It’s that one knot, on that one strand of hair that she likes to feel under her fingers. She can spend hours just pulling at her hair, looking for that one knot.
Thirty-three-year-old Odette Marynberg, a Dubai-based British-French national developed the habit of pulling at her hair at the age of eleven. She doesn’t know how it came about; she just remembers enjoying the feel of that one knot. And so, she would keep pulling at it, and playing with her hair. Sometimes, she doesn’t even look for the knots. It’s just twirling.
Her mother would angrily tap her hand as soon as she would see Marynberg reaching out for her hair, but nothing stopped her. She continued, even though she found her hair thinning, with frayed ends, and even falling sometimes.
Does she do it when she’s anxious? “Well yes. I do pull at my hair when I’m stressed and worried. But I also do it when I’m not. I know minutes and even an hour can go by, with me just pulling at my hair,” says Marynberg. To avoid being made fun of by her colleagues and friends, she hastily ties it up. Once, she even cut her hair short, in the hope that she would get rid of the habit. However, it’s not that easy. “Clearly, cutting your hair or tying it up is just a temporary solution, for me at least. The habit has reduced now, but I still do it on occasion,” she says. “Even if I tie it up, I somehow find ways to take out the strands of hair and fiddle with it. Everyone keeps telling me how distracting it is, and I really try to stop.”
As damaging as it is to your hair in the long run, it lends a peculiar feeling of relief. It’s an outlet of sorts, as psychologists explain.
‘A response to a spectrum of emotional states’
It’s a soothing mechanism; means of filling idle moments.
“In moments of heightened stress or unease, people resort to twirling their hair as a soothing mechanism. It provides a tangible outlet for nervous energy,” explains Gordon Shaw, a Dubai-based psychologist at the LightHouse Arabia clinic. “Boredom can trigger this habit as well. Twirling, or pulling at it, becomes a subconscious means of filling idle moments,” he says.
There’s comfort in these repetitive motions, he says. It eases the feelings of restlessness. “It’s a nuanced behaviour that can manifest as a response to a spectrum of emotional states. It also highlights the complicated connection between our psychological well-being and seemingly innocuous habits,” he adds. Once we understand the motivations behind such actions, we can take a comprehensive approach to addressing both anxiety and boredom in people.
It’s a nuanced behaviour that can manifest as a response to a spectrum of emotional states. It also highlights the complicated connection between our psychological well-being and seemingly innocuous habits...
Audrey Cyril, a British Dubai-based entrepreneur plays with her hair, when she is primarily anxious. She does a “peculiar” thing, in her words. She pulls at her hair consistently during difficult days at work, and then wraps several strands around her fingers, till it enfolds into a knot. “It’s a terrible, terrible thing to do,” she says rather morosely. “Your hair gets so terribly knotted, and untangling it, means you lose several strands as well. Sometimes, I do it without even knowing I’m doing it, and then when I realise, I still don’t stop. That’s why my hair is so badly frayed at the edges, and I must keep going for regular trims,” she says.
‘A sensory need’
Sometimes, it doesn’t even need to be anxiety.
As Dubai-based psychologist Ross Addison explains, it can be a sensory craving. “It could be a sensory-related issue, that the sensation on the scalp satisfies a sensory need. This could result in a self-soothing mechanism. It’s like sitting in a rocking chair or being on a swing. It can relax us, as it soothes the sense that wants to be satisfied,” he says.
It could be a sensory-related issue, as the sensation on the scalp satisfies a sensory need. This could result in a self-soothing mechanism...
When does it become dangerous?
Usually, pulling at your hair, playing with it, twirling with it or fiddling with it, is relatively harmless. However, when it leads to constant breakage, weak strands, split-ends, bald patches, and the point of hair loss, you need to take heed.
“Fiddling with your hair, or twirling with it, could relate to Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD),” explains Addison. “If it’s twirling or fiddling, it’s generally quite harmless. However, if it is leading to hair loss, then this would be a strong indication that some form of intervention is necessary. There might be an underlying anxiety condition present,” he says.
Pulling at your hair, could be a strong indication of OCD in the form of trichotillomania. The word is derived from the Greek words ‘trich’, which means hair, and ‘tillo’, which means to pull. Mania indicates an obsessive or compulsive behaviour. It’s a mental health disorder characterised by the recurrent and compulsive urge to pull out one’s own hair. “While the disorder can emerge in anyone, it is commonly reported in females, and onset often occurs in childhood or adolescence,” explains Shaw. There’s a notable difference between pulling at your hair, which just means running your fingers through strands, and pulling the hair strands out of the follicles itself.
Pulling at one’s hair, would be a strong indication of OCD in the form of trichotillomania, says Addison. “If this is the case, then the brain is completing this compulsion to bring comfort back to the body. Anxiety leads to the body experiencing discomfort, but the OCD helps the body to momentarily reduce distress and bring about satisfaction. But it is short-lived and typically the compulsion will occur many times throughout the day, sometimes spontaneously,” he says. This could be in the presence of anxiety or excitement.
‘The cycle of tension’
What starts off as seemingly harmless, could lead to problems later. The instant gratification of feeling the hair under your fingers, comes at a price.
A person’s individual neurobiological, psychological, and environmental factors, including traumatic events or traumatic changes can trigger or exacerbate the condition. “It often starts as a benign habit; a subconscious response to stress or boredom. It is non-compulsive and typically doesn’t lead to noticeable hair loss. On the other hand, hair pulling, represents a progression from twirling to a compulsive act. People become unable to resist the urge to pull out their hair,” adds Shaw. It’s a sign of also being unable to cope with intrusive thoughts, which could also be symptoms of an anxiety disorder.
As a result, the cycle of tension before pulling, and the relief, or gratification afterwards, characterises the compulsivity of trichotillomania. The illness is diagnosed, when the hair pulling becomes chronic, and results in significant hair loss, or impairment in daily functioning. “The warning signs of trichotillomania include noticeable patches of hair loss on the scalp, eyebrows or eyelashes,” adds Shaw.
How do you stop fiddling with your hair?
Well, addressing deeper problems of anxiety, is a start, say the psychologists. On the other hand, if it’s boredom, look for methods to keep your hands busy, like stress balls, or knitting, so that you resist the urge to pull your hair. Create small goals, such as not pulling at your hair for two hours at a time. Reward yourself when you achieve the goal.
However, if the problem persists, you might need to seek professional help. “Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) has shown effectiveness in treating trichotillomania by addressing underlying triggers and helping people develop healthier coping mechanisms. Early intervention not only prevents further physical and emotional consequences but also increases the likelihood of successful treatment outcomes,” he adds.