comparison Theory by Festinger (1954) states, we self-evaluate through judging ourselves against others. More worryingly,  we also tend to use other people as reference points to compare our bodies. What happens when you add social media to the mix is that it often results in dissatisfaction with one’s body image. Psychologists say that because Instagram is based on visual communication, it is the easiest for its users to compare themselves with ideal standards of beauty. We are bombarded with pictures of thin and fit people, which serve to harm our body image. 

Why is Instagram potentially worse than the fashion magazines and ads we see off-line? Such social networking sites are peer-generated. What does that mean? Well, the power of comparison is more potent when we’re talking about someone who has many similar characteristics to us. Therefore, a perfect, photoshopped model will not have such an effect as an authentic and spontaneous selfie from a social media friend. Potentially, because we are staying at home now, we can spend more time on social media. Platforms such as Instagram could have a more significantly detrimental effect on body image, especially the “fit inspirations”. What we can observe for the last couple of months is that all weights and yoga mats are sold out, everywhere. Exercise has been associated with a more positive body image (Hausenblas & Fallon, 2006). Still, there should not be any pressure to exercise because everyone does. Which, in fact, might be the case. 

The long overdue change

Somehow, throughout the last years, we have accepted likes as a numerical measurement of physical beauty. This unbelievably reductionistic fact is the part of current reality. In the eyes of young girls, the number of likes equals not only their beauty but also how worthy they see themselves. Fortunately, this is where some people say enough is enough, urging for a pause in self-objectification and homogenous ideals of beauty. Billie Eilish spoke up about being more than her body in her short film “Not My Responsibility“. This is one of the profoundly empowering moments that we’ve recently experienced and desperately needed. She’s saying a definite no to being defined by her body. 

In spite of the negativity, Instagram might not be all that bad. Body positivity content, such as Billie Eilish’s movie, is what we can actually see emerging on Instagram. As highlighted by fashion Psychologist  Dr Aurore Bardey, “social media is changing – Instagram is where we can find diversity and representation. Whatever body type you have, you can find yourself in social media”. She underlines that Instagram is actually the most inclusive platform. The diversity we can see grow on social media decreases the negative aspects of social comparison. In some sense, Instagram has brought democracy to representations of beauty. With such a revolution of accepted beauty ideals, Instagram is where we can find a sense of belonging. In the end, it can actually have a positive effect on body image.

The antidote

When talking about presenting an inclusive and diverse image of the female and male body, most of the fashion brands have a long way to go in how they promote themselves on social media. 

When I asked Dr Bardey what advice she would give on the topic of lockdown and body image, she proposed trying out sustainability as an approach to daily life. Sustainability not only in the sense of material consumption but also the consumption of information and how we spend our time. It is the perfect time for reflection because we, in a sense, have to take a break from fashion. It is an incredibly fast-paced industry, now making an obligatory pause. Usually, trends on and off Instagram are incredibly short-lived. Therefore we are used to everything changing, always wanting something or simply wanting more. Thus, by valuing the time we have now, we can spend it more positively.

If the choice is to use social media, we can decide how to consume it. As Profesor Laurie Santos from Yale explains, the clue lies in what are the reference points that we’re letting inside our head. Are those the ones to which we will be making upward social comparisons that will make us feel dissatisfied? Perhaps, we could curate the information around us by allowing the information that is getting in to be more accurate and more representative of real people’s bodies, real people’s experiences. As she underlines, it is hard to stop information after it gets into your head, but you can choose what you allow to get in.

Any way you choose to spend your time in the lockdown is okay. It is not anyone’s right to dictate what you should do or how you should feel but if you’re feeling jealous or ‘not good enough’ it’s time to evaluate the content you’re consuming. Curate a feed that actually makes you feel good about yourselves. I mean, you have the time.

Self-care is a term we are all aware of; its importance in maintaining psychological wellbeing is well-recognised, yet few of us seem to engage in it. Self-care can involve anything from cooking to cleaning, taking yourself on a walk in the woods or reading a book in the garden. However, one simple and easy way many of us could take care of minds and bodies is through the humble manicure.

However, there are far more benefits than first meet the eye when taking the time to care for your fingertips. By focusing on the intricacies of filing, shaping, moisturising and painting each individual nail encourages us to be mindful. By concentrating on the present, it gives our minds a moment to break away from the recurrent list of responsibilities we are regularly reminded of. As polish dries relish in the respite; for fifteen minutes there’s nothing to do but remain still. Even checking your phone can be difficult, which brings the rare opportunity to switch off from your online existence too.

But if this restful style of relaxation isn’t your idea of peace, painting your nails can also provide a way to bond with friends and family. Unlike other popular activities of indulgence like shopping, there is much less emphasis on body shape and size and therefore offer less of a chance to engage in unhealthy comparisons. Even when going to the salon isn’t an option, hosting virtual manicure sessions with friends could be a fun way to unwind and catch up.

The benefits of having neat and tidy nails extend further than the momentary mindfulness the process creates. Although only a small part of our appearances, our nails can in fact implicitly portray a particular image to others. Pleasantly presented hands and nails have been associated with holding a position of power and in 2012, The Wall Street Journal reported nail salons as being popular locations for meetings amongst professional women.

Much like the colours of clothes we wear, the shades we choose to place upon our nails can reflect aspects of our personality and influence our mood. Some scientists have suggested that certain colours can affect our heart rate and brain signals in different ways, and in turn how we think and feel. These biological influences seem to be reflected in our behaviour too – whether it is consciously or subconsciously. Patterns have been identified amongst nail salon customers when it comes to selecting the colour to decorate their nails with. People often opt for shades that either match or help to modify their current mood. Here are just a handful of ways your go-to nail varnish might be revealing aspects of yourself, you never even realised: 

  • Black – symbolises mystery and can be worn to share a slightly more rebellious, daring side of yourself.
  • Blue – is thought to reflect trust and peace; this sense colour’s sense of tranquillity can be soothing in times of uncertainty. 
  • Orange – is an optimistic colour, portraying someone who is self-assured and sociable. When confidence is running a little low, glancing down at your orange fingertips can instantly inject a sense of positivity! 
  • Pastels – provide a soft and delicate finish, perfect for times of relaxation, comfort and signifying new beginnings.
  • Yellow –an energetic, eye-catching shade often chosen by those who have a positive presence. This colour can be chosen when experiencing burnout, to reignite an inner energy.

In essence, there is far more than first meets the eye when it comes to manicures. Serving as an act of socialisation and self-care, the benefits of the beauty treatment can be significant for us all. If investing time and effort into your fingertips brings you joy, confidence and helps to wind-down after a busy day, there should be no shame in dedicating an evening each week to doing just this.