Monday, 24 October 2016

Challenging Trichotillomania (hair pulling)

At the very beginning of October I went to tie my hair up and discovered a bald spot. I kid you not.

For years I have been pulling out my hair, never thinking of the consequences. But now, I can visibly see the effects, and it is time to stop. I set myself a challenge for Believe in Yourself month - find out more about the compulsion to pull out hair, and try to stop it. Despite years of trying, I have never quite managed to stop biting my finger nails when I am feeling anxious. I had my doubts about hair pulling too, but for the month that I'm in, I needed to believe in myself and fight the compulsion.

What is Trichotillomania?

Mayo Clinic:
Trichotillomania (trik-o-til-o-MAY-nee-uh) is a disorder that involves recurrent, irresistible urges to pull out hair from your scalp, eyebrows or other areas of your body, despite trying to stop.
The cause of trichotillomania is unclear. But like many complex disorders, trichotillomania probably results from a combination of genetic and environmental factors. Also, abnormalities in the natural brain chemicals serotonin and dopamine may play a role in trichotillomania.

Is it a mental illness?

A few years ago I read a post from a mental health blogger (I have no idea who wrote this post or where I found it I'm afraid) where she described pulling out her hair. Never before had I realised this was common, and is often linked with mental health.
As a teenager I used to pull out my eyebrows on the way to and from school. When I was stressed, such as in exam period, running my fingers through my hair and finding a clump of hair in my hand afterwards was normal. But the practice wasn't constant. It was just something that happened once in a while, and it certainly wasn't something I ever worried about.

However, for the past year I haven't stopped pulling out my hair. Every single day my hand instinctively reaches for my hair. And I leave clumps of hair behind wherever I go.
I tried to pass it off last Winter as just a symptom of stress. Come Spring, I claimed enthusiastically to myself that I was just 'shedding my Winter coat'. But now it's Autumn. I still do it every single day, and now I have found a bald patch.

My hair has gotten noticeably thinner over the years,
And boy am I glad it's hat season!

Trying to stop
Only when I tried to stop, did I realise how bad the compulsion to pull was. At any sign of stress or increased pressure, my fingers would automatically reach for my hair and pull their way through. Unconsciously I always reach for my hair when I am anxious, stressed or uneasy. And when I pull, it doesn't feel like I am pulling, and it doesn't feel sore. But after a while, it does start to hurt, and it itches when the scabs form.
I started to record my success at resisting the impulse and also the days where I failed to.
I asked both my mum and my boyfriend to stop me if they witnessed any accidental or unconscious hair pulling. Often I don't even notice what I'm doing, and I needed not only the moral support but the stern talking to when I lapsed.
And I did have a lapse; well a few. On October 8th my mum called me up on it, sternly asking, "Zoe, are you pulling your hair?" Guiltily I said no and immediately stopped.
And looking at my record, it seems to happen EVERY weekend. Perhaps weekend boredom is also a trigger?

The result
This has been so hard to stick to. In fact, rather than pull my hair I have returned to biting my nails with a fresh intensity. I have shed tears thinking about how much this problem could affect my life. I know that I don't want to lose my hair, but I have also learned this month that stopping isn't simple; it's a constant struggle.
But there are positives. I am proud of myself for trying to address this. It's a start, if not an immediate solution to the problem. Telling people to stop me if they see me doing it has also helped, and is probably the best thing I did over the past few weeks.
I am not quitting on day 24. I don't intend to stop at the end of this month either. Challenging Trichotillomania will continue for the rest of my life. And I do believe that eventually, I can do it.

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