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Few talk about compulsive hair-pulling

January 4, 2008 12:00:00 AM PST
Some people cannot control or resist the urge to pull out their hair. It's an impulse disorder that doesn't get a lot of attention because few will talk about it.For Julie Cerrito, having a lot of hair wasn't necessarily a blessing.

"Because I always had long hair, I had fascination with playing with my hair," said Julie.

In her early 20s, Julie's fascination turned into a disorder known as trichotillomania. It started with pulling out gray hairs, but later got out of control.

"Because of years of doing it, I do have areas of hair that permanently won't grow back," said Julie.

It's believed 90 percent of hair-pullers are women. Experts are not sure what causes people to do it. Some say they experience relief of tension or anxiety. Others say they do it out of boredom.

"It's crucial we figure out what that individual's getting out of it in the short term, so we can find other ways to help get their needs met," said clinical psychologist Ben Johnson, PhD.

Julie believes stress triggers her hair-pulling. After years of traditional therapy, she's now undergoing cognitive therapy.

"We help people learn to identify the urge early, to be aware of the urge before they start pulling, and engage in what we call a competing response," said Johnson.

For Julie, it means using two hands while reading.

"It was shameful for the children, because it was worse a few years ago," said Julie.

Julie's learned positive distractions help her resist the urge to pull.

"But to say that you pull out your hair is just so strange, that's why there is a veil of secrecy," said Julie.

By ending that veil of secrecy, she hopes she and others can get the help they need to stop.

The typical first-time hair puller is 12-years-old, although trichotillomania can affect people as young as one and as old as 70.

The drug Naltrexone, behavioral therapy and habit reversal have been shown effective in reducing some symptoms of chronic hair pulling.


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