Whenever I find myself in a situation that makes me anxious — like a job interview, a tough conversation, or even a date — I have a habit of playing with my hair. I brush it away from my face even when it's already out of my way. I twirl and touch and tug my hair, strand after strand, until dead ends disintegrate between my fingertips. I know I'm not the only one who does this. In fact, a study by Dove reportedly found that women with fine hair touch their hair up to 18 times a day. So, why do we all play with our hair so freaking much?
Does twirling your hair give you a sense of control in situations where you feel like you don't have it? Is it just a mindless habit, something to occupy your hands if you’re feeling restless? Is it an indication of some deeper, psychological need or concern that you might not even realize? Well, that last one’s unlikely, but there’s got to be some underlying reason, right?
To uncover what’s going on in your brain when you play with your hair, Elite Daily spoke with clinical psychologist Matthew Childs, Psy.D., and NYC-based clinical psychologist Rachel Wien, Psy.D., about what this particular body behavior might reveal about a person.
What does it mean to play with and twirl your hair constantly?
The short answer is that playing with your hair can mean a number of different things. Overall, Wien describes the act as “a typical nervous tic or sign of anxiety.” Childs echoes that sentiment. “[Playing with your hair] could speak toward anxiety about appearance or about the way you feel within that situation,” says Childs. In other words, twirling your hair could be your body’s subconscious response to whatever emotions might be brewing beneath the surface.
That said, twirling your hair doesn’t mean something big or scary is going on underneath the surface. It could just reflect some deeper feelings you have about your appearance, according to Childs. “It can also mean the way you relate to your hair, if you consider it a positive or negative physical attribute.”
Can playing with your hair constantly be a sign of anxiety or nervousness?
According to Wien, it really depends. “Constantly playing with your hair may be mindless, but it also may be a sign of a deeper feeling, such as anxiety, or it may be a tic that feels uncontrollable,” she says.
For example, restlessness is a common symptom of anxiety, as well as a typical result of finding yourself in a situation that’s uncomfortable, nerve-wracking, or frightening. For some, Wien says, hair twirling acts as a way to self-soothe in those types of situations. “It helps us do something with our hands when we are feeling restless or nervous.”
Can playing with your hair be a sign of other things, like flirting?
Playing with your hair constantly certainly does not necessarily mean you’re nervous or anxious or anything negative. Some people just like the sensation of it. “Think about when someone else plays with your hair — it feels good,” says Wien.
You might even find yourself playing with your hair more often when you’re trying to flirt. Say you're talking to someone you find attractive. Playing with your hair might be your subconscious way of showing you care about what that person thinks of your physical appearance. “[You might want] to appeal to that person and communicate that you look good or feel good, and want to elicit some positive feelings from the person you are talking to as well,” says Childs.
It could even be as simple and straightforward as wanting someone to notice your hair. “It draws attention to your hair, which may be one of your best features,” says Wien. “Again, it gives us something to do, making us feel and look less awkward when we are trying to flirt.”
Is playing with your hair too much a bad thing?
According to the experts, playing with your hair is usually just a nervous tic, self-soothing tactic, or a mindless habit. That said, sometimes this nervous tic might verge on a larger issue, depending on the extent to which you do it. “Hair twirling/touching can be problematic when it feels out of control or when it escalates into constant hair pulling, called trichotillomania,” says Wien. If this habit has escalated into uncontrollable hair pulling or you generally feel you need help managing hair pulling or touching, it’s important to have a conversation with your doctor or a therapist, who can provide more focused care and coping mechanisms.
If playing with your hair is simply a habit you feel like you want to break, “keeping a hair touching/pulling journal to keep track of this habit and hold yourself accountable is a good first step.”
At the end of the day, though, there is no one reason or deeper meaning behind why some of us play with our hair so much. If you catch yourself doing it, though, take a moment to question how you’re feeling in that moment. You might be surprised by what you find out.
Matthew Childs, Psy.D., clinical psychologist
Rachel Wien, Psy.D., NYC-based clinical psychologist
Additional reporting by Theresa Massony.
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