Everyone experiences stress at one time or another in their lives. Even the most successful or well-adjusted can succumb to the crippling effects of stress. Which symptoms come to mind when you think of stress? It could be sleep loss, worry, and feelings of anxiety and uncertainty. But did you know that stress can also cause hair loss? According to Mayo Clinic, stress-related hair loss can come in three forms. Let’s look at each one, the cause, and what you can do about it.
Telogen effluvium is a temporary form of hair loss that occurs when your body is under a lot of stress. This type of hair loss often shows up 1-3 months after a stressful event. These events might include, but aren’t limited to, chemotherapy, surgery, hormonal changes, childbirth, weight gain or loss, illness, and intense exercise.
Telogen effluvium is different from normal hair loss. This form of stress-related hair loss is sudden and reversible, while garden-variety hair loss is part of a predictable cycle triggered by hormones to replace your old hair with new. Hair has a growing phase or cycle, called anagen, and a resting phase called telogen. This form of hair loss happens when too many hair strands enter the anagen phase and are dormant, leading to hair loss.
Telogen affects all races, genders, and ages. If you have telogen effluvium, ask your physician to check an iron panel. Low iron can cause this condition. Diet can also be a factor, especially not consuming enough dietary protein. The good news is that the hair loss will stop and hair will regrow after the precipitating stress stops. However, it may take up to six months for hair regrowth to begin and even longer for the hair to start to look thicker.
Alopecia areata is a condition that develops when your immune system mistakenly attacks hair follicles, which is where hair growth begins. The damaged follicles can’t grow new hair, resulting in hair loss that can start suddenly and get worse over time. Experts believe stress plays a prominent role in alopecia areata.
Alopecia areata affects 1 in every 500 to 1,000 individuals in the United States. Typically, people with alopecia areata experience round patches of baldness on their scalp, though they can also lose hair from their eyebrows, eyelashes, and beards. Alopecia areata is usually diagnosed by examining a small sample of the scalp under a microscope.
Most experts think that alopecia areata is caused by a combination of genetic predisposition and environmental factors and may be triggered or worsened by stress. If you have a family member with the condition, you may be at increased risk for developing it yourself.
Treatments for alopecia areata can restore hair in many but not all cases. While there’s no cure for alopecia areata yet, treatments may help prevent further hair loss and possibly regrow some hair. One treatment that works for some people is corticosteroids to suppress the body’s immune response. Some dermatologists also apply an irritating chemical to the hair follicles to try to stop the hair loss. For severe, unresponsive cases, a class of medications called Janus kinase inhibitors may be an option. These medications disrupt the body’s immune response, which reduces hair loss.
Most experts think that alopecia areata is caused by a combination of genetic predisposition and environmental factors and may be triggered or worsened by stress. If you have a family member with the condition, you may be at increased risk of developing it yourself.
Another cause of stress-related hair loss is called trichotillomania, a mental disorder characterized by an irresistible urge to pull out hair from your scalp, eyebrows, or other areas of your body, despite trying to stop. While it’s more common in children, it affects people of all ages.
Trichotillomania is classified as an impulse control disorder. People with trichotillomania may go to great lengths to disguise the loss of hair. To hide the hair loss, they may wear a hat or scarf all the time, for example, or they may use makeup to fill in missing eyebrows or pencil in missing eyelashes.
The effects of trichotillomania can be devastating for those who have it. Not only can they lead to noticeable hair loss and serious emotional distress, but they can also interfere with the ability to live a normal life at work and home.
Although trichotillomania is classified as a type of mental illness, it may respond well to habit-reversal training and medications typically prescribed for anxiety and mood disorders.
The Bottom Line
Scientists are still unclear exactly how and why hair loss occurs, though many have made a strong case for stress as one potential cause. Because nearly everyone experiences stress at some point in their lives, it’s important to be aware of its connection to physical health, including hair loss, and try to minimize the impact it has on your body.
Hughes EC, Saleh D. Telogen Effluvium. Nih.gov. Published June 8, 2021. Accessed March 1, 2022. ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK430848/#:~:text=Telogen%20effluvium%20is%20triggered%20when,the%20resting%20phase%20(telogen).
“Hair loss – Symptoms and causes – Mayo Clinic.” 22 May. 2020, mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/hair-loss/symptoms-causes/syc-20372926.
“Hair loss – Diagnosis and treatment – Mayo Clinic.” 22 May. 2020, mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/hair-loss/diagnosis-treatment/drc-20372932.
“Alopecia Areata > Fact Sheets > Yale Medicine.” yalemedicine.org/conditions/alopecia-areata.
“Alopecia areata: MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia.” 04 Feb. 2022, medlineplus.gov/ency/article/001450.htm.