The link between PTSD and hair loss

The link between PTSD and hair loss

Oscar winning actress and producer Sandra Bullock has recently revealed details  about her post-traumatic stress disorder, which has helped to create new conversations and openness about this issue. Especially as she has also explained that her PTSD led to hair loss due to Alopecia areata.

The actress experienced a horrific break-in while at home. Around the same time, her son was bitten by a poisonous spider. (Fortunately, he made a full recovery).

The combination of these traumatic experiences created physical reactions – including hair loss – that Sandra Bullock realised were signs of PTSD.

Revealing this during interviews, she hoped to help other people understand symptoms of PTSD and come forward for treatment.

‘Studies have shown that people who have dealt with traumatic experiences in the past are more likely to deal with hair loss issues like alopecia areata in the future. In fact, one study found that 85% of adults with a dermatological disease reported at least one traumatic event in their lives and almost 10% of them met the diagnostic criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder.’

This article explains why hair loss can happen, following traumatic experiences.

Why can PTSD cause your hair to fall out?

There’s a common expression used to describe being stressed, angry or frustrated: “I was tearing my hair out.” In fact, extreme stress can cause your hair to fall out all on its own.

Your skin and hair can both respond badly to stress, anxiety and other PTSD or C-PTSD symptoms, as part of the hormonal processes we have described previously  including in our overview of the lesser-known physical signs of PTSD & C-PTSD and the physical impact of trauma.

In a nutshell, as a biological response to extreme stress or fear, our neurological system puts our body on ‘high alert’. This includes sending hormonal messages to shut down non-essential functions (such as skin repair, hair growth and digestion) so that energy can be directed towards actioning our instinctive responses to ‘danger’. Such as enabling our muscles to be primed if we need to be ready to run! (you can read more about this trauma reaction here).

With PTSD or C-PTSD, this is not a temporary state of affairs, but a long-lasting effect of trauma – your body gets stuck in that ‘fight/flight/freeze/flop/fawn trauma reaction. So not only is your brain altered by your experience but your whole body can also be impacted if your physical ‘alarm mode’ is fixed in place.

You can feel the effects of this right down to your hair follicles, and there are a variety of ways why and how this can occur.

What is PTSD-related hair loss called?

The three medical terms you may come across when researching PTSD or C-PTSD and hair loss are outlined below.

Alopecia areata

This is the issue that affected Sandra Bullock. The term refers to various degrees of hair loss over a period of time.

There are multiple reasons for alopecia areata, not just stress. Fundamentally your immune system starts to attack your hair follicles, and your hair falls out. PTSD & C-PTSD cause many changes in the immune system, and there is a strong relationship between the immune system and AA.

Importantly, one study found that alopecia areata is the second most common cause of hair loss in children. The reason this is so significant is that it could be an indicator of unspoken trauma in the young. The same report indicated that within one group of children with this hair loss condition, 78% had experienced at least one psychiatric problem.

Though some people experience permanent and total hair loss due to alopecia, 4 out of 5 people can look forward to complete hair regrowth over a period of about 12 months. That is usually the case when your hair is falling out due to stress, anxiety or trauma response.

Telogen effluvium

This refers to the long-standing stress signals that cause your hair follicles to pass into a resting phase. This may cause hair to fall out when you brush, comb or wash it.

Hair loss due to telogen effluvium is usually abrupt and temporary. However, it can happen weeks (or even months) after you experience a period of deep stress or a traumatic incident, due to the hair growth cycle.

Trichotillomania

This is a nervous response connected to various mental health issues including hypervigilance in PTSD and C-PTSD. Or it can be a compulsive habit when bored, frustrated or uncomfortable in social situations.

It involves an involuntary urge to pluck at your hair. Not just on your scalp, but eyebrows, eyelashes and body hair too.

How to deal with PTSD hair loss

When your hair falls out as a symptom of PTSD or C-PTSD it can be addressed using a variety of calming techniques and therapies. Actress Sandra Bullock is quoted as saying Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing (EMDR) therapy was a big help to her in recovering from her PTSD and Alopecia areata.

If you develop Trichotillomania, more intense specialist therapy may be required.

During your treatment and recovery, it is important to treat your scalp gently when you experience stress-related hair loss. Avoid overheating with appliances, harsh chemicals and vigorous hair washing. A dermatologist can provide advice on effective scalp treatments, especially if you have bald patches which are problematic and sensitive.

Also, it is recommended that you improve your diet to include foods that help to support hair regrowth and health. Especially quality proteins, as hair is a form of protein called keratin.

If you notice sudden or patchy hair loss or more than usual hair loss when combing or washing your hair, talk to your doctor, even if you think it’s a result of your PTSD or C-PTSD. Sudden hair loss can signal an underlying medical condition that requires treatment. If needed, your doctor might also suggest treatment options for your hair loss.

NICE guidance updated in 2018 recommends the use of trauma focused psychological treatments for PTSD and C-PTSD in adults, specifically the use of Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprocessing (EMDR) and trauma focused cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).

Please remember, these aren’t meant to be medical recommendations, but they’re tactics that have worked for others and might work for you, too. Be sure to work with a professional to find the best methods for you.

Sources
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It is possible for PTSD to be successfully treated many years after the traumatic event occurred, which means it is never too late to seek help. For some, the first step may be watchful waiting, then exploring therapeutic options such as individual or group therapy – but the main treatment options in the UK are psychological treatments such as Eye Movement Desensitisation Reprogramming (EMDR) and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).

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