My acne was trying to tell me something about my mental health, and I'm so glad I listened
"My mind had been in a 'fight or flight' response for months, yet I had ignored the internal alarms."
Welcome to The Spot, a monthly column tackling acne and our relationships to it. Here, we ask women how they deal with blemishes at home—and consult with skin care experts to find out what really works.
I consider myself pretty lucky to not have had any acne in middle or high school, so when I graduated from high school, I didn’t think I’d ever have to worry about it. Like many people, I believed that acne was something only teens worried about. But at 23, my skin completely changed. Overnight, acne covered my cheeks and chin, and I couldn’t explain what had triggered it. I figured that I was having a bad reaction to something and that my skin would soon be back to normal. Plus, wasn’t I too old for acne?
But according to the American Academy of Dermatology Association, adult acne affects up to 15% of women.
I was ashamed of my skin. I thought that when people looked at me, all they saw were my spots. I felt lost behind them. I tried everything to cure my acne, from DIY face masks and “natural” soaps to high-end skincare products and prescription creams. I grew frustrated with myself and upset with my skin for not healing. I’d slather on layers of different products at night, and in the morning I’d try to conceal my skin with foundation. But even multiple layers of makeup couldn’t cover the bumpy texture of my skin. Other people seemed to cure their acne in weeks, but mine remained stagnant or worsened; there was no hiding my pimples, and my self-esteem plummeted.
At work, I was afraid of calling attention to my face, so I avoided human interaction as much as I could. I experienced impostor syndrome and feared I’d come off as unqualified because of my skin. I also stopped dating. I wanted my skin to look better before meeting someone new, and I was nervous that my acne would scare them away. In a sense, it was as if I was putting my life on hold. “Once my skin is better, I’ll speak up more at work,” I would think. “Once my skin is better, I can go on that date.” I believed that once my skin was acne-free, I’d be happier.
Every morning became a battle as I tried to mask my insecurities, but I was never able to win the fight—my acne wasn’t going away anytime soon. So I finally decided to accept it as part of who I was.
One day, I decided to skip my foundation, leaving my skin bare for the world to see.
At first, I was very self-conscious, but it became a little bit easier every day. Instead of worrying about others noticing my acne, I just accepted that they would. Walking straight into my fears helped remove the worst-case-scenario what-ifs that had been daunting for months. I told myself that those who cared about me would know that there was more to me than my skin—and I needed to see that, too.
But it wasn’t an easy transition, and I still felt very stressed. I started having panic attacks, not sleeping well, and feeling reckless; my stomach was constantly aching, too. I was prescribed antacids for the latter problem, but they didn’t help. Since mental health, gut health, and acne can all be connected, maybe my skin was trying to tell me something that was more than skin deep.
That’s exactly what was going on. I realized that the stress of starting my first job out of college, having a long commute, and witnessing a string of xenophobic attacks in our country had sent off an alarm inside my body. I was nervous and scared, but instead of facing those feelings head-on, I had been suppressing them. I wasn’t practicing any self-care, let alone self-love. My mind had been in a “fight or flight” response for months, yet I had ignored the internal alarms.
I started going to therapy to help ease my anxiety, I picked up yoga and meditation, and I started taking probiotics to improve my gut health. Instead of obsessing over “perfect” skin, I focused my energy on bettering my mental and physical health. Having a loving relationship with myself was unfamiliar territory, but, slowly, I became kinder to myself. In return, my body became kinder to me.
The journey hasn’t been easy, and I still have days where I feel down. While my skin has significantly healed, it still isn’t completely clear. I get annoyed when I break out, but I’ve accepted that my skin may never be “perfect,” and that’s okay. When I do get acne, I make sure to remind myself that each blemish is temporary, and I also listen for the signs my skin is sending me: Have I been getting enough sleep? Am I drinking enough water? How are my stress levels? Is my period coming?
Living with acne has made me take better care of myself, and for that I am so grateful. I’m now back to dating, I speak my mind during meetings, I agree to drinks with friends—and I have a blast. My acne no longer determines how much fun I choose to have and the life I want to pursue. I know that I have so much to offer the world that has nothing to do with my appearance.