By psychotherapist Kim Murray.
I am an accredited Irish psychotherapist specialising in grief and loss. During the last fifteen years I have worked in the public health care system and in private practice, most often with individuals and families following a significant loss or following a cancer diagnosis.
I am also Amber Jean’s Mum.
Learning to Cope With Stress, Anxiety, and Depression Because of Hair Loss
I know from experience that hair loss can have many causes – from Amber’s alopecia to my client’s chemotherapy, but the one thing that unites everyone with hair loss is its psychological impact. Whether they are coping with hair loss at a young age, or coping with hair loss as a woman, almost everyone experiences some level of stress, anxiety, or depression when they lose their hair. Sometimes you can feel like this without realising that these feelings are caused by your response to your hair loss.
Some people suffer severe symptoms, and some people suffer just enough to make life feel somewhat uncomfortable. Wherever you’re at, I want to lead you step-by-step on a path to healing. This is the same path I walked with Amber, the same path I took working through my own anxiety, and the same path down which I have supported hundreds of individuals and families in my work as a psychotherapist.
In early 2022, here at Amber Jean, we will launching a virtual programme which I will lead, with the support of Amber Jean. You will be able to choose whether to take a personally guided route (with live Zoom sessions) or to be self-guided, learning in your own time. Whichever method you choose I will accompany you on your journey, helping you to understand the impact hair loss can have on your psychological and emotional wellbeing, providing tools and strategies to help you reduce your anxiety, and helping you develop a greater sense of peace about your hair loss.
In the meantime, Amber and I wanted to share with some immediate strategies from what we’re calling “The AJ Tool Kit” for coping with hair loss. We suggest that you see these tips as a framework to help you develop the good habits that will help build your strength and resilience. We want you to not only manage your hair loss but also to thrive, living hair-free. The tools work best as in integrated whole, but feel free to choose the tools that best speak to you.
Introducing the AJ Tool Kit for Stress and Anxiety
1. Coping With Hair Loss: Understanding and Acknowledging Why You Feel Anxious and Upset
When we suffer hair loss, the impact permeates all areas of our lives and can bring us to a standstill. The shock can generate powerful feelings, and these in turn create anxiety. With the realisation that the future you had assumed is going to be different, you may feel that your world, your very identity, is falling apart. You may not be sure where to turn, how to ease your fear or calm your thoughts. Maybe you feel alone amongst your peers in school, college, work and perhaps even with your own family…
The first step in recovery begins with acknowledging and understanding that you are not alone in experiencing painful feelings during or after significant hair loss, feelings that can trigger profound psychological, emotional, and behavioural changes. Anxiety can manifest in real physical symptoms in the body - you’re not imagining things! The good news is that simply understanding and acknowledging that hair loss often causes stress and anxiety can make you feel less anxious.
You may already have ways and means that help you relieve stress, but the emotional and psychological impact of hair loss can be significant and additional tools and strategies are often helpful.
2. Coping With Hair Loss: Retraining Your Brain (CBT)
One of the most effective and widely used treatments for anxiety is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT). The idea of CBT is understanding that the way we think directly affects how we feel, so it follows that changing the way we think can help change how we feel.
These steps can help take away the power of anxious thinking.
a) Normal anxiety verses unhealthy anxiety
It is natural and healthy to feel a little anxious during certain situations. Anxiety motivates us, helps us prepare for events like exams, presentations, job interview, competitions. Thinking of normal anxiety can help you to generate a realistic idea of what anxiety can and should look like. But sometimes something can feel overwhelming, and our anxious thoughts are exaggerated and we catastrophise. When you’re next feeling overly anxious, ask yourself how you can think more normally about your concerns.
b) Gather evidence
Become a detective of you own thoughts.Every time you have an exaggerated anxious thought, look for evidence that it is true. Jot down each exaggerated anxious thought that occurs to you, and then think about, and note, the likelihood of it actually happening.
c) Say the words
“I can’t cope” thinking… When you think of your future without hair, your next thought may be that you will be unable to cope. However, changing your belief about your ability to cope can calm your anxiety.
Each time you feel anxious or experience a heart palpitation or dizziness, pause what you are doing, and ask yourself what you are thinking. Then acknowledge to yourself that you are having an anxious response to that thought. Pinpoint the thought and then remind yourself that you are capable of coping. This is “I can cope” thinking and it gives you back a sense of control over your thoughts and consequently, your feelings.
3. Coping with Hair Loss: Mindfulness and Meditation
There is strong scientific evidence behind the effectiveness of mindfulness and meditation as antidotes to anxiety. These practices teach us to control our attention, which in turn allows us to control our emotions. The principle behind it is quite simple. “When we get very anxious, it’s generally because we’re projecting bad things into the future. And when we get very depressed, it’s usually because were dredging up bad things from the past. If you can keep yourself more in the present moment and control your attention, you will be far better able to control your emotions.
Try these apps:
4. Coping with Hair Loss: Breathing Techniques
How you breathe has a big impact on how you feel. Fast breathing makes us feel panicky and dizzy. Slow breathing controls the chemistry of your brain more precisely than any pill, and without side effects. It takes just twenty seconds to start to change the chemistry of your brain, and as a result, calm your emotions and quiet the physical sensations in your body.
Sit or lie comfortably in a place where you won’t be interrupted. Place your two feet firmly on the ground. Breathe in for a count of four and out for a count of six. Breathe slightly longer in the outbreath than with the inbreath, focusing your mind on the breathing. It may help to count 1-2-3-4 in and then 5-6-7-8-9-10 out. It’s literally a reset button for the brain.
Every time you change tasks, for example when you go from answering your emails to making a coffee, just take twenty seconds and do some 4:6 breathing. Make it part of your day.
5. Coping with Hair Loss: Relationship with Others
A problem shared is a problem halved, so the saying goes. And research suggests that social interaction is a significant support when we are stressed or anxious. We are social beings so make an effort to meet people, even if it feels a bit uncomfortable at first. Meeting a friend for a coffee or participating in an event provides an opportunity to talk and to listen to others, which can take us out of ourselves. Being with other people can, help you to process the emotional and physical implications of living a hairfree life.
Reach out and connect with friends and family. Join a community such as Hairfreelife.com – it is full of help and advice and is here to guide you and help you feel less alone.
6. Coping with Hair Loss: The Power of Exercise
Following hair loss, you may not feel like exercising; you might not feel comfortable going to a class or out for a run. But many research studies have shown that exercise is often the best medicine. Our bodies hold both emotional and physical stress, and exercise is a great way to release it.
Exercise is proven to help in various ways when you are stressed or anxious:
Exercise may help in various ways when you are stressed or anxious:
- Eases agitation and anger and can ease mild to moderate depression as effectively as medication.
- Releases natural chemicals called endorphins that improve mood.
- Improves appetite and helps sleep.
- Helps avoid the neck, back or joint pain that often accompanies stress by keeping your joints and muscles healthy.
- Helps you focus on your breathing, which may help you manage strong emotions and difficult situations.
- Regular exercise can add structure to your day, bringing a sense of purpose and control.
- Doing exercise with other people can reduce isolation and give you a change of scene.
- All forms of cardiovascular exercise, even sprinting up and down the stairs to burn energy, will increase the heart rate and help diminish frustration, fear and anger.
- Low impact exercise such as Tai Chi, Pilates or Yoga can be very beneficial, as can more strenuous activities.
- You may be able to match a form of exercise to how you feel. For example, walking or running to relieve fear or stress, martial arts to release anger or frustration, or more meditative forms such as Yoga, Tai Chi, and Pilates, to manage anxiety or sadness.
- Walking, gardening or any outdoor activity can also be absorbing, helping you to focus on the present moment.
7. Coping with Hair Loss: The Power of Writing / Journaling
Your mind may be full of conflicting and confusing messages, so a useful way to clarify what you are thinking, and process your emotions, is to keep a journal. Writing things down often crystallises things and enables us to see what we are telling ourselves, thereby illuminating what is going on inside. Research suggests journal writing is as effective as psychotherapy and helps improve physical health and psychological wellbeing, as well as easing emotional pain, creating powerful feelings of relief.
- Write down what you feel and why you feel that way.
- You are writing for yourself not others – truly let go, be unfiltered.
- Don’t worry about grammar or sentence structure.
- You may feel deeply emotional when writing, and that’s ok.
8. Coping with Hair Loss: Music Therapy
Music activates emotional responses, both happy and sad, which is very helpful in processing emotions.
- Create a playlist that lifts your spirits and tempts you to dance (like a mad thing!).
- Create an emotional playlist that tugs your heart strings and enables you to release what you’re feeling.
- Sing (like no one is listening!)
9. Coping with Hair Loss: Creating Structure
In the chaos of anxiety, we can feel as if our world has tilted off its axis. Routine provides structure to the day at a time when life seems unfamiliar and out of control. Developing a structure helps us to slowly adjust to the new reality, restores a sense of normality and makes stress more manageable. It may seem overwhelming at first, but structure and routine can help you to feel in control of your life again.
10. Coping with Hair Loss: Self–Compassion
When you lose your hair, you might wonder what caused it, and whether you made it happen by doing something wrong, or not eating properly. This can lead to a vicious cycle of self-criticism which gets us nowhere. Moving from a place of self-criticism to self-compassion is a big psychological help. So, it can be helpful to silence the inner critic by listening to your own needs, and being kind to yourself.
10 Quick tips for alleviating anxiety or panic attacks due to hair loss
- Recognise and accept that you are experiencing an anxiety or panic attack.
- Remind yourself that you are healthy and that there is nothing physically wrong with you.
- Begin breathing calmly. This helps change your carbon dioxide levels and balance your blood pressure in the moment, so that you feel less anxious.
- Focus on the present moment. Do something that engages your senses: eat a piece of chocolate, pet an animal, take a shower.
- Call someone who knows you well and tell them you are feeling anxious. Just saying it out loud can often help lessen the enormity of thoughts in your head.
- Change your environment. If you are outside, go inside and find a comfortable place to rest. If you are inside, go outside and breathe some fresh air.
- Visualise something calming to stop the cycle of anxious thoughts. For example, imagine waves lapping the shore, or floating on the sea.
- Make allowances for all the emotions you are feeling – try to view them with curiosity rather than fear.
- Externalise the anxiety or panic attack and give it a name.
- Recognise that is not who you are. Tell yourself that this anxiety will end; that you are not stuck in the attack and that you are not alone.
Kim is an accredited psychotherapist with the Irish Association of Counsellors and Psychotherapists (IACP), specialising in grief and loss. For the last fifteen years, she has worked in the public health care system and in private practice, most often with individuals and families experiencing a significant loss or a cancer diagnosis. Kim holds a MSc Masters in Systemic Family Psychotherapy, MSc Masters in Social Work, MSocSc Master’s in Health & Illness and a Social Science Degree BSocSe. Kim trained in Columbia University as a complicated grief psychotherapist and is currently completing a doctoral thesis in Trinity College Dublin on grief and loss.
Kim lives in Dublin with her family.