Coiling your hair around your finger and pulling it in a circle — also known as hair twirling — is a fairly common habit.
Twirling your hair is part of a group of behaviors called “fidgets.” Children, especially, may twirl their hair as a way of self-soothing to calm anxiety, wind down before bedtime, or simply deal with boredom.
The habit of twirling your hair can simply be a nervous habit, but there are times that it can be a sign of an underlying health condition.
Twirling your hair can also hurt your hair, resulting in knots, split ends, and hair breakage.
Hair twirling can have some side effects. These may include:
Hair twirling can escalate from a nervous habit or a childhood distraction to a body-focused repetitive behavior.
There’s also a belief that hair twirling habits can lead to trichotillomania. This is a mental health condition that causes an overwhelming urge to pull out your own hair.
If you’re an adult with a hair twirling habit, it’s possible that it simply carried over from childhood. It could also be a symptom of another condition.
Body-focused repetitive behavior
Maybe you started your hair twirling habit when you were a small child and just never stopped.
Hair twirling can alleviate boredom and also help you wind down when you’re feeling tired.
If you tend to only twirl your hair when you’re fighting to stay awake during a meeting, or when you’re streaming your favorite show in your PJs, it could be that you’ve always had the habit.
And unless your hair is becoming damaged or falling out, there’s no need to be concerned.
Symptom of anxiety
Your hair twirling might have started in childhood or adolescence and developed into something you do when you’re anxious.
If you twirl your hair when you feel nervous or when you’re coping with intrusive, anxious thoughts, that habit might be a symptom of an anxiety disorder.
Sign of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)
Hair twirling can be a sign of obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD).
If you have other symptoms of OCD, your hair twirling habit might be a part of your condition. Other symptoms of OCD include:
- upsetting thoughts or impulses that repeatedly occur
- repetitive acts or “rituals” that temporarily relieve the stress and anxiety
- symptoms that last more than an hour per day and interfere with daily life
But hair twirling by itself isn’t enough to suggest a diagnosis of OCD.
Hair twirling in children may start as a coping mechanism for stress or fatigue during the toddler years.
Since it’s hard to express complicated emotions or control your surroundings when you’re a child, sometimes the body takes over and creates a physical coping mechanism instead.
Is hair twirling a symptom of autism?
Hair twirling is a form of stimming, or self-stimulation. Other examples of stimming include:
- biting your nails
- drumming your fingers
- jiggling your foot
Stimming isn’t always related to autism, but some stimming behaviors can be related to a diagnosis of autism. Repetitive behaviors linked to autism often include:
- flapping hands or flicking or snapping fingers
- bouncing, jumping, or twirling
- pacing or walking on tiptoes
In cases where a child has been diagnosed with autism, hair twirling can become a destructive behavior that needs to be addressed.
But hair twirling by itself isn’t enough to suggest that your child needs to be evaluated for autism. Read about autism symptoms in young children here.
If hair twirling is affecting your child’s health, there are some methods you can use to interrupt the behavior.
Mittens at bedtime
Putting child-safe mittens on at bedtime can help toddlers to stop twirling their hair as a way of self-soothing before bedtime.
If your child’s hair has been damaged by hair twirling, you may want to address the problem by simply giving them a short haircut.
Without hair to twirl, your child may have a rough time self-soothing for a couple of days. But by the time the hair grows back, the habit should be gone.
A fidget device can provide the distraction and relief that your child looks for, without damaging their hair.
There are devices available made of imitation hair that your child can twirl as they relax during the evening.
If you want to stop twirling your hair, the treatment you choose will depend on the reason that you do it.
Here are some ways to stop twirling your hair as an adult:
- Busy your hands with something constructive, such as knitting or crocheting.
- Brush your hair instead of twirling it.
- Take good care of your hair to decrease the desire to pull it.
- Learn alternative stress-relief techniques, such as mindfulness or meditation.
- Speak to a psychologist to find out if cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) might help.
- Create small goals (such as not twirling your hair for 2 hours at a time) and reward yourself for meeting them.
- Sleep wearing a baseball cap, beanie, or hoodie to avoid twirling while you sleep.
- Consider anti-anxiety medication.
- Reduce your caffeine and sugar intake.
If you’re noticing that hair twirling is having a negative impact on your or your child’s health, you should seek advice from a doctor.
If you or your child are experiencing hair loss from this habit, you should seek assistance. A general doctor may be able to refer you to a mental health professional if you or your child need one.
People twirl their hair for lots of different reasons.
Sometimes, the habit develops in childhood and simply doesn’t go away. Other times, twirling your hair can be a symptom of an underlying health condition.
A doctor can offer treatment options if twirling your hair is affecting your or your child’s daily life.