From nail biting to skin picking, a handful of physical factors can be linked to stress and anxiety but one of the lesser known indicators is hair twirling. You might suddenly notice yourself wrapping your hair around your fingers while working at your laptop or when unwinding in front of Netflix. But when does it stop being a harmless habit?
What is hair twirling?
Hair twirling is wrapping your hair around your finger in a circle, says hair loss expert Simone Thomas. "We mainly see it in children," Simone adds, "but adults are known to do this, too." According to trichologist Stephanie Sey, hair twirling is a fairly common habit. "Twirling can be done for a number of reasons, from simple boredom to relieving stress or anxiety," she says. However, Stephanie adds that hair twirling on its own is not a sign of anxiety or nervous behaviour.
How does hair twirling differ from trichotillomania aka hair pulling?
"Trichotillomania is an impulse-control hair pulling disorder," says Simone. "Repeatedly pulling hair on the head will result in bald patches and hair loss." While it is not known what causes trichotillomania, there are several theories. "Some experts think hair pulling is a type of addiction whereby the more you pull your hair out, the more you want to keep doing it," says Simone. "Trichotillomania may also be a coping mechanism for a mental health problem such as relieving stress or anxiety."
Stephanie agrees that hair twirling is a completely different condition from trichotillomania, which sees individuals pull hair out from their scalp, lashes, brows and other areas, but says that the two can coexist. "Some people may twirl and play with their hair before selecting a hair to pull out," says Stephanie.
How is hair twirling linked to stress and anxiety?
"Hair twirling could be exacerbated depending on the cause," says Stephanie. This is especially significant during a global pandemic in which cases of hair loss are rising. "If a person twirls because they are anxious, then this current period of uncertainty may lead to higher levels of twirling," Stephanie adds.
For graphic designer Rose, anxiety is a hair twirling trigger. "I've been twirling my hair since I was around 7 or 8 and I was actually yelled at for it," she tells R29. "My family thought that it was just a child's habit but now I'm 20, I can tell you it's 100% linked to anxiety." Rose has ADHD and bipolar disorder, which can come with sensory issues. "I'm very fond of textures and touch as it's one sensory thing I fall back on the most." It has exacerbated the issue, though. "Hair twirling is like my comfort blanket. I could keep twirling until my hair gets matted or falls off in a ball." Rose has even lost some hair and has had to cut out sections after hair twirling has rendered her ends unsalvageable.
For Sarah, an author and illustrator, hair twirling is linked to her OCD. "I've had OCD, anxiety and social phobia since I was about 6 — it runs in the family — and a house move exacerbated all of those symptoms. When I first twirled my hair, it was linked more directly to my OCD and I had to do it a set number of times. As I got older, it stopped being a compulsion and just started being a habit."
Sarah notes that the hair twirling increases when she is stressed or anxious; it's an unconscious habit. "I just start doing it," she tells R29. "I favour twisting on the left side of my head with the hair nearest to the nape of my neck. I've always had this short bunch of hair in one spot because twisting it shears off the ends and sometimes creates knots that I have to cut out. I've tried in vain to stop and let it grow to match the rest of my hair but the habit is so ingrained that it never lasts long." Getting a haircut is anxiety-inducing for Sarah. "I can't pretend it's baby hairs or flyaways — it's too thick a section. One stylist asked if something had happened and I said it was an accident. The truth feels like unnecessary information."
For Whitney, hair twirling is anxiety-related, too. "It's a habit I do every day," she told R29 on Twitter. While Whitney hasn't noticed any side effects on the hair, she believes the twirling is linked to other nervous behaviour. "Something else I do from nerves is bite on the inside of my cheek. I've also found that I like touching and twirling my hair because it's soft, so if I have something else soft to touch, it's basically like the same thing."
Can hair twirling damage your hair and scalp?
Depending on the level of twirling, it can potentially cause damage to the hair shaft, says Stephanie. "Twisting and twirling the hair can damage the cuticle layer, leading to breakage and split ends. It can also lead to knots, tangles and matting." Stephanie continues that if the hair is twirled all the way to the scalp very tightly, it can cause bald patches from repeated pulling. "This is actually a type of traction alopecia," she says.
Hair twirling doesn't just damage the hair and scalp, though, as Sarah reports nail changes, too. "When I twist my hair, it goes beneath my nails." She jokes: "While I can make amazing ringlets, this pushes at the nail bed. As a result, I have weird-looking nail beds on my 'twisting fingers', which can actually hurt." According to the American Academy of Dermatology, picking or pushing back the cuticles on your thumb nails may result in grooves or ridges. While it isn't dangerous, if you suspect this may be the case due to hair twirling, it's best to visit your GP or a dermatologist for advice.
How to stop hair twirling
Simone mentions that for adults, it can be harder to stop the habit, especially if you have been doing it your whole life. She recommends trying to find out the underlying issue, whether it is stress or anxiety. From there, you could try a number of techniques, starting with therapy or cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), according to both Simone and Stephanie. Head to your GP to discuss options or visit Mind or the NHS website to locate a CBT therapist in the UK.
Simone suggests that clients dealing with stress and anxiety try practising mindfulness, including meditation and exercise. Distraction techniques are also helpful for hair twirling, says Stephanie. "In general, look at ways to busy the hands. I'd suggest buying a fidget bracelet which you can play with instead of your hair, for example." Simone adds: "Plaiting your hair or putting a hat on will remove you from being able to twirl your hair but in an ideal world you want to treat the trigger and not mask over it with a band aid."
For Rose, healthy distractions are helpful. "My anxiety is reduced greatly when I'm not home," she continues. "I think my anxiety stems a lot from my family, so the more I'm home, I have to find distractions or alternatives. I love twirling a string or playing an instrument to keep me from twirling my hair and I highly recommend finding hobbies that will ease your anxiety."
Sarah has also successfully gone without consistently twirling her hair when distracted by other things. "Usually it will be involvement in projects I like, as I'm an author and illustrator, but that's no guarantee," she adds. "I have long hair, so if I put my hair up and pin the stray hairs off my neck, it prevents me from doing it. I also trained my boyfriend to sort of call me out if he sees me twisting, but even he knows I'm too far gone! I've sort of accepted I’ll probably be doing this for the rest of my life."
You might find support groups or online forums helpful, too. In particular, Trichotillomania Support has some good resources on hair twirling, including first person stories. Making an appointment with your GP or a qualified trichologist may also be beneficial to discuss different avenues and ways of managing hair twirling.