Hairdressers, haircuts & mental health - what do they have in common?
Hairdressers, haircuts and mental health - is your regular haircut more valuable than you realise?
During the first big lockdown in the UK, one of the more comical sights on social media was of women and men trying to cut or colour their own hair, and the peculiar, often hilariously inept, results that followed.
These images acted as a timely reminder that hairdressing is a skilled profession. But your hairdresser may currently be doing a lot more for your health and wellbeing than simply ensuring that you can go out in public without ridicule.
The Importance of Touch
Physical touch is intrinsic to any form of hairdressing, from the simple trim to an in-depth head massage.
For some, this can be the only form of physical contact that they have in their daily lives. This is especially true at present, when even a handshake or a hug between friends may be considered a risk.
If you are living without a partner, or do not have children, it is possible that the only touch you receive is from professionals of some sort. And given that many professional appointments are now online, even previously ‘hands-on’ treatments such as Physiotherapy, this professional element of touch is also severely limited.
Hairdressing is one of the few forms of regular, fairly intimate, physical touch that continues. And it may be that this physical touch is a key reason why we feel able to tell our hairdresser all sorts of personal stuff. Counsellor Fiona Bennett says that “touch, time and the environment” all play an important role.
We are naturally social beings. Starting from the moment that we are born, physical contact is integral to our growth and development. Think back to the horrific tales of children in Romanian orphanages who were not picked up and cuddled. The damage that did to their sense of wellbeing, their social skills and their ability to interact with others has been well-documented. The good news is that many of those who became adopted children in the UK and elsewhere blossomed over time, within loving and supportive families.
Hairdressers understand the deep physical and psychological benefits of touch - the gentle rhythm of the hair massage after washing away the suds, the ritual combing out, the final patting down. The rhythm of the ritual is as important as the individual actions themselves, creating a sense of familiarity and security.
Self worth and Self Esteem
For many women, hair is inextricably bound up with a positive body image, and increased self-esteem. ‘Having your hair done’ is often associated with celebrations, good times, momentous occasions.
However, during a number of other life-changing experiences, the impact on hair is frequently one of the more visible outer signs of physical and mental distress.
Women who are undergoing cancer treatment often talk about the importance of their hair to their sense of self. New Mums who find their hair falling out can become upset at this loss of the luxuriant tresses that came with the pregnancy hormones. Menopause can also bring hair loss or thinning at a time when women are feeling their way through potentially unwelcome change.
Your hairdresser is often your companion on these sometimes very difficult journeys, seeing you ‘stripped bare’. It seems only natural that your regular hairdresser also becomes the repository of your fears and worries, as well as your reflector of good times and positive occurrences.
Talking Through your Worries
There is something about sitting in the hairdresser’s chair that seems to invite the sharing of information, from your holiday plans to your medical procedures. A bit like the confessional, the proximity without direct eye contact seems to release a rush of words, a download that can surprise both the client and the hairdresser. Have you sometimes left the salon thinking ‘Where did all that come from?’ Or ‘Why on earth did I tell her/him about xyz?’
The beneficial impact that hairdressers can have on their clients’ welfare has been well documented. As Gemma Tracey from Champneys Beauty College says:
“…..We put on our protective cape, and it becomes a place where we can go into our safe zone….. “
Hairdressers often enact a care-giving role with their clients, and provide social support. In 2019, Stacey Mary Page conducted a study into the types of clients’ disclosures that hairdressers hear on a regular basis. She found that the information shared ranged from the trivial to the seriously disturbing. Holiday plans, family celebrations and ideas for a fun night out were interspersed with much sadder stories. These included issues such as partners’ physical abuse; drug and alcohol misuse; life-changing physical and mental health concerns – issues well beyond the realms of simple platitudes.
The Negativity Bias
During the pandemic, another important factor has come into play – the ‘negativity bias’. Negative news, of which there has been plenty over the course of the pandemic, tends to assume a greater significance in our awareness, outweighing any positive news.
This negativity bias was probably useful in the far distant past, when being hyper-sensitive to threats and dangers could preserve our lives from predators by initiating the ‘fight or flight’ response. But nowadays it often just has the effect of making us feel miserable.
One hairdresser realised that her mental wellbeing was being compromised, by clients constantly talking about the negative impacts of Covid. She issued a ‘no Covid talk’ request and found that clients consciously started to talk to her about the more positive parts of their lives. This ‘lifted’ the atmosphere in the salon, giving clients a more enjoyable experience overall.
The Cost to your Hairdresser
If we look at what our hairdresser is offering to us on a deeper level, we can start to see that this ‘emotional labour’ can create a toll. By listening, touching, being a sympathetic and empathetic presence, the hairdresser is absorbing a lot of negative ‘stuff’ along the way.
Page found that many hairdressers reported that they ended up feeling emotionally drained, and like ‘makeshift counsellors’, wanting to help but lacking the training and support themselves. In answer to this, organisations such as 12th Man and Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) now offer one-day mental health trainings.
Some salons such as Mewies & Co in Leicestershire, also offer mental health support and guidance for their employees, investing in mental health first aiders.
But for those hairdressers who work alone, or simply rent a ‘chair’ in a bigger salon, it can be difficult to find a supportive network to tap into.
Sandra Campitelli, CEO of the Australian Hair and Beauty industry Association, commenting on her younger days as a hairdresser, says:
“Sometimes the conversations were quite confronting…..” and she goes on to talk about the difficulties of absorbing this negative stress at a relatively young age.
In Dru Yoga we would talk about this affecting the ‘energetic’ level of the person, impacting their prana (life force) if not addressed regularly. Negative stress, absorbed from others, can sit in our own body systems and create dis-ease. For example, think about how a sense of sadness, perhaps from empathizing with another’s unhappy tale, can make us ‘choke up’. This type of negative stress has a measurable, undesirable impact.
This negative stress can be addressed and removed by simple, positive actions. The Dru philosophy is to address these imbalances on a daily basis, before they have a chance to become deep-seated.
Simple Strategies to Banish Negativity
The following simple strategies can be utilized regularly, to enable a letting go of negative emotion that may have been passed on by another person. Remember, as with any yoga practice, to remain within your comfort zone.
1. Shake it out
If the negative emotion has come from touch, then shake it away.
Start by flicking your fingers down toward the ground, as if you were flicking off anything negative that had been ‘given’ to you.
Maybe visualise the Earth absorbing this negative energy and turning it back into positive energy, in the same way that trees absorb carbon dioxide and turn it into oxygen.
Gradually this can become a whole body movement, shaking in any way that makes you smile.
Follow this with 3 full yogic breaths, raising your arms above your head as you breathe in.
Finish by smiling and thanking the Earth - if you can be outside in Nature, it’s even more powerful.
Something said may have triggered a strong emotion for you as well as the speaker.
Try breathing it away, using a simple version of the ‘Golden Thread’ breath.
Sit comfortably, and gently close your eyes.
Breathe in through your nose, and breathe out through slightly pursed lips. Allow your exhale to be longer than your inhale.
Each time that you breathe out, imagine the breath as a golden thread, seeing it unspooling into the distance.
With each exhale, see whatever it is that is bothering you travelling further and further away as the golden thread drifts away into the distance.
Eventually whatever is bothering you becomes so far away that it no longer has any impact on you.
Return to your normal breathing pattern, breathing in and out through your nose.
Sit still for a few moments before opening your eyes and releasing the breathing practice.
3. Send it away
Occasionally anger or frustration can also surface from close interaction with another. This physical movement combined with a forceful breath is a quick way of releasing negative emotion from our body, before it can settle and cause us increased dis-ease.
Raise your arms loosely out to your sides at heart level.
Tighten your fingers into your palms, as if grasping whatever it is that is upsetting you.
Holding it tightly in your hands, bend your elbows and draw hands in toward the sides of the body at heart level. Feel your shoulder blades drawing strongly toward each other at the same time.
Take a deep breath in.
Breathe out forcefully through your mouth, saying “Ha!”, simultaneously pushing your arms strongly out to the side, releasing your fingers. Visualise letting go of your frustrations as you let go of your fingers.
(This movement can be found in Dru Energy Block Release 1 sequence)
Repeat 3 times.
Finish with 3 full yogic breaths to bring a sense of calm back into the body.
And if you don’t have time for anything else, try this quick fix
4. Humming for health
Humming can help to release tension as the elongated exhale helps to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, reducing the effects of our ‘fight or flight’ response to negative stress. The great advantage of humming is that it can be practised while on the go - for busy hairdressers a bit of humming between clients creates a calming effect on the body systems; and for busy clients they can hum quietly as they relax in the chair.
(This is a much simplified version of the Dru Yoga Brahmari Breath - humming bee breath)
I do hope that both hairdressers and their clients will benefit from using these strategies to reduce ongoing negative stress.
Finding a Dru Yoga teacher to guide you through some of the Dru Energy Block Release sequences will also be hugely beneficial.
And the next time that you visit your hairdresser, maybe take a little time to say ‘Thank you’ – not only for the visible results, but also for the unseen work that they do.
Resources & Further Reading
12th Man – mental first aid training for trades and interest groups
Mental Health First Aid (MHFA) – guidance & training to support mental health https://mhfaengland.org/mhfa-centre/about/
Emotional Styling: how can hairdressers help? By Stacey Mary Page
Mewies & Co mental health first aid
‘Adopted Romanian orphans still suffering in adulthood’
How to find a Dru teacher in your area