When faced with an anxiety-provoking situation, you may have found yourself exclaiming, “I’m about tear my hair out!” For 2 to 4 percent of the population, however, these words are no mere expression. Sufferers of trichotillomania [trik-o-til-o-MAY-nee-uh], have a compulsive urge to pull out their hair, usually from their scalp, eyebrows or other body parts, as a way to self-soothe.
This impulse control disorder ranges in severity, but symptoms can also include a sense of tension when feeling the urge to pull, pleasure after pulling, and thinned hair or bald patches. The disorder can also lead to distress due to social embarrassment and accompanying behaviors such as biting, chewing, playing with or eating the pulled-out hair.
Some people with trichotillomania unconsciously pull out their hair when in a certain situation or mood; others do it deliberately to relieve negative emotions. The exact cause of this disorder isn’t known, but it is likely the result of abnormalities in brain pathways or brain chemicals that relate to emotional regulation, impulse control or habit formation.
Trichotillomania can worsen over time with symptoms that can last days, weeks or months. It usually manifests in early adolescence and seems to affect more women than men — although this may be because women more often seek medical help.
Many sufferers attempt to deny or hide the disorder with hats and scarves — or just by avoiding social situations altogether. Serious complications include skin and hair damage, permanent hair loss, infections and digestion issues.
Habit reversal training — learning to replace one habit with another, less harmful one — is the primary treatment for this disorder, but there are other therapy options, as well as medications that may alleviate symptoms. If you suffer from trichotillomania, seek help from a treatment provider.