People have long been known to willfully pull out their own hair owing to anxiety, but it’s widely believed that chronic stress can cause inadvertent hair loss as well. Although androgenic alopecia, better known as male/female pattern baldness, is the primary culprit for shedding in most, physiological changes spurred by frequent, intense stressors can also lead to clogged shower drains.
To understand how stress can make our hair fall out, we have to look into how hair grows to begin with. The life cycle of a hair plays out in three stages. The first of these, anagen, accounts for 90 percent of our hair and is the active phase in the process, during which cells in the follicle root divide and form a fledgling hair. This new hair continues to grow and pushes the old hair above it (known as a club hair) up the follicle and out. The new hair will grow at about half an inch per month during this phase, which lasts anywhere from 2 to 6 years.
When the next stage, catagen, kicks in, the hair has stopped growing and it enters a 2 to 3 week transitional phase where it becomes a club hair. At any one time, 3 percent of our hair is in this phase. Here the root sheath in the follicle shrinks and attaches to the base of the hair. As the hair is no longer attached to a blood supply, it stops growing and enters the next phase, telogen. Some 8 percent of our hair is typically in this stage, at rest. Hairs hang out here for about three months, and are then shed in the course of normal daily activity. (A shed hair in telogen will have a telltale hard, white bulb at the root, which means it has lived a normal life.)
Bad Hair Days
In tracing stress-related hair loss, telogen is the key phase. When someone is faced with a powerful stressor, like divorce or illness, or goes through a life-changing event, like childbirth, the body can inexplicably trigger much of their hair to enter this resting period, causing it to fall out pretty much all at once a few months later. Known as telogen effluvium, doctors believe it’s simply the body’s way of taking a time-out while larger problems, be it recovery or coping, are addressed. So, a relentlessly trying week at work won’t cause you to lose your hair, but a relentlessly difficult year might. Luckily, once the stressor is addressed or eliminated, the growth process will often regain its normal rhythm and the hair lost during the stress event will come back, though it can take up to nine months.
Some of the physiological stressors commonly linked to hair loss include rapid weight loss/gain, caloric deficiency, and, in women, hormone fluctuations following childbirth or switching/stopping oral contraceptives. Even though physiological change is the underlying cause of stress-related hair loss, added emotional stress can exacerbate the effects, leading to a more pronounced bout of shedding. As we age, the growing cycle slows like most other body processes, so periods of stress during middle age and later in life can make it that much harder for the hair to fully recover.