a woman suffering from trichotillomania

Causes of Trichotillomania

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The term trichotillomania refers to a condition in which people have a strong urge to pull out their hair. People cannot stop the habit even when they know they are harming themselves, often pulling hair from their scalps, eyebrows and eyelashes. It was formerly thought that the condition was rare, but new studies have found that it may affect up to 4% of the population, with women experiencing it four times more than men.

Many people suffering from hair pulling start experiencing its symptoms in their teens before the age of 17, but even 1-year-old babies have been diagnosed with the condition. The condition results in notable hair loss, which usually manifests itself in the form of patches with thin or no hair. However, many patients do not admit that they have a problem, and they go to great lengths to hide the hair loss. For example, they may wear scarves, hats, or false eyebrows and eyelashes.

Mental Health Causes

The underlying biology that leads to hair pulling is not known, but preliminary evidence shows that it has some neurobiological and genetic roots. Many sufferers are neurologically predisposed to pull their hair to sooth themselves. Psychologists and behavior therapists suggest that hair pulling may act as a method of relieving anxiety or stress.

Other experts link trichotillomania to obsessive-compulsive disorder because of its compulsive nature and the fact that it tends to run in families. OCD is believed to result from environmental and biological factors that cause chemical imbalances in the brain. If something affects the neurotransmitters, it may cause problems like repetitive or compulsive behavior. Neurotransmitters are the chemicals responsible for sending messages from the brain to the nervous system.

Self-Harm Causes

While people who pull their hair due to neurological problems do not mean to cause harm, other people intentionally inflict harm on themselves for various reasons. These people usually suffer from guilt, anxiety, low self-esteem, or self-loathing. Trichotillomania triggers the brain to release natural chemicals that numb pain, which are called endorphins. The people who pull therefore feel a sense of wellbeing, but it is short-lived. The sufferers fall into a vicious cycle. For example, a female who has been sexually abused may resort to trichotillomania to make herself less feminine or attractive, which confirms her negative view about herself, making her loath herself even more.

Additional Causes

  • Genetics: Some people inherit the tendency to pull out their hair, while others develop trichotillomania following gene alteration
  • Brain abnormalities: Scanning the brains of some people with hair-pulling tendencies have shown brain abnormalities
  • Hormonal changes: Hair pulling is most common when hormone levels change frequently
  • Serotonin deficiency: Serotonin is the brain’s “feel good” chemical. Some patients suffering from trichotillomania have been successfully treated with selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, or SSRIs, that boost levels of serotonin

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