8 million women in the UK have hair loss. This has many causes – genetics, illness, trauma, pregnancy, and menopause are just a handful of them. But whatever the cause, losing your hair can have a devastating affect on your mental health.
Hair is of enormous significance for women. Culturally, it has been regarded as central to femininity for hundreds and even thousands of years. Almost every society associates hair with female beauty, youth and health. To this day, from an early age, girls are encouraged to wear their hair in attractive styles.
Even in these more enlightened times, women are still conditioned to have a sense of pride in how their hair looks. Historically, women have had their heads forcibly shaved as a method of humiliation and punishment since time immemorial. As recently as the 1940s, around 20,000 French women were publicly shaved for collaborating with the occupying German Army during World War Two.
For good reasons and bad, the desirability of having beautiful hair is completely embedded in the subconscious minds of women. There can also be stigma. With men, hair loss can be a source of well-meaning humour (often wrongly!), but with women it is the source of hushed whispers and stares. So it is no surprise that hair loss can result in a variety of mental health issues for women.
Here are some of the psychological effects hair loss can cause.
Our culture places an enormous emphasis on physical looks. Hair loss can have a very negative effect on the way sufferers see themselves and self-confidence can plummet.
When hair is lost, we almost expect to be judged harshly and even mocked. Relationships and dating can suffer, especially for younger people as they can feel they are no longer young and attractive. The plunge in self-esteem can also impact heavily on careers as sufferers can become withdrawn and inward-looking. This can be the first way losing your hair can affect your mental health.
Hair loss can lead to the development of a negative body image, and anxiety often skyrockets as a result. A constant fear of being judged leads to excessive worrying becoming the norm. Feelings become increasingly difficult to control and a clawing undercurrent of tension can dominate your existence. This naturally has a huge impact on mental health and can spiral into other psychological issues.
Ongoing anxiety issues commonly lead to social phobia. This disorder is characterised by the fear of being judged negatively in social situations. The anxiety manifests itself with physical symptoms such as excessive sweating, trembling, rapid speech and palpitations. The problem can be so bad that avoidance behaviour kicks in and some individuals end up withdrawing from social life altogether.
Anxiety and loss of self-esteem over a period of time can make you vulnerable to depression. With a person’s very sense of self undermined by hair loss, it is easy for them to feel they are losing control over their lives and their identity. Many scientists believe the experience can be similar to bereavement. People despair that the loss is irreversible, and their lives will never be the same again. All their plans for the future disappear, along with their hair. Classic symptoms of depression – low mood, low interest in activities, diminished energy and poor sleep patterns can emerge and take root.
There is no doubt that losing your hair can badly affect your mental health. It can be frightening and deeply upsetting, but it is important to remember that it can often be treated. There are also ways of dealing and coping with the emotional issues it creates.