Most people don’t give their hair much thought beyond its aesthetic appeal. But for me, hair is a constant distraction and both an indicator and cause of great anxiety. When my hair gets beyond a certain length, I twist it and pull it. I sweep it from one side of my head to the other and pull it down over my eyes. I pinch small clumps of it between my fingers and pull. The pain is somehow relieving. There’s a condition called trichotillomania in which sufferers pull hair out of their scalp, eyelashes and eyebrows. Sometimes it can get so bad it leads to baldness. I’m not that bad, although I do sometimes pull bits out. I also pick at my cuticles, chew my nails, bite the inside of my mouth and poke my gums.
I don’t know why I do these things, and most of the time I don’t even realise I am doing them, but they’re definitely linked to anxiety, and I find myself doing them most when I’m bored. One of the key times is when I’m driving. I’ll be sat in traffic and suddenly be aware that I’m pinching the hair just above my ears and rolling it between my fingers, tugging it until I feel pain. When I try to stop these compulsions, I feel a tension build inside of me. It sets off a negative feedback loop – the more I do them, the more anxious I get, and the more anxious I get, the more I do them.
Today I found out these compulsions are called Body-focused Repetitive Behaviours (BFRBs), and that they’re relatively common. If you sit on a train or a bus and watch people, you’ll notice many of them have similar little quirky habits like these. If you have such compulsions too, you’re not alone.