Yes, Stress Hair Loss Is A Real Thing — Here's What Causes It + How To Deal, From An Expert
If you've brushed your hair and seen more than a few strands, you may wonder if it's more than just typical shedding or breakage. On average, you should shed 50 to 100 hairs a day—if it's significantly more than that, there may be something more serious going on.
Hair loss in general can be caused by a plethora of factors, from diet to topical products to hairstyling choices. Often, it's a combination of a few that are at the root of it. This is why identifying the underlying cause of your loss is all the more confusing.
One of the most enduring thoughts about hair loss is that it can be triggered by stress. Obviously, there's a strong connection between mental health and physical health, but can that connection manifest itself as increased shedding? Is stress hair loss actually a thing? We tapped the experts to find out.
Can stress cause hair loss?
Stress causes a spike in the hormone cortisol (which is why it's called the "stress hormone"). When excessive cortisol is present in the body, it can wreak havoc2: With hair, it can force the hair to enter and stay in resting phase (telogen) as nutrients are redirected to other, more vital areas of the body. (It's actually a survival mechanism.)
However, you likely won't notice this hair loss right away. "When high stress occurs, the hair begins to shed about three to six months later," Shaver explains. "It will continue to shed until the underlying cause of stress has been addressed and resolved," she says.
One of the hardest parts about hair loss is the cyclical pattern—stress leads to hair loss, which can lead to more stress, more loss, and it goes on. This is why stress management is so important—more on that in a bit.
What can cause stress-related hair loss?
While the term "stress hair loss" is buzzy, it's actually an umbrella term for three more specific causes of hair loss. The first is the most common we associate with it, but there are also other types to be mindful off:
"Telogen effluvium is a kind of hair loss that takes place after a person undergoes a stress to the body or mind such as loss of a loved one, loss of a job, a high fever, a surgery, or an abrupt hormonal change," board-certified dermatologist Hadley King, M.D., explains.
This change occurs on a follicular level. "A stressor causes a portion of the hair follicles on one's scalp to prematurely enter the resting phase of the hair growth cycle (telogen), which is then followed several months later by shedding," Shaver says.
This type of hair loss is especially common in women, especially surrounding the starting or stopping of oral contraceptives and after childbirth, King says.
"It is important to know that reversing telogen effluvium generally takes one to three months for the shedding to stop and it can take one to two years after the stressor has been managed for the hair to completely regrow," Shaver notes.
"Alopecia areata is a type of autoimmune hair loss," Shaver tells mbg. This can be associated with other autoimmune disorders such as autoimmune thyroid disease and vitiligo, King says.
This kind of hair loss works in a different way than telogen effluvium but still begins at the follicle. "The body's own protective immune cells begin to attack the hair follicles," Shafer says. "It is relatively common, affecting approximately 2% of the population over one's lifetime," she continues.
Alopecia areata appears as localized patches of baldness. Luckily, Shaver says, "Localized alopecia areata is often successfully treated with topical and/or injectable steroids alone."
Trichotillomania, also commonly referred to as hair pulling, is a different kind of hair loss entirely but is still triggered by stress. "Trichotillomania is an irresistible urge to pull out hair from your scalp, eyebrows, or other areas of your body," King explains.
"Hair pulling can be a way of dealing with negative or uncomfortable feelings, such as stress, anxiety, tension, loneliness, fatigue, or frustration,” she continues.
Topical hair loss remedies will help the hair grow back, but that growth will only be maintained if the pulling ceases. This is where stress management comes in.
Signs your hair loss is stress related
It can be hard to identify the root cause of hair loss—and often it's multifactorial. For stress-related hair loss, the increased shedding will typically come 3-6 months after some stress event or time period.
Here, common stressful events that can trigger hair loss include:
- Experiencing an illness, such as COVID
- Undergoing surgery
- Loss or grief of any kind
- A physical injury or accident
- Disruptions in your emotional or mental health
- Work-related stress
- Familial or relationship stress
- Major hormonal changes
- Other significant events
As for the specific appearance of hair loss, it will manifest itself differently for everyone. Some folks find small, bald patches along the scalp, while others notice a less dense hairline or part.
Normal hair shedding vs. stress hair loss
50 to 100 hairs a day is a normal range of shedding. So if you pull out a few hairs when you rinse out your shampoo, that’s completely normal. It’s likely that you’re not counting the hairs in your brush to ensure you’re in the 50-100 hair range, but generally if the shedding doesn’t give you pause, then it’s likely not above the normal threshold.
In addition, folks may also experience breakage (or when the hair fiber snaps off at the shaft, rather than the follicle), which can contribute to the appearance of thinning. This often happens if someone undergoes a chemical process (such as coloring the hair), excessive heat styling, or general wear and tear. Those with dry and curly hair are more prone to breakage, and should be extra gentle on the hair to avoid damage.
So how do you know when you’ve entered “hair loss” territory? Well, it’s not an exact science, but it’s good to have a general awareness of your day-to-day scalp and hair health. This will help you identify potential hair loss earlier. In the meantime, here are some signs:
- You’ve recently undergone a stressful event (see list above), and you’re now experiencing changes in your body—such as hair loss
- Do the pull test, from Megan Taylor, stylist at Gloria and Company in Fairhaven, Massachusetts: "A good way to test your shedding, whether it be normal or too much, is to take a small section of clean dry hair and lightly pull down on that section from the mid-lengths to ends of your hair. Normally you might notice that none or a strand or two might come out as you pull. If you notice more than a few strands coming out it might be something you want to look into further."
- Consider getting a hair trap for your drain. These help collect your strays as you wash your hair—good for both you and your pipes—so you can evaluate if your hair is falling out more than normal.
Is stress hair loss permanent?
Most hair loss caused by stress is temporary. "The hair that has shed will likely grow back after the stressor has gone away but that can take up to 2 years—so recovery requires patience," Shaver notes.
It's important to remember that this kind of hair loss is triggered by stress—not a lack of scalp and hair care. The latter factors will be helpful for growing back lost strands, but stress is the main factor you should focus on treating.
How to manage stress hair loss.
Take stress hair loss as a wake-up call that you need to get serious about stress management. Yes, you can support your hair and scalp with topicals to encourage growth (more on that below), but if you're not addressing the underlying cause, you may not see meaningful changes.
However, we know managing stress isn't an easy task, and most of the time stressful events are outside of your control. While you can't dictate what occurs outside of your own actions, there are some stress management tips that can help:
Exercise a few times a week.
When you exercise, your heart rate increases and your body pumps more oxygen to your brain. That process can affect your overall positivity, as multiple studies4 have found that a well-oxygenated brain helps manage anxiety and depression5. Other studies have found that exercise may help alleviate depression and anxiety overall6.
Hence, why exercise is first on the list of steps you can take to reduce stress. You don't need to do a three-hour long, high-intensity workout or run a marathon to check the box (unless that's your thing, of course). In fact, finding a workout you actually enjoy will encourage consistency—a key factor in maintaining a healthy habit.
That being said, meditation isn't for everyone. If you give it a try for a few weeks and feel no benefits, opt for another stress management tool better suited for your lifestyle and preferences.
Research shows that stress increases as the length and quality of sleep decrease. What's more, not getting enough sleep can alone cause you to stress about sleep itself—a harsh cycle to break.
Putting sleep first on your to-do list can be especially challenging when your mind is running in circles about work, family, relationships, or anything else causing stress in your life.
Here, 15 tips to help you improve your sleep hygiene stat so you can be on your way to a better snooze.
Note your caffeine intake.
We're not going to say that coffee is stressing you out. In fact, studies have shown that having a cup or two of coffee every day can actually help your mental health. However, this is all dependent on your unique reaction to caffeine.
If you have anxiety, you may experience more jittery effects—making you feel more stressed. Think of it like a lighter version of fight or flight. So if you're feeling stressed and can't quite put a finger on what's causing it, try experimenting with how much caffeine you drink.
If you can, go to therapy.
First things first—if you're dealing with a stressful event in your life or you experienced a traumatic event causing you to stress—therapy is a great option. If you are feeling stressed to the point of experiencing hair loss, there are likely other parts of your life being affected as well—relationships, work, motivation, etc.
Therapy can be expensive, and it's not accessible to everyone. Prioritizing your mental health by calling upon the techniques listed above and talking with loved ones will work wonders regardless.
How to encourage hair growth
During these stressful times and especially after stress is managed, show your scalp some TLC to encourage regrowth. "It's important to ensure your body has the right nutrients and minerals during this stressful time and you're keeping the scalp clean and stimulated for the six months afterward to ensure healthy hair growth back," certified trichologist and founder of Act + Acre Helen Reavy tells mbg.
Hair growth serums or oils
First, call on hair growth serums. (Reavy's go-to for hair growth is the Act+Acre Scalp Detox.) This will help rebalance the scalp and remove buildup. "It also helps to stimulate blood circulation and promotes hair growth," Reavy explains. You can find a plethora of hair growth serums here if you're ready to browse.
In addition to caring for the scalp, be sure to care for the existing hair fibers too. This will reduce breakage, which can aid you in the hair growth journey. Avoid excessive heat styling, loosen up tight hair styles, and use conditioning masks formulated for damaged hair.
Hair growth vitamins & supplements
As for nutrients, there are several vitamins that can help support your hair growth internally. Vitamins C, E, and D and folic acid all have evidence connecting them to hair growth and health. For more information on what vitamins to look for, see our guide to nutrients for hair growth. Target hair supplements can also be very beneficial, as they contain meaningful doses of nutrients needed for healthy hair. Check out more information on hair growth supplements here.
See a pro
If you're struggling with stress hair loss or find it difficult to grow back lost strands, consult a dermatologist. There are plenty of prescription-grade products that can encourage otherwise treatment-resistant growth.
As a recap, here's how you can care for your hair and scalp with products alongside stress management:
Other causes of hair loss.
It's also important to note that there are many other underlying factors that can lead to hair loss. And while stress can play a large role, it's important to look into other triggers if you can't seem to resolve your shedding with stress management alone.
- Scalp inflammation
- Tight hairstyles
- Underlying medical condition
- Hormones (like postpartum hair loss and menopause)
- Nutrient deficiencies
Stress hair loss in men vs women
Stress affects folks of any gender. No one is immune to stressful moments in life, and its subsequent effects on the body. So in short: Stress hair loss can happen in men, women, or however someone might identify.
Now, there can be slight differences in overall hair loss patterns that vary by sex. For example, male pattern baldness (called Male Androgenetic Alopecia8) typically starts at the crown and back of the head. Male pattern baldness affects 30 to 50% of men by age 508, making it the most common reason for hair loss in men. This genetic trait can also come from either side of the family (meaning it’s not just inherited through the men).
Can stress and anxiety cause hair loss?
Yes, when your body is in a state of chronic, prolonged stress response, one of the changes you may experience is hair loss. Stress causes a spike in the hormone cortisol, which can force the hair to enter and stay in resting phase (telogen) as nutrients are redirected to other, more vital areas of the body.
How long does it take for stress related hair loss to grow back?
Stress hair loss is most often not permanent. However, it may take up to 2 to 3 years to see full regrowth. Patience is key on your hair growth journey.
What does stress hair loss look like?
Stress hair loss occurs about 3 to 6 months after a stressful event. It may look patchy (as in you may see spots on the scalp that are affected more) or your hairline and part may look less dense. You may also just notice that more hair falls out in the shower or when brushing.
Stress hair loss is real, and it doesn't just show up in one form. There are many different, more specific types of hair loss triggered by stress under this umbrella term. If you want to prevent and treat this kind of hair loss, stress management comes first and then proper scalp care. Not sure if you're experiencing hair loss or simple hair shedding? These tips will help you spot the difference.
Hannah Frye is the Assistant Beauty & Health Editor at mindbodygreen. She has a B.S. in journalism and a minor in women’s, gender, and queer studies from California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo. Hannah has written across lifestyle sections including skin care, women’s health, mental health, sustainability, social media trends, and more. She previously interned for Almost 30, a top-rated health and wellness podcast. In her current role, Hannah reports on the latest beauty trends and innovations, women’s health research, brain health news, and plenty more.