Imagine going about your routine, whether taking a shower, using a comb or brush, or even running your fingers over your head and making the frightening discovery that your hair is falling out in clumps. There are very few moments as jarring as finding piles in your shower drain or on your hairbrush, only made worse when you tug your hair to test it, and it comes out in batches. But before your mind goes to the worst, it’s essential to take a step back and think about the current circumstances in your life and how you are processing and handling them (or not handling them). Your hair loss may be linked to a period of high stress or anxiety, and the good news is that this is manageable and reversible.
“Normal” shedding happens for all of us. We see strands on our pillowcases, in the drain, or wisps on our clothes. If you’re married, your husband has probably asked you why the drain is constantly clogged with your hair. (Guilty.) Hair loss comes with the natural shedding of the scalp. Whether from friction, age, changes in diet, or the end of the life cycle for that follicle, there can be many reasons we lose hair. But when the hair begins to fall out in a volume that is not only noticeable but alarming, our minds race to the “what if’s.”
While natural shedding is common, it can often be correlated to stress and anxiety when the hair loss becomes more substantial. Anxiety is the body’s reaction to stressful, dangerous, or unfamiliar situations. Though everyone feels anxious occasionally, those who suffer from anxiety disorders experience some of the same triggers in many ways. An anxiety disorder can me suffering such distress that it interferes with their ability to lead an everyday life.
The effects of anxiety can manifest both psychologically and physically. Some of the most common physical symptoms can include nausea, sweats, head tension and headaches, uncontrolled muscle movements, and rashes. Anxiety and hair loss is one side effect that is not commonly mentioned. Most people don’t correlate anxiety to their hair loss because it’s rarely discussed when we talk about mental health struggles today. However, anxiety can affect your hair, and it can be incredibly distressing when it does. Not only is the aesthetic hard to accept, but so are the questions of what’s going on with our underlying health and wellness. This adds to the stresses, becoming a complex cycle to break.
Hair loss is not caused by anxiety but rather the stress brought on by everyday difficulties, which can compound over time if not addressed. As we already know, stress and anxiety have an intense impact on many facets of life and well-being. Mental health, physical health, sleep patterns, social relationships, and even our biological development can all be impacted by stress.
If we rewind way back to our most primal days, humans used stress stressors and those feelings to protect themselves. When your body felt something was off, it created a “panic response” within your system, and this was a way to alert you of an impending threat, whether it was a man or an animal. When our system believes it could be threatened, it releases hormones. It causes an inflammatory response that can compromise everything from how we feel in the moment to longer-term poor emotional, psychological, and physical well-being. These days, stress isn’t from the life risk of hunting food or a wooly mammoth staring you down. Instead, our priorities can be as common as from the guy in the cubicle next to you, the jerk on the freeway, or just the massive to-do list that never seems to get done. And perhaps one of today’s biggest culprits? Social media. The incredible disease of trying to live a FOMO culture, trying to make sense of what we see thrown at us, and how we process the tangled web of social interactions is almost impossible to avoid. And it’s a proven link to increased depression and anxiety in both adults and children.
Types of Hair Loss Due to Anxiety
Two types of hair loss are commonly present when clumps of hair can either be brushed or pulled out quickly and are linked to stress and anxiety.
Alopecia Areata. Large clumps of hair may suddenly fall out for no apparent reason, causing patches of hair loss. Some people may experience hair loss in other parts of the body. Although the hair will grow back, continued anxiety and stress can cause the hair loss to continue leading to different patches of hair and baldness.
Telogen Effluvium (TE). This is the second most common form of hair loss. In essence, it occurs when there is a change in the number of hair follicles growing hair. The number of hair follicles producing hair will drop, increasing dormant hair follicles, resulting in hair loss. TE can appear as thinning hair with the hair on the top of the scalp more than the sides or back of the scalp.
Another reason anxiety and stress may cause hair loss is due to the reduction of critical nutrients required for hair growth. Stress and anxiety can increase muscle tension, skin sebum production, and an increase in hormones processed in the body. As the body works to combat these issues, the supplies needed for hair growth can be diminished. Sebum can also clog the pores in the scalp, thus hindering hair growth.
Because of the hair’s growth cycle, most hair loss will be experienced approximately 6-to-12 weeks after a traumatic experience. But it can also appear months after the triggering event(s) and linger if the stressor impacts us. This is sometimes why diagnosing it as stress-related is difficult. Sometimes we live through that period and don’t necessarily correlate that time to the present.
So now we understand what this hair loss is, but how do stress and anxiety contribute?
First, it’s essential to address the immense elephant in the room. We all live in a period of exceptional stress. This is not just an American phenomenon; it is the reality of our new Covid-touched world. The uncertainties with which we live, the unknowns about the disease and its ramifications, and weighing the best protocols to protect ourselves and our loved ones are on our minds daily. This, coupled with the triggers and worries of day-to-day life, are no doubt enough to set this hair mess on course.
So, we’re all human, and we all have stressors in our lives. But what’s key is how we handle them that is so important for our mood and our health in the longer run. If you think you’re losing hair due to stress and anxiety, the first step is to see a professional. A dermatologist will identify by looking at your hair and scalp and asking a series of questions. It’s super important, to be honest, and open about what has been transpiring in your life during this time so the doctor can get a better idea of the degree of stress you are juggling. A family doctor or mental health specialist is also an option, taking active steps to reduce anxiety levels. If you are not currently undergoing anxiety treatment, the professionals at Destination Hope can help you understand the root of your anxiety and provide treatment options so you can live a healthy life.
The doctor will tell that this hair loss is linked to anxiety by analyzing the scalp. In times of stress, the scalp can produce excess oil, and this oil can make roots damp and greasy, and less firm.
The doctor can also do a breakage test pulling on the hair and identifying the severity of breakage or clumping. Some people even arrive at their appointments with bags of hair they’ve collected from drains and hairbrushes to start the conversation.
While this seems jarring and quite scary for many, the good news is that most of these cases are reversible.
The first directive may likely be a change in grooming behaviors at home. Whether you use chemical products or hot styling tools, how you wash your hair will all become relevant. It’s time to give your hair a rest. The dermatologist will advise the mildest form of care, and this is the time to let your hair and scalp “breathe” and essentially “detox” from chemicals, products, and styling instruments.
When Can I Expect My Hair Back?
If anxiety and stress are identified as the culprit, the good news is that the hair should expect to regrow after several months to a year.
If stress is not the only factor, implementing a healthy nutrition-based diet, vitamin supplementation, and stress management course through exercise and meditation will likely be recommended. If these treatments do not work, your primary care physician can do a further workup to pinpoint possible nutritional deficiencies and rule out other possible causes.
But let’s be honest. You know when things are stressful, and you probably already know what you need to do. Those in recovery live day-to-day within parameters that have proven to provide a safe and effective structure to live a life of wellness. The same discipline and work identify and slowly eliminate stress and anxiety from our lives. The most important advice? Take it day by day. Make small changes like taking deep breaths, being patient with the process, and managing the stressors until you have a clear headspace to address them.
The topic of anxiety is crucial to those in recovery. How we control and live with stressors and anxiety is fundamental to how we cope daily. Whereas past forms of medicating are off the table, finding new ways to relieve that stress is crucial. As mentioned above, meditating, yoga, mindfulness, getting enough sleep, eliminating personal and physical stressors in your life like distancing from negative acquaintances and family members or starting to say “no” to things that no longer serve you.
But anxiety goes both ways. Sometimes addicts use drugs and alcohol to help cope with stress and anxiety, and sometimes anxiety develops once you realize that drugs and alcohol are destroying your life.
Indeed, there are so many ways that anxiety manifests in our bodies, and hair loss is undoubtedly one of them. If you discover your hair falling out and know that you are in a period of extreme stress, it’s best to talk to a professional and start taking steps right away to identify the stressors.