Expensive Hair Treatments Didn’t Fix My Hair Loss Because It Was PTSD

Photographed by Hayleigh Longman
I have a habit of crying in the shower. The flat I live in lacks internal walls so it is just one long room with separate areas demarcated by rugs and changing colour schemes. Privacy is pretty much impossible, which makes the bathroom the only place I can cry in peace.
I cry in the shower about a lot of things. Lately it feels like the tears begin to flow as soon as I spread conditioner through my darkening roots. When I pull my hands free, great clumps of hair fall out and that’s when I start to sob.
Advertisement
Most people conceive of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) as the result of a singular, life-changing incident. That can be the case but the condition also casts a much wider net across a variety of life experiences: in my case, consistent and repeated acts of medical trauma. I hear hospital beeps when a car is reversing, I struggle to leave the house alone, I wake up from terrors that replay my own screams, I can’t have a blood test without a panic attack. And my hair? It won’t stop falling out.
My hair started to fall out not long after I ditched my Irish red locks for bleach blonde. Naturally I thought that my grandma was right – I should have never messed with my "God-given beauty". What I am only realising now (through copious amounts of therapy) is that dyeing my hair happened to coincide with ongoing trips to A&E, surgeries, hospitals and plenty of recurring nightmares. I consider myself lucky. My scalp isn't yet visible – probably because, as every hairdresser I’ve ever had has told me, I had enough hair for two heads not one – but the sight of a fist-sized ball of hair in my hand every time I stand naked in the shower still leaves me feeling ashamed.
Dr Elena Touroni, a consultant psychologist and cofounder of The Chelsea Psychology Clinic, dispels the myth that PTSD exclusively affects victims of war or car crashes. "Trauma can be defined as anything that overwhelms an individual’s ability to cope. And while the symptoms of PTSD are extremely distressing, they are, in fact, a form of protection. They are your body’s way of trying to keep you alert and 'safe' from that threat happening again."
Advertisement
Receiving a diagnosis of PTSD helped relieve some of the frustration I was feeling towards my body and mind. It explained why I broke down over the alcoholic smell of sanitisation or why some days I felt physically glued to my bed, unable to move. It took much longer to connect the dots between my hair shedding and PTSD. I have experienced chronic pain all my life, been diagnosed with chronic illnesses for nearly six years and have existed in this current phase of 'very sick' for almost two of those. So why has my hair only started to fall out in the last 12 months?
Dr Touroni explains that there is a delayed impact in physical manifestations of trauma, a cumulative effect that can lead to symptoms like hair loss. "Of course, any of the symptoms related to PTSD are not the person’s fault. PTSD can leave a person stuck in 'fight or flight' mode with elevated levels of stress hormones. For some people, this can lead to hair loss months after the traumatic event(s)."

During extreme stress, functions that are deemed by the body as non-essential are put on pause so we may see a reduction in energy directed towards skin repair, hair growth and even digestion. With PTSD, unfortunately the temporary reaction is prolonged, which in turn can precipitate hair loss.

Dr Furqan Raja
When my hair began to noticeably fall out, I became acutely attuned to the way it looked. I took photos of how much was in my hands after the shower. I used a claw clip to track how much smaller the gathering of hair felt each week. In times gone by, my hair would not fit into one of those giant claws for extra thick hair. Now it barely fills a small one. It is a strange measure of loss, a plastic hair utensil, but it made a lot of sense to me at the time. I am so used to being disbelieved, to doctors telling me not to worry about whatever symptom has brought me to the hospital. This claw clip measurement felt like a tangible yardstick, something my mind couldn’t dispute. 
Advertisement
Hair loss specialist and hair transplant surgeon Dr Furqan Raja explains why bodies that are surviving PTSD shed hair. "When we're faced with extreme stress or perceived fear, our neurological system puts our body on high alert. During this time, functions that are deemed by the body as non-essential are put on pause so we may see a reduction in energy directed towards skin repair, hair growth and even digestion. With PTSD, unfortunately the temporary reaction is prolonged, which in turn can precipitate hair loss." 
What confused me most about my hair falling out was that it was not breaking off. Most online advice was talking about repairing hair bonds but mine seemed to fall out in full strands, still strong and healthy. Dr Raja told me the key difference between hair damage and hair loss. "Patients impacted by telogen effluvium – when the longstanding stress signals cause hair follicles to pass into a resting phase – tend to experience hair loss that is noticeable when brushing or washing the hair." This is exactly what has been happening to me. 
It is one thing to know intellectually that something is not your fault and another thing entirely to make peace with it. Every week from last October to this past September I sat on beauty websites, looking at what shampoo to buy, what mask might help. I got an expensive hair bonding treatment for Christmas in the hope it would cure the great clumps of hair clogging my drain. By the new year I was convinced it was making it worse, again not recognising that the death of my grandmother and the discovery of yet another ovarian cyst neatly aligned with more strands coming loose from my scalp.
Advertisement

I had naively assumed that my modern feminist praxis allowed me to stop caring about the way I look. Now I see that I was only enjoying having the choice not to care, which is mostly rooted in my privilege as a white woman.

I returned to forums to read of other women discussing the pros and cons of different shampoos, all upwards of £20 a bottle. No matter the root of each person’s hair loss, we were all desperately seeking a miracle cure, something we could buy to make it all better. 
Prior to my shower sobbing over hair loss, I had naively assumed that my modern feminist praxis allowed me to stop caring about the way I look. I believed I was above most desires to alter my face and body, despite trending celebrity news and product bombardment. Now I see that I was only enjoying having the choice not to care about certain things related to my looks, which is mostly rooted in my privilege as a white woman.   
Jessica DeFino is a writer and vocal critic of the beauty industry. She reminds me that "the beauty industry’s focus on treating trauma with consumerism (classic 'retail therapy'!) is a manifestation of toxic individualism. It convinces consumers that trauma stemming from systemic issues — whether that’s feeling insecure about getting older due to ageism, or losing your hair from chronic stress resulting from overwork, overwhelm, racism, colourism, classism, ableism, low wages, high cost of living, climate change, whatever — is fixable on the individual level, via individual product use." 
DeFino is right. Despite thinking I knew better than to fall for the marketing of cult products, I sought out what was sold as an easy fix because it appeared simpler than processing my trauma. Buying hair products and trying to fix my outward self was an attempt at control, at making sure I at least looked okay. I was trying to put off the prying questions about my health and to stop people offering me help I did not know how to receive. 
PTSD has given me pause. It has forced me to reckon with the ways I was using external markers of wellness, like good hair and a great outfit, to mask my mental health struggles and ongoing physical illnesses. Unable to rely on that "God-given beauty" my grandmother preached I had, I am left feeling exposed. In a way, the hair clogging my shower drain has kickstarted a need to confront the last few years of trauma. Although painful, I am now finding a way through to something more joyful on the other side.

More from Body

R29 Original Series

Advertisement