Why Do I Have a REALLY Dry Scalp Due to Stress and Anxiety?

Linda White

Scalp conditions are often caused by psychological factors. Psychiatrists refer to this phenomenon as ‘Psychogenic Pruritus’ or ‘Psychogenic Itch.’ Unfortunately, people who have a really dry scalp are more likely to visit a dermatologist than a psychiatrist, so it is rarely diagnosed.

Dermatological treatments rarely tackle the root cause of scalp disorders. For many, the reason for a dry and itchy scalp is chronic stress. It’s estimated that at least three-quarters of the population experience a period of chronic stress or severe anxiety during their lifetime. As such, ‘Psychogenic Itch’ is probably more common than we think.

It’s caused by an interaction between physiological and behavioral responses to stress. Thankfully, it’s possible to boost the body’s immune system and modify behavioral responses to diminish the impact of stress. This should ensure that the scalp stays hydrated and healthy.

How Does Stress Affect Your Scalp?

To a certain degree, stress is a valuable, motivational tool. However, chronic stress is known to aggravate the hypothalamic-pituitary glands. This sets off a series of physiological responses that overstimulate the mind and body. If no intervention is taken, these physiological responses can cause unpleasant physical symptoms such as a dry, itchy scalp.

However, if adequate ‘coping mechanisms’ are put in place to reduce the effects of stress, this should reduce its impact on the body. Scientists argue that we can inhibit, manage, and reduce the stress that determines whether we’ll develop physical symptoms, such as a dry scalp.

Stress can be caused by external demands and psychological factors. For example, long working hours, exams, a perfectionist personality, or an anxiety disorder can all trigger the ‘physiological shifts’ associated with stress.

Stress and Scalp Irritation

The severity of the scalp disorder can vary from mild irritation to significant pain and discomfort.

There are three main ways that stress manifests itself on the scalp:

  • The scalp becomes tight and dry
  • Bumps, pimples or rashes develop on the scalp
  • Painful sores can develop, particularly at the back of the neck

Dry Skin on the Scalp Caused by Stress

Chronic stress can weaken the body’s immune system. Operating under a weakened immune system, the body is less able to produce the anti-inflammatory and anti-microbial chemicals required to protect the scalp.

This can make the scalp more susceptible to the effects of Malassezia Globose – a microbe responsible for causing dandruff. This microbe is present on everyone’s scalp, but when the immune system is weakened the body struggles to cope with the presence of Malassezia Globose. When this microbe takes hold, the scalp begins to shed hair cells at an increased rate. These extra hair cells are the characteristic white ‘flakes’ associated with dandruff. Dandruff can also cause the scalp to become dry and itchy.

Also, ‘hormonal shifts’ caused by stress may cause a dry scalp. When the body enters a period of chronic stress, the adrenal glands become aggravated. As a result, they produce lesser amounts of aldosterone – a hormone responsible for balancing hydration in the body. This can lead to dehydration in the body – causing a dry and tight sensation in the scalp.

Finally, ‘hormonal shifts’ caused by overexertion can lead to a dry, inflamed scalp. Overexertion causes an increase in the hormone cortisol. In women, overexertion can also cause a rise in testosterone. Both cortisol and testosterone increase sebum production in the sebaceous glands and can make the scalp feel unnaturally oily or greasy. Malassezia Globose (the microbe involved in dandruff) thrives in these oily conditions.

The temptation is to aggressively wash the scalp to remove this excess oil. However, over-washing can deplete the skin of all its natural oils –leading to a parched, dehydrated scalp.

Stress-Induced Bumps on the Scalp

When the body’s immune system is weakened, scalp conditions such as Folliculitis can take hold. Folliculitis is a scalp condition caused by a bacterial or fungal infection. The infection inflames and aggravates the hair follicles – which causes white pimples or bumps to appear on the scalp. Antibiotics or antifungals are typically required to treat this type of infection.

Unfortunately, stress can prevent people from taking the time out to seek medical help. Meanwhile, untreated infections can become a source and not just a cause of stress. As a result, many people find themselves trapped in a vicious circle of stress – infection – itching –  and stress.

Scalp Sores linked to Stress

It’s human nature to try and seek relief from discomfort. When the scalp feels dry, hot or itchy, suffers tend to scratch and pick at their scalp to find relief. It goes without saying that scalp picking is a maladaptive behavior because it causes open sores and wounds to develop on the scalp.

Psychologists predict that compulsive scalp picking is an unhealthy ‘coping mechanism’ used by anxiety sufferers to ‘deal’ with stress and ruminating thoughts. If steps are not taken to prevent scalp picking, the sores are likely to become infected. Moreover, as sores heal, scar tissue will form which can impede hair growth and cause permanent scarring.

Are You Chronically Stressed?

Chronic stress can be defined as a prolonged period of emotional upset. It’s typical for chronically stressed individuals to feel a loss of control. Chronically stressed people may perceive a lack control over their finances, their body, their impulses, their thoughts or their lifestyle choices.

In addition to a dry and itchy scalp, chronic stress can cause the following symptoms:

  • Hair loss
  • Chest pain
  • Ringing in the ears
  • Irregular menstrual cycles
  • Stomach and digestion problems
  • Eyesight fatigue
  • Heart palpitations and/or a tight chest
  • Acne, Eczema, and Rosacea
  • Weak nails – prone to splitting
  • Brain fog/ Lightheadedness/ A feeling is ‘disassociation.’
  • Feeling thirsty all the time

If you have a dry, itchy scalp and one or more of the above symptoms, it’s possible you are chronically stressed. Below, we’ll explore ways to ‘take control’ and build resilience against the effects of stress.

What Else Can Cause a Dry Scalp?

Approximately 70% of all scalp conditions have a psychosomatic basis. Nonetheless, it’s important to rule out alternative explanations not linked to stress or anxiety.

The following conditions have been known to cause a persistently dry scalp in some people:

  • AllergiesAllergic reactions to hair dye, shampoo, soap or food can cause the scalp to become inflamed. Moreover, using too many antihistamines is known to dehydrate the skin.
  • Delusional Infestations – Very rare psychiatric conditions such as ‘Ekbom syndrome’ can make sufferers feel like their scalp is crawling with insects. The itching associated with this condition can lead to a very dry and sore scalp.
  • Hodgkin’s Lymphoma – This is a treatable form of cancer that causes swelling of the lymph nodes, weight loss, and a very dry scalp.
  • Hormonal changes – Hormonal ‘shifts’ not directly related to stress such as thyroid conditions, puberty, the menopause, and pregnancy can all cause changes to the scalp.
  • Fibromyalgia – This is a largely unexplained pain disorder that causes extreme fatigue and dry skin.

What to Do When You Can’t Stop Scratching the Scalp

Assuming that stress is the cause of your scalp concerns, there are several steps you can take to reduce stress and enhance wellbeing. As discussed, people that experience chronic stress tend to feel ‘out of control’ in one way or another. Harnessing emotional ‘control’ is likely to be critical to your recovery.

Stress can be caused – and maintained – by a variety of factors. We can’t always prevent stressful situations from occurring, but we can strengthen our resilience to its effects.

To return your scalp to good health, consider the following interventions:

  • Modify behavioral responses to stress – When stressful situations strike, try to use positive coping strategies such as gentle exercise, meditation, journaling or social support.
  • Tackle your worries – Stress is characterized by worrying. Sometimes worry is caused by external ‘tangible’ threats, but sometimes worry focuses on ‘perceived’ threats that are unlikely ever to happen – try to distinguish between the two and scrutinize the value of ‘perceived’ threats.
  • Strengthen cognitive strategies – There are several cognitive strategies you can employ to reduce stress and anxiety (more on this below!).
  • Change your lifestyle to reduce stress – If a relentless work schedule is causing you chronic stress – try modifying your lifestyle to promote ‘balance.’
  • Pharmaceutical treatments for anxiety – If an anxiety disorder has been diagnosed, pharmaceuticals may be helpful for reducing psychosomatic conditions such as a dry, itchy scalp.
  • Boost the immune system with nutrition – Stress weakens the body’s immune system, so it is essential to ‘rebuild’ strength with proper nutrition, rest, and supplements (where required).
  • Treat existing scalp damage–Anxiety and stress are consequences of itching as well as aggravating factors for scratching. As such, it’s crucial to stop itching the scalp and treat any damage that’s occurred. This will help break the cycle of stress and scalp damage.

Focusing on clinical evidence, we’ll discuss, in detail, the most effective strategies for reducing stress and improving scalp health.

How to Worry Less to Control Stress

Stress is often linked to a loss of control. Feeling out of control can cause ruminating thoughts, which aggravate stress even further as they stop you from focusing on the present moment. Regaining ‘control’ over aspects of your life can help keep stress at bay.

The following actions are recommended for managing stress:

  1. Make a list of all your worries and put a tick next to the ones you can do something about.
  2. Once you’ve determined the areas of life you can change, define a measurable goal for each area of your life – make sure it’s challenging but achievable. For example, if you’re stressed because you’ve lost control of your weight, design a goal that’s focuses on realistic and appropriate weight loss.
  3. Constantly monitor your progress and congratulate yourself on success. Once you’ve achieved one goal, keep defining new goals to ensure you’re governing your life effectively
  4. For the worries that you can’t change, allow yourself a specific amount of time each day (i.e., 30 mins) to worry about these thoughts. Most people find it helps to arrange a time during the early evening. If you find ruminating thoughts are spoiling your day, gently remind yourself that you’ll worry about these thoughts during your ‘worry time.’ This technique offers you ‘control’ over how you respond to your problems. Studies have shown that practicing this technique can reduce stress in the long-term.

Also, studies have shown that being ‘self-sufficient’ can dramatically increase self-efficacy (one’s perceived ability to cope) and reduce ruminating thoughts. There are many ways you could incorporate self-sufficiency in your life, such as growing your own vegetables, starting your own side-business or even brewing your own beer!

How to Reduce Stress

An important study published in Nature found that people who were concerned by what others thought of them were much more likely to develop ‘Psychogenic Itch.’ Individuals with ‘Type A Personality’ (highly-driven perfectionists) are most likely to be concerned with the opinions of others. Carrying this burden can become stressful over time and lead the development of psychosomatic skin conditions.

According to psychologists, learning how to say ‘No’ is an important life skill. If you hold other peoples’ opinions in very high regard, you might find it hard to say ‘No.’  Agreeing to everything can make life stressful because little time is left to tend to your own needs. Practicing the art of saying ‘No’ can reduce stress levels in the long-term and alleviate chronic conditions such as a dry scalp.

In more general terms, there’s a multitude of ways to reduce stress. The following suggestions have been clinically proven to protect against the negative, physiological effects of stress:

  • Exercise – If you’re already stressed, try gentle exercise as opposed to intensive exercise – as overexertion can stress the body further.
  • Journaling – This provides a healthy ‘outlet’ for emotions. When repeated for 60 days, daily journaling has been found to reduce blood pressure and enhance feelings of well-being.
  • Yoga and Meditation – Studies have shown that meditative yoga can reduce blood pressure and promote hormone balance.
  • Being Creative – Painting, drawing or crafts can dilute the impact of stress on the body. According to psychologists, when we are in a state of creative ‘flow’, our daily stressors melt away and we feel most alive.
  • Mindfulness – Mindfulness teaches us how to ‘live in the moment’ and reduce the negative effects of stress.

How to Manage Anxiety to Improve Scalp Health

Anxiety ranges in severity from mild to debilitating. If you have a dry scalp and recognize some of the symptoms of anxiety in yourself, it’s advisable to visit a health professional for a diagnosis.

Various pharmaceutical treatments are moderately useful for the treatment of anxiety – including tricyclic antidepressants and selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors. A study published on Jama Network found that a very low dose of anti-depressants helped reduce the symptoms of a persistently dry scalp.  This suggests that anxiety and/or depression play a role in the development of dry scalp conditions.

How Stress Can Affect Your Hair and Scalp

A study published on Orthomolecular found that supplementing with Vitamin B3 (Niacinamide) and Essential Fatty Acids can improve anxiety and relieve dry scalp conditions. Although the experimenters used supplements to increase participants’ intake of these substances, they suggest that it would be possible achieve effects simply by modifying the diet.

To increase your consumption of Vitamin B3 and Essential Fatty Acids, you should include the following foods in your diet:

  • Fish
  • Milk
  • Eggs
  • Green vegetables
  • Cereal Grains
  • Beans
  • Walnuts
  • Almonds
  • Olive oil
  • Hemp oil

How to Boost Your Immune System

A strong immune system guards against disease. A disease can threaten the health of your scalp, as well as your overall wellbeing. Studies have shown that people with robust immune systems can ‘thrive’ during stressful periods. For example, they’re better able to concentrate and are less likely to succumb to fatigue.

To support your immune system, consider the following recommendations.

  • Cut out tobacco and alcohol – Tobacco and alcohol can suppress the immune system so dry to cut down on these as much as possible.
  • Take probiotics – Probiotics can help the body ‘fight’ yeast infections
  • Get enough Vitamin D – Expose your skin to direct sunlight for around 10 minutes per day to top-up your dose of Vitamin D. If you live in cold climate, consider taking Vitamin D supplements during the winter months.
  • Use herbs and essential oils – Ginseng and Eucalyptus essential oil can help strengthen the body’s defenses.
  • Try and get more sleep – This is easier-said-than-done when you’re already stressed – but try to get as much sleep as possible to support immune function.
  • Add garlic and turmeric to your meals – Studies have shown that garlic and turmeric can significantly boost immunity, heart health, and brain health.

How to Achieve a Better Work-Life Balance

Achieving balance is important for stress relief. In contemporary times, achieving the right work-life balance is a concern shared by many. Spending too much time working denies the body the chance to restore itself. However, sitting idle for too long can amplify ruminating thoughts.

Studies have shown that, on average, stress and fatigue can set-in after a 42-hour working week. Also, productivity tends to decrease after 47 hours– so ‘overworking’ is unnecessary and unhealthy in most cases.

The importance of creating balance for health is grounded in traditional Eastern philosophies. According to Buddhist philosophy, we feel our most grounded when we’ve achieved a balance between internal and external areas of our lives.

Internal areas of our life include our mind, our heart, our health and our spirituality. External areas include our work, social lives, family commitments, and pastimes.

Focusing too heavily on one aspect of your life can lead to guilt, conflict and chronic stress. Consider balancing your time across all ‘areas’ of your life to prevent stress and promote scalp health.

can't stop scratching scalp

How to Treat Scalp Irritation

As mentioned, scalp irritation can become a source of further stress, so treating the scalp condition is essential for recovery.

Treat Dandruff

Dandruff occurs when skin cells shed at an inconsistent rate. This can be caused by excess sebum production or yeast infection. Dandruff is aggravated by stress, so it’s important to treat it as soon as possible to prevent it worsening.

To normalize sebum production in the scalp, avoid over-washing your hair. It’s tempting to try and ‘wash away’ the dry flakes from your scalp, but this can cause your scalp to become dehydrated. Washing your hair once every two or three days should be sufficient if you’re using a targeted dandruff shampoo.

A dandruff shampoo, such as Nizoral A D Anti-Dandruff Shampoo, will treat the yeast infection and reduce itching. Shampoos that contain Zinc are effective because Zinc prevents fungal cells from multiplying. Ones with the active ingredient Ketoconazole (an anti-fungal) are also highly effective. Shampoos containing Salicylic Acid are good for removing white ‘flakes’ from the scalp, but Anti-fungal dandruff shampoos are thought to be the gold-standard treatment.

Massage the Scalp

If there are no open wounds on the scalp, a therapeutic scalp massage may aid recovery. Argan oil and coconut oil are valued for their ability to soothe and penetrate a dry and flaky scalp.

Coconut oil can be quite ‘heavy.’ If you’re looking for a lighter option, you could try applying grapeseed or sweet almond oil to the scalp. This is less likely to leave a greasy residue on the hair after rinsing.

  • Important: Clinical trials have found Lavender essential oil to be an effective scalp treatment. Adding a few drops of Lavender essential oil to a carrier oil (such as sweet almond oil) and applying this to the scalp may improve scalp health. However, essential oils should never be used on irritated cracked or broken skin, so use incorporate Lavender oil into your regime once existing scalp damage has healed.

Be Gentle

Consider using chemical free, organic shampoos – at least until your scalp has healed. Sulfates (found in many shampoos) are thought to aggravate a sensitive scalp so look out for shampoos that are ‘SLS-free’ or ‘Sulfate free.’

Treat Scalp Sores or Wounds

Scalp sores should be cleaned regularly and bandaged (if appropriate) to prevent infection.

This final step is very important. Taking care of the flakes, bumps or wounds can enhance the feeling of control you have over your body. This can enhance self-esteem, reduce stress and promote wellbeing. Studies have shown that taking good care of scalp damage caused by ‘Psychogenic Itch’ can prevent future incidences.

When scalp conditions are caused by psychological factors, it’s tempting just to brand them ‘untreatable.’ However, committing to a few cognitive and lifestyle changes can dramatically reduce the impact of stress on the body.

Although we tend to believe that our emotions and worries control us, there are many strategies we can employ to help govern our emotional responses. Harnessing emotional intelligence will have a positive effect on wellbeing and scalp health.

Copyright 2018 by DryScalpGone.