According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, 1 in 5 people experience mental illness each year. These numbers have all sorts of impacts on individuals and society, from higher chances of drug use to increased rates of homelessness. (Not to mention high rates of incarceration).
Of these disorders, anxiety is one of the most common, often occurring in addition to other disorders. In fact, in the United States, the rate of anxiety (19%) is almost equal to the rate of annual mental illness (20%).
As such, it stands to reason that those with anxiety disorders often experience the above negative side effects. However, there are other effects of anxiety that we didn’t list – and that isn’t commonly listed anywhere, period. One of these unusual side effects is an increased potential for hair loss.
Wait. Can anxiety cause hair loss?
The short answer is yes, it can – but it’s not quite so simple.
What is Hair Loss?
Hair loss is exactly what it sounds like: the loss of hair from various parts of your body. Clinically known as alopecia, hair loss can occur for many different reasons. Furthermore, you can lose hair from one or many parts of your body, and the changes may be temporary or permanent.
Hair loss also comes in a variety of patterns, depending on the root cause. Those experiencing alopecia may notice one or more of the following patterns:
- Loosening of hair. This type of hair loss typically follows some sort of shock or trauma. Individuals may notice that handfuls of hair come out during brushing, in the shower, or with a gentle tug. Often times, this hair loss is temporary.
- Slow, consistent thinning over the scalp. Sometimes referred to as male-pattern or female-pattern baldness, this is the most common type of hair loss, as it results from the aging process.
- Patchy or circular bald spots. While not as common as gradual thinning, it’s not wholly uncommon to see individuals lose hair in ring-shaped patterns. This type of hair loss may come with itchy or painful skin.
Why Can Anxiety Cause Hair Loss?
Anxiety and hair loss often have a more complex relationship than it seems on the surface. While some may picture anxiety-related hair loss as a wig’s worth of hair slipping off your head in one big bunch, the reality often isn’t so neat. In fact, some anxieties can even cause individuals to pull their own hair from their heads.
Hair loss – especially the types related to stress – can affect various parts of the hair-growing cycle. These include:
- The anagen phase, when hair actually grows (this phase lasts anywhere from 2 to 7 years)
- The catagen phase, a two-week phase in which the hair follicle shrinks
- Telogen phase, a three-month period of rest
- The exogen phase, when the follicle sheds the hair
We’ll discuss how – and when – anxiety can interrupt the hair growing cycle below.
What Types of Hair Loss Can Anxiety Cause?
There are three main types of hair loss that result from anxiety and high stress:
- Alopecia areata
- Telogen effluvium
Let’s take an in-depth look at each of these disorders.
Alopecia Areata (AA)
This autoimmune disease is the result of your body attacking your own hair follicles. One of the potential triggers for this disorder is extreme anxiety or sudden stress, which can send your body into overdrive. With alopecia areata, you typically lose hair across the entire scalp or in round patches all over your head. (In alopecia universalis, a more severe version of AA, you can lose all of the hair from your body).
Anyone at any age can develop alopecia areata if their anxiety is great enough. Furthermore, those diagnosed with this disease may notice that their hair falls out and grows back in cycles are their anxiety waxes and wanes. Currently, there is no known cure for the disease once it begins. However, there are a few medical treatments that may help the hair grow back.
Telogen Effluvium (TE)
Telogen effluvium, so named for the phase of hair growth that it interrupts, is the second most common type of hair loss. TE can occur across all genders, races, and ages.
Typically, TE sets in when large amounts of stress (such as an anxiety disorder) cause the body to signal a large number of your hair follicles to enter a “resting phase.” Thus, the number of hair follicles that produce new growth is reduced over a period of time – sometimes even months. This may manifest itself in shedding or patches and clumps of hair falling out when you take a shower or brush your hair.
Often times, the shedding that comes with telogen effluvium doesn’t result in a total loss of scalp hair. Instead, the hair usually falls out in patches all over the head, though they can be localized near the center of the scalp. (In more extreme cases, as with AA, hair may thin on other parts of the body – including facial and pubic hair). But, because TE doesn’t cause permanent damage, the hair loss is usually fully reversible within a year or two.
Trichotillomania is an unusual disorder wherein the sufferer pulls their hair out from the roots. Although it’s considered an impulse control disorder, it can be caused by severe anxiety or stress, too. In fact, some people with stress use it as a coping mechanism for their negative emotions.
Unlike the other two disorders on this list, trichotillomania often doesn’t just occur on the scalp, but the eyebrows and eyelashes too. This can actually cause the sufferer to feel added stress, which may cause them to pull more hair out.
In Conclusion: Can Anxiety Cause Hair Loss?
Yes, anxiety and other stress disorders can cause hair loss – more than one type, in fact. While the patterns of hair loss may vary, the root cause is the same: anxiety, stress, and in some cases, shock or trauma.