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A Beginner’s Guide to Treating Trichotillomania

Clinical Psychologist

I often tell my colleagues that trichotillomania (hair pulling disorder) represents the wild west of psychological disorders. Unfortunately, it remains one of the least researched and most misunderstood disorders in the DSM. Additionally, there is a lot of pseudoscience, snake oil, and plain old quackery on the internet about the best way to treat it.

In this article, I will highlight what we do know about scientifically supported treatments for trichotillomania. As a disclaimer, this is only an introduction to treating trichotillomania and is not intended to formally train clinicians. Lastly, I will not be reviewing medical treatments for trichotillomania (you can learn more about those here).

Historical Treatments

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Photo by Gregory Parker

The first scientifically based treatment for trichotillomania was Habit Reversal Training (HRT) (Azrin, Nunn, & Frantz, 1980; Duke, Keeley, Geffken, & Storch, 2010). During HRT, individuals become more aware of their hair pulling behavior and practice interrupting the behavior by engaging in incompatible behaviors. For example, people who use their hands to pull from their scalp might practice reaching down towards one’s knees. While HRT has been effective in the treatment of tics and Tourette’s Disorder, it doesn’t work for everyone who has trichotillomania and also has a high rate of relapse. Why? As I described in a previous article, trichotillomania is a very heterogeneous disorder and affects each person differently. A “one size fits all” treatment just won’t work for trichotillomania.

Modern Treatments

Recently, researchers have developed more comprehensive approaches to treating trichotillomania. Dr. Charles Mansueto pioneered the Comprehensive Behavioral Model (ComB) for trichotillomania (Mansueto, Stemberger, Thomas, & Golomb, 1997). In ComB, clinicians first understand the function of hair pulling. Does it relieve stress? Does it end boredom? Does it reduce anger and frustration? Next, clinicians identify the main types of hair pulling. Some individuals pull for sensory stimulation (trying to find the hair that feels just right), others due to specific thoughts (I have to get rid of all the grey hairs), etc. Lastly, clinicians create treatments that address all aspects of trichotillomania including emotional regulation (learning more adaptive ways of dealing with stress, anger, boredom), physical habits (using HRT and objects to stop motor behavior), and environmental interventions (covering mirrors, getting rid of tweezers).

While research is underway to evaluate Mansueto’s ComB model, other researchers have found support for this approach to treating trichotillomania. In a recent pilot study, Dr. Nancy Keuthen and her colleagues found that Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT) was effective at reducing trichotillomania symptoms for at least 3 months (Keuthen et al., 2010). DBT is a form of cognitive behavior therapy that focuses on learning new ways of regulating one’s emotions. Additionally, in a review of all published scientific treatment studies on trichotillomania, Dr. Michael Walther and his colleagues concluded that behavior therapy (HRT), emotional regulation, and acceptance together represent the most promising treatment for trichotillomania (Walther, Ricketts, Conelea, & Woods, 2010). Furthermore, Dr. Martin Franklin and his colleagues have demonstrated that this comprehensive approach to behavior therapy not only works for adults, but it can help children as young as 7 (Franklin, Edson, & Freeman, 2010).

So what does this all mean? To the best of our scientific knowledge, effective trichotillomania treatment includes three things:

  1. An increased awareness of when, where, and why hair pulling occurs.
  2. An effort to control or change hair pulling behavior.
  3. Emotional regulation training to find alternative ways of dealing with negative feelings.

Here’s how I use these scientific findings to treat trichotillomania.

Increasing Awareness

Photo by Wim Mulder

Before creating a treatment plan, I collaborate with my clients to understand the unique patterns of their hair pulling. This usually includes a 1-2 week record of all hair pulling episodes. I ask each client to record the following information after each hair pulling episode:

  • What part of the body was the hair pulled from?
  • Where was the person when they pulled their hair?
  • What time was it when the person pulled their hair?
  • Was an instrument (e.g. tweezers) used to help pull hair?
  • What was the person doing while they pulled their hair?
  • What was the person feeling before, during, and after the hair pulling?
  • What was the person thinking before, during, and after the hair pulling?
  • Was anyone else present during the hair pulling?
  • What did the person do with their hair after they pulled it? (Sidenote: You’ll want to look out for individuals who swallow their hair, this could lead to a potentially lethal condition known as a trichobezoar and will need immediate medical attention).

Changing Hair Pulling Behavior & Emotional Regulation

Photo by Aimee Quiggle

A key component of Dr. Manysueto’s ComB model is the SCAMP Intervention. SCAMP stands for Sensory, Cognitive, Affective, Motor, and Place. Once my client and I have a firm understanding of the hair pulling behavior, I use the SCAMP Intervention to create a customized treatment plan.

Sensory: For individuals who seek sensory activation on their scalp, we might use brushes, combs, pens, massages, or ice to ease sensations. For hands, individuals can get manicures, use lotions, or file their nails. For the face, bath oils, baths, facial scrubs, or a loofah could be used.

Cognitive: Often specific thoughts can lead to hair pulling. Common thoughts include, “My hair has to look perfect”, “I need to get rid of that blemish”, “I’ll just pull a little”, “I’ve already pulled once, so why try holding back?” Here, individuals practice thinking in more realistic way (e.g. “It’s okay to be imperfect”, “The best way to fix it is to let it heal”, and “A slip-up is not a failure, any progress is helpful”).

Affective: When specific emotions lead one to pull their hair, the best way to address this problem is learn more effective ways of regulating your nervous system. To become more relaxed, individuals can use diaphragmatic (belly) breathing, progressive muscle relaxation, practice meditation, listen to white noise, use a heating pad, drink a warm beverage, take a slow relaxing walk, use an eye/face gel mask, or take a long bath. To address intensity and pain, individuals can stick their fingers in frozen ice cream, put their face in a bowl of ice water, suck on a lemon, snap a rubber band on your wrist, take a cold shower, go for a fast run, or chew a large wad of gum. To deal with boredom, individuals can learn about a topic of interest on the internet, write in a journal, draw, play a musical instrument, read a book, paint, take photographs, do a crossword puzzle, and garden.

Motor: In addition to HRT, physical barriers can often help reduce hair pulling. For example, rubber fingers, band-aids, sleep masks, head wraps, glasses, hats, gloves, thumb braces, and tape can all be used to create barriers to hair pulling. Also, changing the condition of your hair and hands can help (e.g. wetting hair, placing Vaseline on your eyelids/brows, wearing false nails, using hand lotion). Objects such as loud bracelets, elbow braces, and perfume can increase awareness of hair pulling. Fiddling toys can sometimes provide alternatives to hair pulling (e.g. koosh balls, silly putty, clay, knitting). For oral rituals, chewing gum, eating sunflower seeds, chewing raw pasta, chewing a toothpick, and eating gummy bears can help.

Place: Comprehensive interventions should also target the environment in which hair pulling takes place. Individuals can try changing light levels, covering mirrors, getting rid of tweezers (or placing them in the freezer), using sticky notes, keeping certain doors open (to decrease privacy), rearranging furniture, and sitting in different positions.

Monitoring Progress and Revising Treatment

As a client and clinician begin treatment, it’s important to keep a daily log of the hair pulling episodes and the attempted interventions. Some interventions will work right away, others will need to be fine tuned, and some will lose their effectiveness over time. The client and clinician must work together, constantly monitoring and reevaluating the treatment until a plan is developed that fits the needs of the client. This process could take weeks or months. Additionally, since trichotillomania changes as we age, treatments that worked at one phase of life may not work in another.

Advice for Treatment Seekers and Treatment Providers

As you can tell, treating trichotillomania is a complex and long process. It takes a lot of time, courage, and motivation on the part of the individual and a lot of training and experience on the part of the clinician. If you are someone who is suffering from trichotillomania, make sure that your clinician is using scientifically supported treatments. Ask them about the type of treatment they are using. If you don’t hear anything about increasing awareness, changing behaviors, or emotional regulation, their treatment may not be based on science. If they start using personal testimonials and wild theories to backup their treatment, or say their treatment cannot be evaluated by science, run away – they’re probably selling you snake oil.

I recommend using the Trichotillomania Learning Center’s list of health care providers to find individuals trained in scientifically supported treatments. If you are a health care provider wanting to learn more about these treatments, I highly recommend attending a Trichotillomania Learning Center Professional Training Institute and browsing through their clinical resources.

References:

Azrin, N. H., Nunn, R. G., & Frantz, S. E. (1980). Treatment of hair-pulling (trichotillomania): A comparative study of habit reversal and negative practice training. Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry, 11, 13-20.

Duke, D., Keeley, M., Geffken, G., & Storch, E. (2010). Trichotillomania: a current review. Clinical Psychology Review, 30, 181-193.

Franklin, M. E., Edson, A. L., & Freeman, J. B. (2010). Behavior therapy for pediatric trichotillomania: Exploring the effects of age on treatment outcome. Child and Adolescent Psychiatry and Mental Health, 4, 18.

Keuthen, N. J., Rothbaum, B. O., Welch, S. S., Taylor, C., Falkenstein, M., Heekin, M., Jordan, C. A., et al. (2010). Pilot trial of dialectical behavior therapy-enhanced habit reversal for trichotillomania. Depression and Anxiety, 27(10), 953-959.

Mansueto, C. S., Townsley-Stemberger, R. M., McCombs-Thomas, A., & Goldfinger-Golomb, R. (1997). Trichotillomania: A comprehensive behavioral model. Clinical Psychology Review, 17, 567-577.

Walther, M. R., Ricketts, E. J., Conelea, C. A., & Woods, D. W. (2010). Recent Advances in the Understanding and Treatment of Trichotillomania. Journal of Cognitive Psychotherapy, 24(1), 46-64.

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Just Allergies…?

In my research I have been looking into John Kender’s idea that people with trichotillomania have a natural biochemistry irreversibly inclined towards certain allergic reactions. They are allergic to a normal yeast (Malassezia) that is found in the skin and gut of virtually everyone, but they react to it with itching and irritation and a need to remove the allergen. I have posted an insightful article below.

Trichotillomania and Dermatillomania: A root analysis

 with special thanks to Jeannette Johnson for her kind advice and attention. 

Hair roots contain sebum.  Sebum contains fatty acids and tryglycerides, and plays a role in some crucial body functions, such as hydration, inflammation, antioxidants, antimicrobial lipids, and pheromones.  Sebum levels increase during puberty and excessive levels of sebum are often associated with skin problems, making it relevant to skin picking and hair pulling.

Why is this so relevant?  You probably know that the body’s energy levels revolve around its production and use of insulin. a hormone which regulates fat and carbohydrate metabolism.  It is insulin which prompts cells to absorb glucose from the blood. In fat cells, glucose it is stored as triglycerides .. see above paragraph for relevance of tryglycerides.

A normal skin yeast, Malassezia, may be overgrown in people with trichotillomania and dermatillomania.  Overgrowth of malassezia is linked to higher levels of oleic acid in the sebum, which we think is caused by a delta 6 desaturase deficiency.  According to wikipaedia, Malassezia is related to most skin disease in humans, certainly to eczema and acne.  Malassezia growth depends upon the presence of fats, and sebum, which you will recall is present in hair roots.

Relevant Testing

Pickers and pullers may benefit from an essential fatty acid (EFA) analysis, particularly looking for elevated arachidonic acid and suppressed dihomo-gamma linoleic acid;  These  could contribute to a number of conditions such as irregular hormone production, insulin instability and prostaglandin problems.

Our research at Trichotillomania Support UK reveals that many women experience worsening symptoms of trichotillomania during ovulation, which is also often delayed.  it is very likely that a sebum/malassezia imbalance is the cause, as ovulation affects EFA conversion to prostaglandins. To balance prostaglandin-to-estrogen ratio, a wild yam cream (progesterone cream) could be used on the skin prior to ovulation.  Keep thorough records of your menstrual cycle and your pulling or picking.  Apply the cream one or two days before ovulation, around the time when your estrogen levels should begin to decline and progesterone levels increase.

Diet

Evening Primrose oil supplementation may help, because it is rich in GLA, which would be low in the case of delta 6 desaturase deficiency.  Consider eating tahini or whole sesame seeds, as these may help prevent over-action of delta 5 desaturase.

To give the body what it needs to make delta 6 desaturase, a diet rich in magnesium, zinc, and vitamin B6.  Avoid high-oleic acid oils on your skin, such as olive oil and jojoba.  Coconut oil is also a high oleic acid but may be ok as it is also high in lauric acid.

Take a good  probiotic daily. 

SKINCARE

Try a liquid probiotic scalp treatment, such as a goats milk kefir scalp rinse

GOATS MILK SOAP/SHAMPOO

For those of you who enjoy home made solutions, search online for a goats milk soap or shampoo recipe.  This old remedy for psoriasis/eczema is based on fact.  Goats milk is high in lauric acid, which has potent anti-fungal properties: Use sesame oil instead of olive oil, and add some chamomile, and/or other anti-fungal herbs in the infusion. Cloves/clove essential oil also have an anaesthetic effect that might help with the itching or more subtle sensations that feed the urge to pull or pick. Use cloves with caution – and please don’t get the mixture in the eyes!

UNLESS OTHERWISE STATED, NONE OF OUR SKINCARE SUGGESTIONS SHOULD BE USED AROUND THE EYES.

http://charizmatic.com/dynamic/self-control/overcoming-obsessions/bfrb-freedom/trichotillomania-and-dermatillomania-a-root-analysis

Inositol and Trichotillomania

Hi everyone, here’s some info I copied from an article specifically about inositol usage for trich sufferers, written by trich specialist Fred Penzel:

“Obviously, before you run out and try anything new, you should always consult your physician. If your physician recommends trying this, you might also want to mention the following information to him or her:

It cannot be taken together with Lithium, as it seems to block its action.
The chief side effects of inositol are gas and diarrhea. Some people get this for the first few days and then it clears up. Some of those taking it never have this side effect, and some only get it when they take more than a particular amount.
I have heard reports that caffeine lowers inositol levels in the body, so if you are a heavy coffee drinker, you might consider cutting down or eliminating this from your diet. Actually, stimulants such as caffeine can sometimes contribute to hair pulling, etc.
It should be purchased in powdered form, and taken dissolved in water or fruit juice. It has a sweet taste, and is chemically related to sugar. If you mix it continuously for about 2 minutes, and if it is allowed to stand for about 10 minutes after mixing it, it seems to dissolve better. If it still doesn’t dissolve well (not all brands do), stir it up and drink it quickly before it settles.
Inositol is a water-soluble vitamin, so although the doses appear to be large, it will not build up to toxic levels in the body. Whatever the body doesn’t use is excreted. The average person normally takes in about 1 gram of inositol each day via the food they eat.
It can be built up according to the following schedule (1 teaspoon=2 grams, and be sure to use a measuring spoon) for an adult:

Week 1 – 1 teaspoon/2x per day
Week 2 – 1 teaspoon/3x per day
Week 3 – 1.5 teaspoons/3x per day
Week 4 – 2 teaspoons/3x per day
Week 5 – 2.5 teaspoons/3x per day
Week 6 – 3 teaspoons/3x per day
A child can be built up to 3 teaspoons per day over the same six-week period. Dosages for adolescents can be adjusted according to weight. In either case, it is best to allow side effects to be the guide. If they begin to occur, it is not considered wise to increase the dosage unless they subside.

Once a person has reached either the maximum dosage, or the greatest amount they are able to tolerate, it is best to try staying six weeks at that level to see if there is any noticeable improvement. If there is none by the end of that time, it should probably be discontinued. As with any treatment, those who are absolutely positive that it will help are only setting themselves up, and may wind up more than disappointed. Everything works for someone, but nothing works for everyone.”

The full article is here: http://www.trich.org/treatment/article-inositol-penzel.html