Do you remember a time when you were reading or studying for a school exam or writing a term paper and were quite unconsciously twirling, twisting, and pulling your hair until the strands fell out?
I have worked with people with Trichotillomania. They are also known as “trichsters,” but nothing is humorous about this disorder. It is a disorder also known as hair-pulling. “Trichotillomania is repetitive twisting and twirling of the hair. The hair loss is usually in a well-defined area with shortened, broken-off hairs and early regrowth of hair. The scalp is the most commonly involved site, but eyelashes and eyebrows may also be involved. The hair loss can also be patchy and poorly defined.”*
Some 2.5 million Americans experience this disorder. Hair pulling often begins during childhood or adolescence. For example, studies show that boys who pull out their hair start around the age of 8, while girls begin around twelve years of age or with the onset of puberty. By far, the highest percentages of people with this disorder are women, and they are 4 times more likely than males to engage in hair-pulling.
The ancient origins of the word, Trichotillomania come from Greek root terms meaning “hair,” “pulling,” and “mania,” or madness. Actually, there is nothing mad or crazy about this little-understood disorder. Today, psychiatry and medicine define it as an impulse control disorder. The implications are that it is medical in nature and specifically neurological in origin.
- Constant tugging, pulling, or twisting of hair
- An increasing sense of tension is present before the hair pulling
- Sense of relief, pleasure, or gratification is reported after the hair pulling
- Hair pulling leads to an uneven appearance
- Bare patches or diffuse (all across) loss of hair
- Hair regrowth in the bare spots feels like stubble
- Some individuals may develop a bowel obstruction if they eat the hair they pull out
- Other self-injury behaviors may be present
- People suffering from this disorder often deny pulling out their hair
*(Information is from U.S. National Library of Medicine)
Many mental health specialists define this disorder as impulse control because those with this disorder cannot resist the urge to pull their hair. The impulse to tear one’s hair is so overpowering that it cannot be controlled. Once the habit has reached those dimensions, there is no way to resist the urge. The result is that bald spots emerge on the scalp.
The presence of these bald spots becomes a source of great distress, particularly for teenage girls when they are at the height of concern about their appearance. In fact, the impact on one’s appearance and its social consequences have the most significant impact on the social and emotional adjustment of people with this disorder.
One of the most essential facts for sufferers and their loved ones to know about this behavioral disorder is that it is not a bad habit. People can learn to control or alter patterns with little difficulty. The overwhelming urge to pull hair places it outside of the category of a learned and bad habit.
It is said that there are two types of Trichotillomania: one in which the individual is aware that they want to pull their hair and another: in which the person is so involved and absorbed in an activity that they are unaware of what they are doing.
Among those who know they want to pull their hair, there is a feeling of extreme distress, depression, and anxiety, leading them to pull their hair out. The result is a feeling of relief or an end to the emotional numbness experienced by these individuals. However, there is no awareness that they have started to pull their hair for other people. Among the second group, the process of hair-pulling seems to be much less open to attention much of the time, until sometime after it has started. In all cases, once the person attempts to stop the behavior, the worse it becomes.
Reports about the prognosis of this disorder are that most children will outgrow it within a year. However, if this does not happen, it can and does last into adulthood.
There is no one accepted and proven treatment for this disorder. The commonly tried treatments are medication for depression, psychodynamic psychotherapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy, and behavior modification. One form of behavior modification is referred to as reverse habit conditioning. The patient is made aware of the behavior and when it will happen and then explores alternative coping mechanisms to the hair-pulling.