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Can Stress Really Make Your Hair Fall Out?

It's a common cartoon trope, but it's actually true, in a way.

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It’s a common cartoon trope – stressed or scared people never make it out without losing a few hairs. But does stress really make our hair fall out?

The short answers is: it can. But little bouts of stress, or fear, aren’t going to make you lose your locks, says Mental Floss; rather, only intense and frequent stressors would.

Hair grows in three phases – anagen, catagen and telogen. Anagen is the part you think of when you think of hair growth – the follicle divides and forms a little hair, and that little hair gets longer and longer – about a half an inch per month. Hairs can stay in the anagen phase for two to six years before switching to catagen, when they stop growing and hunker down. Hair stays in the catagen phase for about two to three weeks before switching over to telogen, the resting stage. Hairs stay in telogen for something like three months, and then fall out naturally.

It turns out that stress can actually cause hair to prematurely switch over from the catagen to the telogen phase. Which means that, when you get stressed, large chunks of your hair can fall out, but they won’t actually come loose until about three months after the stressful episode. Here’s Mental Floss, explaining the process:

Known as telogen effluvium, doctors believe it’s simply the body’s way of taking a time-out while larger problems, be it recovery or coping, are addressed. So, a relentlessly trying week at work won’t cause you to lose your hair, but a relentlessly difficult year might. Luckily, once the stressor is addressed or eliminated, the growth process will often regain its normal rhythm and the hair lost during the stress event will come back, though it can take up to nine months.

Now, for some people, large chunks of hair falling out isn’t simply stress. Those with androgenic alopecia – more commonly known as male or female pattern baldness – start with chunks of hair falling out and then never grow them back. And figuring out why this happens, and how to stop it, is far harder than you might think. There are all sorts of ideas out there, from tricking your body into generating new follicles, to preventing balding in the first place by blocking the genes that turn off our hair growth. But it’s harder than you might think, George Cotsarelis told Scientific American:

As scientists continue to search for treatments to androgenic alopecia, they recommend patience. “People think of it like growing grass or something, but it’s nothing like that,” Cotsarelis says. “It’s like trying to treat cancer; it’s a complicated process.”

More from Smithsonian.com:

The Accidental Cure for Hair Loss

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About Rose Eveleth
Rose Eveleth

Rose Eveleth is a writer for Smart News and a producer/designer/ science writer/ animator based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Scientific American, Story Collider, TED-Ed and OnEarth.

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