Is My Anxiety Disorder Causing Me To Age Faster?

Is my stress making me go gray?

by Jill Gutowitz

Shut Up, Brain is a column by Jill Gutowitz in which she looks at everything from pop culture phenomena to the quirks of interpersonal relationships through the lens of someone who lives with anxiety.

I got my first gray hair when I was 19.

On a dewy, sticky, New Jersey summer afternoon, I was home from college, sitting with my childhood friends in a gaggle of Adirondack chairs on the front lawn. From our perch, we were watching the cars pass through our small hometown, gossiping, and drinking canned beer, when my friend Kristen turned to me and said, "Jill, you have a gray hair." I thought she must've been crazy—or drunk—but that's beside the point, because: She was absolutely dead-on. She yanked the sucker out of my head before I had time to stew and held it up for all to see. "Oooh," my friends all seemed to coo, inching closer to the gray hair like plants leaning toward sunlight: It was our first gray hair.

Eight years later, and I've gone from: "You have a gray hair," to: "Whoa, you have SO many gray hairs." This is something my girlfriend, quite the observer, said to me recently while I rested my head on her chest. She, too, was dead-on: Shallowly buried beneath my blonde highlights were more gray hairs than I could count, and way more than I'd ever be comfortable with having. Realizing that I had finally arrived at the point of no return, the point in my life at which I'll have to keep dyeing my hair forever if I don't want it to all be gray, sent me on—surprise, surprise—another downward spiral through brain hell.

At first, I thought, Oh no, I'm probably graying faster than anyone I know my age because I'm constantly stressed out. And it's true, most days I feel like a total head case, suffering silently through an anxiety disorder that's quite directionless, choosing a new thing to obsess over every day. Today, my brain and I have fixated on the slow burn of mortality and our inevitable march toward old age. So, I began stressing over gray hair, which we've heard time and time again is a result of stress (although the research on that isn't totally conclusive). So, my stress was causing me to age, and aging is making me stressed—a real mental health Catch-22.

I decided to put my stress spiral to good use and talk to someone who could speak definitively on the effects stress can have on our bodies, things like wrinkles, gray hair, problem skin—all the fun stuff!

I reached out to Stefanie DiLibero, an acupuncturist specializing in cosmetic acupuncture, who also treats things like stress reduction and emotional well-being and has extensively studied and practices Chinese medicine. Her business, Gotham Wellness, is based in New York, and she's treated numerous celebrity clients. I spoke to Stefanie about her work and what Chinese medicine says about graying as a result of stress and anxiety.

How did you get into acupuncture and skin care?

I've been working in the field of wellness for close to 20 years. I was first introduced to Chinese medicine when I was 19 and living in Taiwan for a summer, teaching English. I was riding my bike all throughout the city and had gotten sick from the air pollution. I went to a doctor, thinking I would get a pill of some sort. Instead, he squeezed my elbow and told me my sore throat was gone. I was utterly confused and thought we were having a misunderstanding. Then, I realized he was right: My sore throat was gone! That sparked my interest in Chinese medicine. I started out teaching (ESL, yoga, Pilates, Yamuna body rolling) and transitioned into acupuncture because I wanted to be able to help people more efficiently, by working with them one on one. It's much easier to help someone face-to-face than it is to help a group of people with different needs.

A few years after my Taiwan experience, I was living in Montreal and decided to see an acupuncturist for some issues I was having, and he cleared it all up in two sessions! That cemented my desire to go back to school to study acupuncture. The skin-care side started as I was approaching my 40s and still had acne, and wanted to age gracefully without getting into Botox or fillers. Cosmetic acupuncture was the perfect solution!

How do stress and anxiety affect our bodies?

Rapid aging is connected to stress. Sleep is when the body is able to repair itself. Without sleep, there is less time to repair. When we experience stress and anxiety, the energy of our bodies is directed away from the activities required for daily functioning (like making sure we're sleeping and digesting) toward dealing with what our brains are perceiving as crises (regardless of whether they actually are). This served us well back in the day, when threats to our survival forced us to make quick movements and decisions with the help of cortisol and adrenaline, so we could get ourselves to safety.

But now, there are many situations where this reaction is triggered (delayed train, slow or no response to a text message) without any benefit to our survival. Increased cortisol levels created inflammation in the body, and inflammation can lead to skin conditions such as acne and rosacea. Increased cortisol levels can lead to digestive troubles, which could contribute to excess fluid accumulation in the face, which shows up as puffiness or lack of definition.

There is a concept in Chinese medicine called jing, which refers to the amount of a certain type of energy you're born with, which is contributed by your parents, prior to your birth. Think of it like a personal battery pack. Some people have more or less of this at birth—how long yours lasts depends on how you build, conserve, use, or lose it. Certain characteristics, such as early onset gray hair, could be hereditary (thanks for the jing, mom and dad!), or it could be that certain factors, behaviors, reactions, and experiences in life have contributed to signs of rapid aging (work hard-play hard mentality), depleting some of that "battery juice."

What does Chinese medicine say about stress and anxiety and its effects on the body?

The theory of Chinese medicine revolves around balance. The idea is to balance the nervous system, and your physiological functioning, by making sure that qi, or energy, is evenly dispersed throughout the body, and is able to move freely without obstructions. When we experience stress and anxiety, the energy of our bodies is directed away from the activities required for daily functioning (like making sure we're sleeping and digesting) toward dealing with what our brains are perceiving as crises (like increasing blood pressure and rate of breathing). In the case of stress or anxiety, qi is being taken away from one or more functions and redirected toward another, causing the system of the former to become deficient, and the latter, excessive. The goal of acupuncture is to restore balance and increase function of our bodies and minds.

What kind of treatments do you give for those who are suffering from stress or an anxiety disorder?

Each acupuncture treatment is tailored to the individual, according to whatever is going on in their lives and bodies. Generally, people don't have one symptom such as stress or anxiety; usually, these issues co-occur with others, such as headaches, difficulty sleeping, TMJ, digestive issues, menstrual issues, etc. Many disparate symptoms in Western medicine can be recognized as a single pattern in Chinese medicine, which can help to reduce the feeling of being overwhelmed. For stress and anxiety, I particularly like to use points in the ears, which can be used to treat PTSD, in addition to other facial and body points.

What kind of self-care can we practice to protect ourselves from these effects?

Rest and compassion. A lot of people are stressing themselves out trying to do every wellness thing they can imagine. Find what makes you feel calm and protected, even if it doesn't look like "wellness." If meditation just makes you more anxious, maybe try taking a walk to clear your head. Spend more time with friends in person as opposed to over social media or FaceTime. Acupuncture is great, because you don't have to do anything other than show up; your body does the rest with the signals it receives from the needles. It moves your nervous system from a state of "fight or flight" to "rest and digest," and with repeated treatments, allows your body to find that place of calm with greater ease.

If you want to hear more about DiLibero and her practice, click here. If you want to blame your parents for your shitty jing, that's cool, too.