While the notion that stress can cause the hair to fall out is a familiar one, many people are unsure whether there is an actual connection between thinning hair and stress, or if this idea is simply an “old wives tale.” The fact of the matter is that medical experts are not in full agreement about stress and hair loss, with some believing the connection between them to be definite, and others arguing that they are unrelated. To better understand the connection between thinning hair and stress, it is useful to examine the most common types of hair loss individually. These include “pattern” baldness, anagen effluvium, telogen effluvium, alopecia areata, and trichotillomania.
“Pattern” baldness refers to a gradual but permanent loss of hair that normally begins at the front of the hairline and proceeds backward. This type of hair loss is usually linked to genetic factors. Therefore, there is no known connection between stress and hair loss of this nature.
There are three key stages in the lifecycle of a hair: the anagen phase in which the hair grows, the telogen phase in which it rests, and the shedding phase in which it finally falls out. Anagen effluvium is the medical term used to describe the abnormal shedding of hairs that are still in the growth phase. Most often, anagen effluvium is caused by very aggressive medical treatments such as chemotherapy. While a patient undergoing such a treatment often experiences moderate to extreme stress, most physicians agree that it is the treatment itself rather than stress that causes this type of hair loss.
In other cases, many medical experts believe that there may be a connection between thinning hair and stress. The type of hair loss known as telogen effluvium occurs when an abnormally large amount of hair enters the resting phase and then falls out several weeks later. Some researchers believe that stress can be a potential trigger of this usually temporary condition. Others argue that only very severe stress, such as that which might follow an accident or a serious illness, could be potent enough to bring about telogen effluvium.
Alopecia areata is a usually temporary disorder in which the immune system begins to attack the hair follicles, causing the hair to thin or even fall out completely. The exact causes of alopecia areata are unknown. Thus, medical opinion remains divided as to whether there is a connection between alopecia areata-related thinning hair and stress.
Finally, sometimes thinning hair can be caused by a condition known as trichotillomania. An individual who suffers from this condition compulsively rubs or pulls out hairs from his head, eyebrows, and other areas. Trichotillomania is a psychological disorder that can have many potential triggers. Many researchers believe that emotional stress may be one of these triggers.