If you’ve been under a lot of stress lately, you may have noticed your hair looking a little lackluster or falling out faster than usual. It’s not just your imagination. Stress can cause all kinds of unexpected physical symptoms, and that includes wear-and-tear on your hair.
While worrying about your hair may seem superficial, it’s really not. While there’s nothing wrong with wanting to look your best, this problem likely goes deeper. If your stress level has gotten so high that it’s visibly damaging your hair, can you imagine what it’s doing to the rest of your body, including all the places you can’t see?
Telogen effluvium is the medical term for hair loss caused by extreme stress. Switching jobs, giving birth, or even a bout of the flu can be enough to trigger this type of hair loss. Of course, everyone gets the occasional shower hairball, so how do you know if you’re losing too much hair? If you feel like you’re shedding twice as much as usual—and it lasts for two weeks or more—stress may be the culprit, says Lindsey Bordone, MD, a dermatologist at ColumbiaDoctors in NYC.
Also likely stress-related: losing hair in small, coin-sized patches, which is characteristic of alopecia areta (though sometimes it leads to complete baldness). This is a condition in which the immune system attacks the hair follicles, and while the exact cause is still up for debate, stress is a well-known trigger for flare-ups. “Given that blood pressure goes up under stress, blood sugar spikes under stress, and eczema flares with stress, it seems logical that alopecia areata might worsen with stress,” Bordone says.
Research has shown that stress makes you more likely to make unhealthy food choices—although if you’ve ever reached for a pint of ice cream after a rough day, you probably didn’t need science to tell you that. But if emotional eating becomes an ongoing habit, it can slow down your hair growth. “Poor nutrition causes your body to go into survival mode, which leads to energy being shifted [away] from hair growth,” Bordone says.
When you’re so frazzled that you barely have time to brush your teeth, you may default to a trusty ponytail. But if your ponytail is too tight, it can start pulling out the tiny hairs along your hairline, which, over time, may damage the follicles. “If you feel pulling when your hair is styled, it could lead to gradual thinning,” Bordone says. Stick with a loose pony or a messy bun, and make sure you take it out before bedtime.
Around 1% of people in the U.S. suffer from trichotillomania, a disorder that causes them to pull out their own hair, often in response to anxiety. This is a relatively rare condition, but if you suspect you might have it, Bordone recommends scheduling an appointment with a dermatologist or psychiatrist.
If you think stress is affecting your hair, make an appointment with your doctor; you may need to rule out other causes . In the meantime, focus on finding effective methods of stress relief.
“There’s no way to make hair grow back faster once the process of shedding has begun,” Bordone says. But reducing stress can help your body—follicles included—get back on track.