21st January, 20227 min read

Stress and hair loss

Medical reviewer:
Dr Ann Nainan
Dr Ann Nainan
Dr Adiele Hoffman
Dr Adiele Hoffman
Author:
Wendy Davies
Wendy Davies
Last reviewed: 21/01/2022
Medically reviewed

All of Healthily's articles undergo medical safety checks to verify that the information is medically safe. View more details in our safety page, or read our editorial policy.

Hair loss can be very distressing – especially if it happens when you’re already dealing with stress.

Stress on your body can be caused by your mental health or your physical health, and both can have an affect on your hair. So read on to learn why stress can cause hair loss, and what you can do about it.

How does stress cause hair loss?

You lose some hair every day – in fact, you can lose up to 100 hairs a day, and you usually won’t even notice. But hair loss can sometimes be caused by or related to stress.

There are 3 types of hair loss associated with stress:

Telogen effluvium

Telogen effluvium is when you lose a lot more hair than usual every day.

Hair goes through 3 stages: growth (anagen), degeneration (catagen) and rest (telogen). Usually, about 10% of the hair on your head is in the telogen stage – which is when it falls out.

But stress can push hair into its telogen stage too soon – as your body focuses its energy and resources elsewhere – meaning your hair falls out earlier than it should. With telogen effluvium, at least 30% of your hair is in the telogen stage, so more of it is being shed.

Common triggers for telogen effluvium include:

  • major physical stress on your body – such as childbirth, illness (including COVID-19) and extreme weight loss
  • stressful or major life events – such as bereavement, divorce or redundancy

The key things you need to know about telogen effluvium are:

  • hair loss is usually sudden – but it can happen a few months after a ‘trigger event’
  • you’ll usually lose hair from all over your head – with hair losing thickness and volume in the early stages
  • it isn’t permanent – your hair will usually start growing again within 3 to 6 months, though it may take longer for the overall volume to get back to normal
  • it can come back – especially if the underlying cause isn’t dealt with

Trichotillomania

Trichotillomania is a disorder when you get a really strong urge to pull out your hair, which can happen in response to a stressful situation or feelings of anxiety. Pulling out your hair then gives you a feeling of relief.

The key things you need to know about trichotillomania are:

  • it usually affects the hair on your head – but you can also pull hair from your eyebrows, eyelashes, beard or genitals
  • 1 side of your head may be more affected – leaving irregularly shaped bald patches
  • it can be a cause of stress as well as a result – as it can lead to stressful feelings of shame and low self-esteem

women hair loss picture

Alopecia areata

Alopecia areata is a type of hair loss caused by inflammation, which can happen at any age and stress may be involved.

The key things you need to know about alopecia areata are:

  • it isn’t fully understood why it happens – but it’s thought that it involves your immune system attacking your hair follicles, which may be triggered by severe stress
  • it usually causes small, round bald patches on your head – although other body hair can be affected
  • it can be treated – though there isn’t a cure
  • in most cases your hair will grow back – often within a year
  • you may get hair loss in the future

When to see a doctor

If you’re struggling to cope with stress, it’s important to get help and support. Learn about when to see a doctor about stress.

You should also see a doctor if you’re worried your hair loss might be caused by an underlying condition, or if it’s affecting your mood or daily life – such as making you feel less confident or stopping you from enjoying your social life.

It’s particularly important to get medical advice if:

  • your hair loss is sudden
  • your head itches and burns
  • hair is coming out in clumps
  • you’re getting bald patches
  • you’re pulling your hair out

Managing and treating stress

If stress is leading to hair loss, it’s important to work out what’s causing your stress and take steps to reduce it – including seeing a doctor for help if you’re struggling to cope.

As well as getting advice from a doctor, there are various ways you can manage stress yourself and get stress relief. To start with, you might find it useful to talk to a friend, family member or someone else you trust about what’s bothering you.

Practising calming breathing exercises can help, as can making time for exercise and other activities you enjoy.

Read more about ways to quickly relieve stress.

Managing and treating stress-related hair loss

It isn’t always easy to manage your response to stress, and some things – such as major life events – can be out of your control. What’s more, while stress can cause hair loss, hair loss can also cause stress.

The good news is that hair loss caused by stress isn’t usually permanent. Depending on the type of hair loss you have, your hair should start to grow back once the stressor has passed, or you get your stress levels under control – for example, if you have telogen effluvium after a major life event. Bear in mind that physical stress (such as childbirth) is often quicker and easier to get over than emotional stress or trauma.

If you have alopecia areata, your hair might take longer to grow back, but most people see full regrowth after 1 year, depending on the extent of the hair loss. However, you may be likely to get more episodes of hair loss in the future.

But even if your hair loss is only temporary, you may want to manage or treat it. As well as general stress management (see above), and lifestyle and haircare tips that can help your hair look its best, there are a few other things that can help with stress-related hair loss.

Diet and supplements

If stress is affecting your appetite, you may not be eating a healthy, balanced diet. This can mean you’re not getting the right nutrients to maintain healthy hair. For example, hair growth can be affected if you’re lacking zinc, iron or biotin.

If a blood test shows you have a deficiency in certain nutrients, your doctor may recommend a supplement.

Medication

Depending on your type of stress-related hair loss, your doctor may suggest you try certain medications, but they don't work for everyone.

Steroid medicines are sometimes used to treat alopecia areata, either as something you apply (topical corticosteroids) or injections. They can encourage or speed up regrowth, but the effect is temporary and your hair may fall out when you stop using them.

A hair-loss lotion called Minoxidil may help to speed up regrowth if your hair has already started to grow back, but it won’t be effective if your hair is still in the telogen phase.

Therapy and treatment for low mood

If your doctor thinks your hair loss is happening because of stress, they may refer you for a type of psychological therapy called cognitive behaviour therapy(CBT).

CBT can be particularly helpful if you have trichotillomania, as it can teach you how to replace a bad habit (hair pulling), with something that isn’t harmful. Read more about treatment for trichotillomania.

Both stress and losing your hair can also affect your mood and how you feel about yourself. Persistent low mood can sometimes lead to anxiety or depression, and CBT can help with both these conditions. In some cases, your doctor may suggest antidepressants.

There are also support groups run by charities such as Alopecia UK, where you can talk to other people living with hair loss.

Read about other hair loss treatments for women.

Was this article helpful?

We include references at the end of every article, so you know where we get our facts. We only ever take evidence from medically-recognised sources, approved by the UK National Health Service's The Information Standard, or certified by Health On the Net (HON). When we talk about popular health trends or claims, we'll always tell you if there's very little or no evidence to back them up. Our medical team also checks our sources, making sure they're appropriate and that we've interpreted the science correctly.

Important: Our website provides useful information but is not a substitute for medical advice. You should always seek the advice of your doctor when making decisions about your health.