We often reference our hair metaphorically when we talk about stress. For instance, "It's giving me grey hair", "I'm pulling my hair out over this", or in terms of de-stressing, "I can finally let my hair down". This is because there's a real connection between your hair and your stress levels.
And, it can be a circular situation: if you're stressed, your hair can fall out and you might start stressing more about the way your hair looks. Hair can be an important part of identity for some people and can affect self-confidence.
Thankfully, there are ways to treat stress and hair loss that can help you feel better and regrow your hair. Here's what you need to know.
Can stress cause hair loss?
Stress can take a significant toll on your body and manifest in a wide range of physical symptoms — hair loss being one of them.
Telogen effluvium is a type of hair loss that is caused by extreme stress and it is the second most common form of hair loss. It is often triggered by an event that causes significant emotional stress such as divorce, moving house, death of a loved one or any kind of loss.
Severe physical stress can also trigger telogen effluvium. This is when your body goes through a period of significant strain such as major surgery, crash dieting or serious illness.
When you experience high-stress levels, your hair can shift from its growth phase to its resting phase. These resting hairs will remain attached to the hair follicles at first, then two to four months later, they start to shed as they are pushed out by new hair growth.
This means that the hair loss does not necessarily happen at the same time as you experience the stress, rather it is a delayed symptom that is actually a sign of hair regrowth.
This process of hair fall means that telogen effluvium is characterised by hair loss all over the scalp and not just in certain patches. Someone affected by telogen effluvium may shed as much as 30 to 40 per cent of their hair.
What are other common causes of hair loss?
While telogen effluvium is the second biggest cause of hair loss, there are many other reasons why your hair may fall out.
Androgenetic alopecia, commonly known as male pattern baldness (although it affects both men and women), is thought to be caused by genetics. You can recognise androgenetic alopecia by the way the loss of hair is limited to the top and front part of the head.
Alopecia areata can be patchy hair loss or complete baldness and is thought to be caused by an immune system disorder.
Other times, hair fall isn't necessarily associated with a specific hair loss disorder. Skin conditions, such as fungal infections, can cause patchy hair loss in the areas of the scalp that are affected.
Illnesses that affect the whole body, rather than just one body part, can also affect the scalp and hair growth. For example, an over-active thyroid can cause hair thinning and autoimmune diseases like lupus can cause hair loss.
Can anxiety cause hair loss?
Anxiety can trigger another kind of hair loss in the form of trichotillomania, which is a hair-pulling disorder.
Unlike telogen effluvium, where your hair falls out due to a disruption in your normal hair cycle, someone with trichotillomania loses their hair due to a compulsive behaviour of pulling or tugging at their hair. It is a psychological condition and can be a way of dealing with anxiety or stress as well as relieving tension. It is also classified as a sub-category of obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Trichotillomania can also be distinguished from telogen effluvium by its appearance. While telogen effluvium results in even hair loss across the entire scalp, trichotillomania is characterised by patches of hair loss. People with this disorder usually pull out the hair on their scalp, however, they may also pull at their eyebrows, eyelashes and other body hair.
Is your hair is falling out due to stress?
If you're concerned about significant hair loss, consult a doctor to work out what could be causing it. Your doctor will be able to determine whether you have stress-related hair loss through a combination of examination and tests.
Usually, a hair-pull test can confirm if a person has telogen effluvium. If at least four hairs fall out each time your hair is pulled, that is an indication of telogen effluvium.
Alternatively, you may be asked to collect all the hairs you shed over a 24-hour period. Shedding 100 or more hairs is another indication of this hair loss disorder. Your doctor may also examine your scalp for new hair growth as part of their diagnosis.
If your doctor suspects you have trichotillomania, they will examine your scalp for geometric patches of hair loss, empty hair follicles, short hairs with tapered ends, and black dots on the scalp which could be blackheads or broken hair shafts. They can also confirm trichotillomania by doing a lab study of a hair sample.
How can you prevent stress-related hair loss?
The good news is that there are ways to prevent hair loss with a combination of stress management strategies and clinically proven medication. While it can be easier said than done, stress management is an important part of preventing stress-related hair loss.
Eating a balanced diet, exercising regularly, getting enough sleep and making time for relationships are all lifestyle factors that contribute to a more resilient mindset and allow you to better cope with the challenges of life. Taking time for self-care and practising a relaxation activity also helps to lower stress levels and therefore, reduce the risk of hair loss.
Taking care of your overall hair health can also help to prevent excessive hair fall. An over-the-counter treatment like Pilot's Hair Growth Booster Kit can strengthen hair follicles and promote growth with a combination of hair care products and supplements.
Rounding out treatment options is Pilot's personalised hair loss treatment. Dihydrotestosterone (DHT) is a hormone that stops hair growth and Pilot's treatment works to block the production of DHT. And, with 83 per cent of people keeping their hair by using this treatment, the results speak for themselves.
Can hair grow back after stress-induced loss?
The good news is, that in most cases of stress-induced hair loss, your hair will grow back.
With telogen effluvium, once the underlying cause has been treated, hair growth is restored. Once the shedding stops and new hair grows in, the first phase of regrowth usually produces hair that is thinner than you may be used to. But, over time, hair growth goes back to its normal thickness.
Trichotillomania is similar in that mental health support and breaking the habit of hair pulling will usually allow hair to grow back. However, there can be certain complications that result in permanent hair loss, so it's very important to seek professional mental health support early if you think you may have this hair-pulling disorder.
How to regain hair loss from stress
In order to reduce your stress levels and give your hair a chance to regrow, it can be really beneficial to get mental health support from a counsellor or therapist. They'll be able to listen to what you're going through and support you in finding ways to deal with any challenges.
For trichotillomania, types of therapy like cognitive-behavioural therapy or habit reversal training are important for challenging negative anxiety-inducing thoughts and re-directing the hair pulling impulse into a different activity.
To encourage hair follicle regrowth, a personalised hair loss treatment like Pilot's can help. The medication has a dual purpose of stopping DHT production (the hormone that stops hair growth) and stimulating the hair's growth phase.
Patients using this treatment typically notice less hair fall and thicker growth within three months. Within six months, their bald patches are less noticeable and after nine months their hairline is more defined and their hair is longer and stronger.
66 per cent of people on this course of treatment regrow their hair, so it is possible for your hair follicles to bounce back.
How can you relieve stress?
As much as we can do to take care of our well-being, stress is simply a fact of life and it's unlikely we'll never be able to get rid of it completely. But, having some healthy coping strategies for dealing with stress can stop negative emotions from getting out of control and can help prevent further hair loss.
Talking to other people, such as family, friends or even a mental health professional can be really helpful when you're going through a tough time. It can help you feel like you have less weight on your shoulders and that you're less alone. Talking about it can even give you a new perspective and help break your problem down into smaller parts.
You can access free, confidential counselling and mental health support from experienced counsellors with This Is A Conversation Starter (TIACS). Call or text TIACS on 0488 846 988 Monday to Friday 8am to 10pm AEST for free, early intervention, short-term mental health counselling.
Equally, having time to yourself is an important part of relieving stress. Exercising can be a great way to release pent-up energy, while relaxation techniques such as yoga, meditation and mindfulness activities can relieve tension and settle your mind.
At the end of the day, stress and anxiety are experiences that most people go through. Although they can trigger hair loss, it's reassuring to know that in most cases it will grow back with the support of medication, stress management and other mental health support.
You can also reach out for 24/7 help at Lifeline on 13 11 14. If you or someone you know is in immediate danger or at risk of harm, call 000.