Compulsive hair pulling- what it is, and how to treat it

I’m sure all of us at some point have used the expression “I want to tear my hair out!” when we’ve been particularly frustrated about something. We’re obviously not being literal, of course- but actually, pulling out your own hair is a real disorder that affects a small percentage of the population. It’s called trichotillomania, and involves irresistible urges to pull out hair from your scalp, eyebrows or other areas of your body.

What are the symptoms to look out for? As hairdressers, we’re used to hair of every kind possible, and it’s usually obvious when we treat a client who suffers from trichotillomania. Pulling hair from the scalp often leaves patchy bald spots, which can be distressing for the individual suffering from the disorder. For some people, the urge to pull out the hair can be overwhelming, while for others, it is generally manageable. The symptoms include:

-          Repeatedly pulling your hair out, typically from your scalp, eyebrows or eyelashes,

-          An increasing sense of tension before pulling

-          Noticeable hair loss

It’s common for trichotillomania to cause feelings of shame and low self-esteem. Those affected may try to keep their condition to themselves.

You are more at risk of experiencing trichotillomania if you have a close relative with the disorder, suffer from other mental illnesses, or are undergoing a period of stress. The actual cause of trichotillomania is, frustratingly, unclear, and symptoms may come and go for weeks, months and years at a time.

If you believe you may be suffering from trichotillomania or a related disorder, it’s important that you seek help from a professional. You might feel embarrassed having to do this, but trichotillomania is a mental illness, just like anxiety and depression, and you shouldn’t be ashamed to admit that you need support in helping yourself feel better. Your doctor can work through your triggers with you and help you to reach the source of the problem in order to fight it.

As well as seeking medical help, it may also help you to start making a real effort to look after and pamper your hair. This may help to resist the urge to pull the hair, and give you a ‘reason’ not to do so. For example, treating it to a weekly coconut hair mask and shampooing and conditioning with nutrient-rich shampoos and conditioners may help to fight against the desire to pull at your hair. You could also try replacing hair pulling with another action, like squeezing a stress ball.

Trichotillomania might not be a common mental illness, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be made aware of it, especially those who work in the hairdressing industry. Victoria's Secret Angel Sara Sampaio recently opened up about suffering from the disorder, saying about her eyebrows on Instagram: "Well I try not to touch them, but unfortunately I suffer from trichotillomania and I pull on them! 😭 so I have lots of gaps in them, I just use a eyebrow pencil to fill out the gaps!" We hope that this will encourage others to come forward and realise that they’re not alone in their struggle.

Laura Shallcross