The results of an Alopecia UK funded study, led by Professor Andrew Thompson (then University of Sheffield, now Cardiff University), were published this month in the Journal of Behavioural and Cognitive Psychotherapy.

In this study, five women with alopecia areata completed a series of mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) sessions. These were in-person group sessions held at the University of Sheffield. The researchers measured their mindfulness, social anxiety, general anxiety, depression and quality of life using questionnaires for each. This was done over a period of 2-3 weeks at baseline, to get a stable read on people's initial levels of mental health, and again after 8 weeks of therapy sessions. In these sessions, which lasted 2.5 hours each, participants were taught how to apply mindfulness to their daily lives. They were also encouraged to carry out home practice each week based on the contents of the session. The sessions also included meditation practice and group discussions.

During the study period, participants also answered two questions each day: these were chosen by participants themselves and were based on an aspect of social anxiety they wanted to focus on. One was focused on something they wanted to decrease, for example, ‘How affected have you been today by people looking at your head/hair?’ and another was focused on something they wanted to increase, for example: ‘How brave have you felt today (e.g. when in social situations and around others)?

Using these self-reported measures of daily social anxiety, 4/4 participants showed an improvement in the 'increase-focused' aspect, and 2/4 showed an improvement in the 'decrease-focused' aspect of social anxiety. Participants who reported practising mindfulness most between sessions also saw the largest reductions in social anxiety.

After the 8-week intervention, mindfulness, social anxiety, general anxiety, depression and quality of life were again measured using standard questionnaires. The participants were encouraged to continue practicising the mindfulness techniques they had learned and these 5 measures of mental health were again assessed 4-weeks after the study had ended. Two participants showed an improvement in social anxiety, three participants showed an improvement in at least one aspect of mindfulness, three participants showed an improvement in depression or anxiety, and two participants showed an improvement in quality of life.

In conclusion, the mindfulness-based cognitive therapy model can succesfully reduce the social anxiety of people with alopecia areata. In some people, it may also improve other aspects of mental health and quality of life. These effects lasted even after the study finished, as people learned how to apply these techniques to their daily lives. This was a very small study, and the researchers suggest larger studies that compare mindfulness-based cognitive therapy to standard cognitive behavioural therapy may identify the specific benefits of mindfulness. They also acknowledge that more research is needed in a more diverse sample of people with AA, such as men or individuals from minority ethnic backgrounds.

For the full text of this paper, please see the journal website.