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Yes, Stress Hair Loss Is A Real Thing — Here's What Causes It + How To Deal, From An Expert

October 21, 2022
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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.

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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?

To keep the answer simple: Yes, stress can cause hair loss. "Significant stress can lead to shedding and hair loss," board-certified dermatologist Christine Shaver, M.D., FAAD, of Bernstein Medical Center for Hair Restoration in New York City tells mbg.

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 havoc: 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.)

This was shown in a recent study done on mice, where researchers studied corticosterone levels (which is the equivalent to our cortisol) as they related to hair growth. They found that chronic and prolonged stress meant that the mice's hair follicles stayed in resting phase1.

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:

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1.

Telogen effluvium

"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.

2.

Alopecia areata

"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." 

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3. Trichotillomania

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.

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.

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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:

1.

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 studies2 have found that a well-oxygenated brain helps manage anxiety and depression3. Other studies have found that exercise may help alleviate depression and anxiety overall4.

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. 

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2.

Try meditation. 

There are 12 main types of meditation—from chakra meditation to visualization and perhaps the most popular for stress: mindfulness meditation. Studies have shown that mindfulness is associated with lower perceived stress.

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.

3.

Prioritize sleep. 

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.

4.

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.

5.

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 care for the hair & scalp.

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.

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. If you'd rather stick to natural options, rosemary oil has proven hair growth benefits5.

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.

Scalp massage is another must, Reavy notes. "A head massage helps to boost blood flow and circulation to your scalp and hair," she explains. A daily scalp massage may even help relieve some stress as is—apart from the hair-growth benefits. More on scalp care here.

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:

  • Hair growth topicals, such as scalp detoxes, hair growth serums, and oils (like rosemary)
  • Address your nutritional needs
  • Scalp massages
  • Visit a dermatologist

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.

  • Genetics
  • Age
  • Scalp inflammation
  • Tight hairstyles
  • Underlying medical condition
  • Hormones (like postpartum hair loss and menopause)
  • Nutrient deficiencies

For more information on hair loss, please check out our guide to hair loss in women and men.

The takeaway.

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.

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Hannah Frye
Hannah Frye
mbg Assistant Beauty Editor

Hannah Frye is the Assistant Beauty 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 health, wellness, sustainability, personal development, 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, holistic skincare approaches, must-have makeup products, and inclusivity in the beauty industry. She currently lives in New York City.