Pulling your hair out: Life with trichotillomania

For many students, especially women, the stress of university can lead to compulsive hair-pulling. Support is available, as Salma Haidrani explains

University is an exciting period of fresh starts for incoming undergraduates, whether it’s learning to live independently, choosing to be open about your sexuality for the first time, or simply moving to a brand new town or country.

But for some freshers, it’s not merely a brand new toaster or IKEA laundry basket that’s coming with them to university. For some, their long-standing battle with compulsive hair pulling or TTM (trichotillomania), as it is more commonly referred to, is coming hundreds of miles from their hometown and into halls.

While the disorder is relatively unheard of, TTM is a lot more common that would initially appear. According to Anxiety UK, approximately one in 200 people at present in the UK suffer from the uncontrollable urge to pull out their body hair (the same number of people affected by bulimia) to relieve anxiety and stress, sometimes resulting in visible bald patches.

The condition is usually developed during adolescence and predominantly affects women of any ethnicity or class, sufferers, called ‘trichsters’, typically experience relief and pleasure once they’ve satisfied the impulse to pull, either from their scalp, eyelashes or even in some extreme cases, pubic region.

Long-term trichster and Queen Margaret University student Victoria Connolly was just one such student: "It started when I was underweight and I grew excess body hair due to anorexia. I became obsessed with removing hair and now it’s a daily battle."

Connolly's isn’t an isolated experience. Secondary school exacerbatedaAccounting graduate Aneela Kumar’s long-term battle with trichotillomania: "I believe the pulling started as a way to find some solace dealing with my father’s diagnosis with leukaemia and death."

It can start at university

For some, their experience of trichotillomania can commence at university. Although university can be an exciting transition, the inevitable anxieties and pressures of such a life-changing move can trigger TTM. Whether it’s struggling to work independently without the comforts of the school classroom, the pressures of adjusting to a new routine and unfamiliar environment or the challenges of coping without a support network for the first time, for some, choosing to pull out their hair can offer some solace and alleviate stress.

Just take University of Sheffield student Maddie*.

"While the prospect of moving away for university initially seemed exciting, I was struggling to cope," she says. "It was difficult to bond with my new flatmates and I was miles away from my family and home comforts." 

TTM served as a coping mechanism for her new-found challenges and responsibilities.

"When I felt stressed, I’d lock myself in my room and pull out my eyelashes. Eventually, there were hardly any lashes left on my upper eyelids."

For some, pressure starts from freshers' week. Overwhelmed with balancing student societies, volunteering and summer internships, alongside academic deadlines, a social life and possibly a significant other, it’s unsurprising that some students may pull out their hair to cope.

Kumar concurs: "I find that the cause is stress related. My worst sessions tend to happen when I have too much on late and I tend to take on too much as my personality is always to be busy."

Why is it so quiet?

Perhaps this largely stems from the shame which often accompanies mental illness. Despite the leaps that universities throughout the UK continue to make in raising awareness and encouraging a more open dialogue on mental health, ‘coming out’ carries the risk of being stigmatised, especially for female sufferers for whom hair is an otherwise powerful symbol of femininity. Long-standing TTM sufferer Laura John-Baptiste concurs: "There is a real shame to having no proper hair for a woman – their ‘crowning glory’ as the say."

Sufferers go to great lengths to conceal their appearance for fear of being detected. Even the simplest tasks such as getting ready every morning can be a daily challenge. Whether it’s painstakingly applying false lashes to conceal the bald patches between lashes or in some cases even wearing a wig, sufferers spend a far greater of time in front of the mirror.

But campus culture which can reduce women’s worth to their physical appearance must also be held accountable. For trichotillomaniacs with bald patches on their scalps, eyelashes or eyebrows, failing to match up to the standard of how they should appear can exacerbate overwhelming feelings of inadequacy and low self-esteem.

"When individuals experience deep rooted distress, whatever its basis, negative emotions can be exacerbated by certain stimulae," says University of Sheffield Psychology lecturer Dr Sharron Hinchliff. "These can include situations where individuals feel anxious or under pressure as a result of perceived societal and/or interpersonal expectations. There is a pressure on young women in western societies to adhere to the current ideal of female beauty, and university students are not immune to that."

International 'no pulling week'

Despite all this, progress is being made towards increasing acceptance and understanding of the disorder. This week is International No Pulling Week (#INPW), which aims to combat the invisibility of the disorder and raise greater awareness. Trichster, which premiers in the spring, is a film documentary which aims to normalise the disorder and which follows eight sufferers' daily struggles. And with high-profile figures like TOWIE's Sam Faiers and actress Olivia Munn ‘coming out’ and opening up publicly about their battles with the disorder, perhaps sufferers will no longer be ashamed and have to isolate themselves.

Such is the impact of celebrities speaking out that mental health charity Mind reports that one in five young women who’ve been affected have sought help directly as a result.

Paul Farmer, Mind's chief executive, says: "People with personal experience of mental health problems have told us that celebrities who speak out have inspired them to start conversations about mental health and get the support they need.’"

With some progress in erasing the stigma of trichotillomania, perhaps sufferers will no longer be reluctant to discuss their disorder and seek the available support. Non-profit charity organisations Trichotillomania Support and Anxiety UK provide a wide range of specialist services for those affected including an online buddy system, support groups and cognitive behaviour therapy (CBT).

For the most part, university can be challenging without the added anxiety of living with (and hiding) trichotillomania. John-Baptiste remains optimistic that the disorder doesn’t have to be a life-sentence and that she can one day leave the house without having to check for bald patches on her head: "I’m hoping that (in the future) I can feel more free and not tied down by this condition."

For more information on trichotillomania, visit www.anxietyuk.org.uk/ or trichotillomania.co.uk/. Additionally, Twitter accounts @LetsBeatTrich, @HelpMe2Stop and @HealingTrich can provide great comfort and support for sufferers who would otherwise feel that they are isolated in their experience of suffering TTM.

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
tech

Board creates magnetic field to achieve lift

News
There have been various incidents of social media users inadvertently flouting the law
news

Life and Style
Stack ‘em high?: quantity doesn’t always trump quality, as Friends of the Earth can testify
techThe proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
News
Bourgogne wine maker Laboure-Roi vice president Thibault Garin (L) offers the company's 2013 Beaujolais Nouveau wine to the guest in the wine spa at the Hakone Yunessun spa resort facilities in Hakone town, Kanagawa prefecture, some 100-kilometre west of Tokyo
i100
Sport
CSKA Moscow celebrate after equalising with a late penalty
footballCSKA Moscow 2 Manchester City 2: Premier League champions let two goal lead slip in Russia
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Student

Year 3 Teacher

£100 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: KS2 TeacherWould you like ...

Teacher

£100 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Would you like to have a b...

KS2 Teacher

£100 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Chelmsford: Ofsted said "A good larger...

PPA Cover Teacher

£110 - £130 per day + Competitive rates of pay: Randstad Education Reading: Pr...

Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Day In a Page

Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?
Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals

'You need me, I don’t need you'

Ed Sheeran hits back after being labelled too boring to headline festivals
How to Get Away with Murder: Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama

How to Get Away with Murder

Shonda Rhimes reinvents the legal drama
A cup of tea is every worker's right

Hard to swallow

Three hospitals in Leicester have banned their staff from drinking tea and coffee in public areas. Christopher Hirst explains why he thinks that a cuppa is every worker's right
Which animals are nearly extinct?

Which animals are nearly extinct?

Conservationists in Kenya are in mourning after the death of a white northern rhino, which has left the species with a single male. These are the other species on the brink
12 best children's shoes

Perfect for leaf-kicking: 12 best children's shoes

Find footwear perfect to keep kids' feet protected this autumn
Anderlecht vs Arsenal: Gunners' ray of light Aaron Ramsey shines again

Arsenal’s ray of light ready to shine again

Aaron Ramsey’s injury record has prompted a club investigation. For now, the midfielder is just happy to be fit to face Anderlecht in the Champions League
Comment: David Moyes' show of sensitivity thrown back in his face by former Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson

Moyes’ show of sensitivity thrown back in his face... by Ferguson

Manchester United legend tramples on successor who resisted criticising his inheritance
Two super-sized ships have cruised into British waters, but how big can these behemoths get?

Super-sized ships: How big can they get?

Two of the largest vessels in the world cruised into UK waters last week
British doctors on brink of 'cure' for paralysis with spinal cord treatment

British doctors on brink of cure for paralysis

Sufferers can now be offered the possibility of cure thanks to a revolutionary implant of regenerative cells
Ranked seventh in world’s best tourist cities - not London, or Edinburgh, but Salisbury

Lonely Planet’s Best in Travel 2015

UK city beats Vienna, Paris and New York to be ranked seventh in world’s best tourist destinations - but it's not London