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Losing Hair Over The Pandemic? Stress Could Be To Blame

AP Photo/LM Otero
Amid concerns of the spread of COVID-19, a hair stylist cuts hair for a customer at the just reopened Salon A la Mode in Dallas, Friday, April 24, 2020.

Stress is abundant during the COVID-19 pandemic. Job loss, health fears, time spent away from loved ones — it piles up. And that stress takes a toll on the body. For some, the effects are more visible. Some are even losing hair over it.

Hair stylist Stephanie Russell recalled a client who recently developed bald spots he didn't have before. He noticed his hairline creeping further back on his forehead. His skin scalp was glistening with oil.

“It isn't the only one I've seen, actually," Russell said. "I had a client have me cut more bangs because she was losing hair at her temples."

Russell works at Studio B in Peoria. She said, yes, hair loss is sometimes related to aging. But more often, she said, clients attribute it to stress.

"Stress is the main factor for most of it. Medications can do it, if you're on a medication. Surgery and being under anesthesia—once or even multiple times," she said. "The more you're under anesthesia, the more hair loss you experience. So it's it's a lot of factors."

In a July survey of 1,567 COVID-19 survivors, 423 reported unusual hair loss. Experts say it could be due to an inflammatory response caused by the virus, but it likely has more to do with the psychological toll of fighting it off.

Sherri Strandberg owns Strand Studio in Bloomington. She said she hasn't had any clients attribute thinning hair or bald spots specifically to the COVID-19 virus—or pandemic in general. But she is witnessing a different phenomenon.

“I am seeing a lot of hair loss from clients, usually after trauma," Strandberg said. "It's a different syndrome. And it usually, I believe, occurs six months after a possible traumatic event. You can have some pretty serious hair loss, but usually it returns. It's usually not permanent.”

Strandberg said stylists hear a lot about what clients are dealing with in the time it takes to cut and color their hair--and what she's heard is a lot of anxiety and uncertainty.

“It's an every 30- to 45-minute experience with every new person that walks in," she said. "It's interesting to hear the perspectives from obviously frustrated parents—especially parents who have children who have IEPs and they're not getting their needs met, from people who have elderly parents living in assisted care where they're not allowed to receive visitors, to people who had job opportunities on the horizon and suddenly the company decided to pull back because they're not certain where the economy is going.”

Hair loss is just one of the physical manifestations of stress—and a relatively mild one at that. Elizabeth Johnston, a behavioral health specialist with OSF HealthCare in Bloomington, said stress and anxiety serves a purpose—to keep us alert and alive.

"It's job is not just to alert you to the danger, but it's really to push you to solve it. And up to a certain point, anxiety, it is helpful and it is functional. But once it gets excessive, once it becomes debilitating, that's when we start having problems. It is very much kind of a chicken and egg, where it kind of feeds in on itself. It is a cycle," Johnston said.

She said when the body produces excess adrenaline and a stress hormone called cortisol, it disrupts every system in the body. 

"The symptoms that people are really most familiar with are things like tension and pain in the chest or the stomach, kind of restlessness, like the leg shaking, and—in severe cases—panic attacks," she said. "But even before that, you'll see ... racing heart rate, your breathing changes. Sometimes we hyperventilate. Sometimes we end up holding our breath [or] it comes out trembling. Sweating, physical fatigue, people feel weak and dizzy."

She said it also can cause insomnia, diarrhea and a host of other issues.

The key is to learn how to disrupt that cycle. Johnston said it's helpful to ask yourself: when did these symptoms start and what was going on at the time? Was anything different? Then, get creative about putting those pieces back in: go for a walk around the neighborhood rather than going to the gym. Have a virtual dinner with friends if you can’t be together in person.

Taking good care of yourself physically also is important.

Kiryn Evans owns Integrated Wellness in Peoria. A certified nurse practitioner who focuses on holistic medicine, she said she's definitely seen the new onset or worsening condition of stress-related conditions in patients.

She said meditation and yoga can help, in addition to a good sleep regimen and eating better.

"So, a lot of a lot of lifestyle, dietary stuff, cutting out the caffeine, cleaning up their diet, eating more protein than fat and drinking more water, cutting out the all the sugar and the caffeine, because that's feeding into the body's anxiety response."

For the most part, Evans and Johnston said, the symptoms ease along with the stress and anxiety.


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Dana Vollmer is a reporter with WGLT. Dana previously covered the state Capitol for NPR Illinois and Peoria for WCBU.
Olivia Streeter is the WCBU Summer Intern.