Does this sound like a familiar scenario? You’re standing at the front of the conference room, running through a presentation for your bosses and co-workers. It’s an important meeting and the stakes are high. Your heart is racing and your palms start to sweat. You wipe them on your pants and continue, but you’re embarrassed by how clammy they are, especially as they cause you to fumble with your notes, almost dropping them.
Sweaty hands happen to the best of us. According to experts, it’s a perfectly normal response to a stressful situation. But what is the science behind this phenomenon, and how can you go about troubleshooting it? Below is a breakdown of everything you need to know.
Why do hands get sweaty?
The primary purpose of sweating is to cool down your body temperature, which explains why you perspire when you’re overheated or from going for a jog. However, your body also triggers that response when you go into “fight or flight” mode from a stressful situation, said Darria Long Gillespie, a clinical assistant professor at the University of Tennessee School of Medicine and author of the upcoming book Mom Hacks.
“Since your brain doesn’t really know the difference between a stressor like having to run from a tiger ― like your caveman ancestors may have had to do ― vs. giving a talk in front of your boss ― like you have to do ― it responds in the same way, causing you to sweat,” said Long Gillespie.
Marlyanne Pol-Rodriguez, a dermatologist at Stanford Health Care, notes that sweat can be stimulated by your sympathetic nervous system, which is in charge of that fight-or-flight response and helps you function more effectively in times of alarm.
But why your hands, specifically? That goes back to prehistoric times, too. They may become concentrated with sweat because “a little bit of moisture on your palms is thought to improve grip,” Pol-Rodriguez said.
Sweat tends to pool in specific places; the hands are one of them. In situations where you’re nervous or stressed, Pol-Rodriguez said, this sweat often shows up in the form of clammy hands, as there are higher concentrations of sweat glands on your palms and on “the soles of your feet, some areas of the face and armpits.”
What triggers it?
Pol-Rodriguez said that sweaty palms are an emotional response and can be triggered by feelings such as fear or anxiety.
“The sweating tends to be controlled by the hypothalamus in the brain and so the hypothalamus kind of processes that signal of the emotion and translates it into increased sweating,” she explained.
According to David Spratte, CEO and founder of Carpe, a company that makes antiperspirant lotion for sweaty hands, any situation that can trigger a nervous or excited feeling has the ability to elicit what he refers to as “stress sweat” ― public speaking, a first date, an intense social engagement, or a sudden moment of panic, like realizing you missed an important deadline.
Adam Splaver, a South Florida cardiologist at NanoHealth Associates, points out that certain foods like spicy dishes, as well as smoking and caffeine consumption, can also be a catalyst for perspiring hands.
How to troubleshoot it
You often have very little say in how or when perspiration pops up.
“Emotional stress, which is typically the cause of sweaty palms, can be difficult to control,” said Timothy Mynes, an area medical director at MedExpress, a nationwide urgent care center. “Sweaty hands can be a challenge to overcome ― but it can be done.”
Here are a few tips that Mynes shares with his patients:
- If you know you’re going to have a particularly stressful day, practice taking deep breaths. “It sounds simple but taking a deep breath and holding it for a few seconds, then releasing it, can really help get your mind off whatever may be bothering you,” he said.
- Try putting a little bit of antiperspirant on your hands at night. Nighttime is the best time to apply antiperspirant, Mynes said, since it allows the ingredients to soak into your skin and block sweat glands.
- Pack a small bag of baking powder or cornstarch in your purse or briefcase, and apply it to your palms before a stressful situation. “Both will help absorb excess moisture in a pinch,” Mynes said.