Anxiety And Burning Itchy Tight Prickly Scalp

Written by Jim Folk
Medically reviewed by Marilyn Folk, BScN.
Last updated March 22, 2022

Burning Itchy Tight Prickly Scalp anxiety symptoms

Burning, itchy, tight, tingly, prickly, crawly, pain, and pressure on the scalp sensations are common anxiety disorder symptoms, including anxiety and panic attacks, generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, phobias, and others.

This article explains the relationship between anxiety and scalp symptoms.

Common Scalp Anxiety Symptom Descriptions

  • Your scalp, or patches of your scalp, feel like it is burning as if something has burned it or you have a sunburn, yet it hasn’t been physically burned, and there are no physical burn marks.
  • It can also feel like your scalp (or patches) is abnormally itchy, yet there isn’t any reason for it to feel that way because it’s not dry skin, an insect bite, an allergic reaction, etc.
  • It can also feel like your scalp is tight and tense.
  • You can also have shooting and stabbing pains in your scalp.
  • Your scalp can also feel like it is tingling or has a prickly or “crawling” sensation.
  • You can also have burning scalp one moment, itching the next, and then a tingling or “crawling” feeling after that, and so on.
  • Your scalp can also feel like there is a pressure or other odd sensation affecting the scalp.
  • Any one of these sensations can change and shift over time.

This symptom can affect one area of the scalp only, shift and affect another area or areas, migrate and affect many areas, and affect all areas just once or repeatedly.

This symptom can also:

  • Occur occasionally, frequently, or persistently.
  • Precede, accompany, or follow an escalation of other anxiety symptoms or occur by itself.
  • Precede, accompany, or follow a period of nervousness, anxiety, fear, and stress, or occur "out of the blue" and for no reason.
  • Range in intensity from slight, to moderate, to severe.
  • Come in waves where it’s strong one moment and eases off the next.
  • Change from day to day, moment to moment, or remain as a constant background during your struggle with anxiety disorder.

All the above combinations and variations are common.

This symptom can seem more noticeable when undistracted, resting, trying to sleep, or when waking up.

To see if anxiety might be playing a role in your symptoms, rate your level of anxiety using our free one-minute instant results Anxiety Test, Anxiety Disorder Test, or Hyperstimulation Test.

The higher the rating, the more likely anxiety could be contributing to or causing your anxiety symptoms, including feeling like impending doom symptoms.

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Why Anxiety Can Cause Burning, Itchy, And Tight Scalp Symptoms

Medical Advisory

Talk to your doctor about all new, changing, persistent, and returning symptoms as some medical conditions and medications can cause anxiety-like symptoms.

Additional Medical Advisory Information.

1. The Stress Response

Anxious behavior, such as worry, activates the stress response, which prepares the body for immediate emergency action – to either fight or flee. This survival reaction is often referred to as the fight or flight response.[1][2]

The stress response causes many body-wide changes, including:

  • Tightens muscles so that the body is more resilient to harm, including those in the head, face, neck, and scalp.
  • Shunts blood to parts of the body more important for survival, such as the brain and muscles, and away from those less important, such as the skin and digestive system.
  • Stimulates the nervous system, which includes certain parts of the brain.
  • Heightens most of the body’s senses, including touch.

Visit our “Stress Response” article for information about its many changes.

Since these survival changes push the body beyond its balance point (equilibrium), stress responses stress the body. As such, anxiety stresses the body.

A body that becomes stressed can exhibit symptoms of stress.

Therefore, anxiety symptoms are symptoms of stress. They are called anxiety symptoms because anxious behavior is the main source of the stress that stresses the body, causing symptoms of stress.

Any one or combination of these stress response changes can cause symptoms that affect the scalp, such as burning, itchy, tight, tingling, crawly, pressure, pain, and so on.

Acute stress, such as from anxious behavior, is a common cause of scalp symptoms. As long as the stress response is active, it can produce symptoms.

2. Hyperstimulation

When stress responses occur infrequently, the body can quickly recover from the many stress response changes.

However, when stress responses occur too often, such as from overly apprehensive behavior, the body can remain in a state of semi-stress response readiness, we call “stress-response hyperstimulation” since stress hormones are powerful stimulants.[3][4]

Hyperstimulation can chronically stress the body, causing chronic symptoms.

Visit our “Hyperstimulation” article for more information about the many ways hyperstimulation can affect the body and how we feel.

Hyperstimulation (chronic stress) is a common cause of chronic skin sensations and symptoms, such as burning, itching, and “crawling” sensations; prickly-feelings; tightness; rawness; numbness; dryness; excessive sensitivity; hot or cold sensations; goosebumps; and so on.

These stress-related sensations and symptoms can occur on any area of the skin, including the scalp.

There are many reasons for this, such as:

Nervous System Excitation And Dysregulation

The epidermis is the top layer of the skin. It is the body’s protective covering.

The next layer down is the dermis layer. The dermis contains nerve endings, blood vessels, oil glands, and sweat glands, and contains collagen and elastin, which make the dermis tough and stretchy.

As mentioned, the activation of the stress response places the body’s senses and systems on high alert for emergency readiness. A part of this readiness includes a heightened sense of touch by making the nerve endings in the dermis more sensitive and reactive.

neuron anatomy

Furthermore, the body’s nervous system is responsible for sending sensory nerve impulse information from the body’s sense organs to the brain for interpretation and then sending nerve impulse information from the brain to the body.

The nervous system accomplishes this “sending and receiving” via specialized cells called “neurons.” Neurons communicate with each other using an electrochemical process (the combination of electricity and chemistry).[5][6]

For example, if you touch a hot burner, the nerve receptors in the skin send this sensory information – electrical signals - through the nervous system network to the brain. Once the brain interprets this sensory information as being “hot,” the brain then sends nerve impulse information back through the nervous system to the muscles that control the arm and hand to pull the hand away from the hot burner.[7]

This “back and forth” interaction happens quickly – nerve impulse information can travel as fast as 268 miles per hour.[8] This “quick reaction” can prevent the skin from being burned.

nerves and muscles

This system of nervous system communication and reaction performs normally when the body and nervous system are healthy. However, problems can occur when the body and nervous system become hyperstimulated.[9]

For instance, neurons are particularly sensitive to stress because of their electrochemical properties. When neurons become hyperstimulated, they can act erratically, causing “misreported” nerve impulse information to and from the brain.[10][4]

“Misreported” nerve impulse information can cause many sensory and muscle movement anomalies, such as muscle twitching, spasms, tension, and feeling odd pressures, pain, and other sensations anywhere on or in the body, including the scalp.

Moreover, because hyperstimulation can cause an increase in the electrical activity in parts of the brain, causing neurons to become even more unstable, neurons can fire even more erratically when the body and nervous system become hyperstimulated.[11]

skin dermis

For example, nerve endings in the dermis can send the sensation of being touched when no touch has occurred. They can also send the sensations of pain or being burned when the skin hasn’t been harmed or burned. All these sensations are common for chronic stress (hyperstimulation).

How hyperstimulation affects the skin

Another reason skin-related symptoms occur is that stress hormones cause blood to flow away from the skin, another survival readiness change.

Blood is shunted away from the skin so that if the body is cut, it doesn’t bleed to death, and those parts of the body that are more important to survival get more blood, whereas those that are less important to survival get less.

While blood being shunted around is beneficial in dangerous situations, it can be harmful if survival readiness is prolonged.

Blood contains both Red Blood Cells (RBC) and White Blood cells (WBC). White Blood Cells are officially known as Leukocytes.

Leukocytes are involved in defending the body against infective organisms and foreign substances. Leukocytes are quite remarkable. They are independent; move about on their own; fight against, capture, and carry away “foreign” invaders; and clean up the aftermath of dead cells after the battle is over.

Leukocytes are the principal components of the immune system and function by destroying "foreign" substances such as bacteria and viruses.

When an infection is present, the WBCs increase. If the number of leukocytes is abnormally low (a condition known as leukopenia), infection is more likely to occur, and it is more difficult for the body to get rid of the infection.

Hyperstimulation can cause the blood to be continually shunted away from the skin. When the skin is constantly deprived of a generous supply of blood, it can be more susceptible to irritations, rashes, and infections.

Minor skin burning, pain, and discomfort resulting from these irritations can be experienced as itching, crawling, or burning sensations.

Furthermore, hyperstimulation (chronic stress) can cause “impaired stratum corneum cohesion, disturbance of permeability barrier, alteration of the antimicrobial properties of the epidermal barrier, delayed wound healing, compromised epidermal innate immunity, and cutaneous homeostasis might be adversely affected.”[12]

The above combination of factors can cause many skin problems and symptoms, including scalp-related dryness, flakiness, burning, itching, tightness, pain, sores, and so on.

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3. Other Factors

Other factors can create stress and cause anxiety-like symptoms, as well as aggravate existing anxiety symptoms, including:

Select the relevant link for more information.

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Treatment

When other factors cause or aggravate this anxiety symptom, addressing the specific cause can reduce and eliminate this symptom.

When an active stress response causes this symptom, ending the active stress response will cause this acute anxiety symptom to subside.

Keep in mind that it can take up to 20 minutes or more for the body to recover from a major stress response. But this is normal and needn’t be a cause for concern.

When hyperstimulation (chronic stress) is the cause, eliminating hyperstimulation will end this anxiety symptom.

You can eliminate hyperstimulation by:

  • Reducing stress.
  • Containing anxious behavior (since anxiety creates stress).
  • Regular deep relaxation.
  • Avoiding stimulants.
  • Regular light to moderate exercise.
  • Eating a healthy diet of whole and natural foods.
  • Passively accepting your symptoms until they subside.
  • Being patient as your body recovers.

Visit our “60 Natural Ways To Reduce Stress” article for more ways to reduce stress.

As the body recovers from hyperstimulation, it stops sending symptoms, including this one.

Symptoms of chronic stress subside as the body regains its normal, non-hyperstimulated health.

However, eliminating hyperstimulation can take much longer than most people think, causing symptoms to linger longer than expected.

As long as the body is even slightly hyperstimulated, it can present symptoms of any type, number, intensity, duration, frequency, and at any time, including this one.

Even so, since burning, itchy, and tight scalp are common symptoms of stress, including anxiety-caused stress, it's harmless and needn't be a cause for concern. They will subside when unhealthy stress has been eliminated and the body has had sufficient time to recover. Therefore, there is no reason to worry about it.

Anxiety symptoms often linger because:

  • The body is still being stressed (from stressful circumstances or anxious behavior).
  • Your stress hasn't diminished enough or for long enough.
  • Your body hasn't completed its recovery work.

Addressing the reason for lingering symptoms will allow the body to recover.

Most often, lingering anxiety symptoms ONLY remain because of the above reasons. They AREN'T a sign of a medical problem. This is especially true if you have had your symptoms evaluated by your doctor, and they have been solely attributed to anxiety or stress.

Chronic anxiety symptoms subside when hyperstimulation is eliminated. As the body recovers and stabilizes, all chronic anxiety symptoms will slowly diminish and eventually disappear.

Since worrying and becoming upset about anxiety symptoms stress the body, these behaviors can interfere with recovery.

Passively accepting your symptoms – allowing them to persist without reacting to, resisting, worrying about, or fighting them – while doing your recovery work will cause their cessation in time.

Acceptance, practice, and patience are key to recovery.

Keep in mind that it can take a long time for the body to recover from hyperstimulation. It's best to faithfully work at your recovery despite the lack of apparent progress.

However, if you persevere with your recovery work, you will succeed.

You also have to do your recovery work FIRST before your body can recover. The cumulative effects of your recovery work will produce results down the road. And the body's stimulation has to diminish before symptoms can subside.

  • Reducing stress.
  • Increasing rest.
  • Faithfully practicing your recovery strategies.
  • Passively accepting your symptoms.
  • Containing anxious behavior.
  • Being patient.

These will bring results in time.

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Short-term strategies

Even though eliminating hyperstimulation will eliminate chronic anxiety symptoms, including scalp symptoms, some people have found the following strategies helpful.

However, keep in mind that each person can have a unique symptom experience since each person is somewhat physically, chemically, psychologically, and emotionally unique. What might work for one person might not for another.

Reduce stress – Since stress, including anxiety-caused stress, is a common cause of this anxiety symptom, reducing stress can reduce episodes of this symptom.

Any stress reduction strategy can help improve this symptom. Visit our article “60 Ways To Reduce Stress And Anxiety” for natural stress reduction strategies.

Regular deep relaxation – Deep relaxation reduces the body’s overall level of stimulation and stress, leading to a reduction in anxiety symptoms, including scalp symptoms.

Regular good sleep – Regular good sleep can reduce stress, cortisol, and the body’s overall level of stimulation. Their reduction can reduce and eliminate anxiety symptoms, including this one.

Keep well hydrated – Dehydration can cause anxiety-like symptoms, including this one, and stress can dry out the skin. Keeping your body well hydrated can reduce and eliminate anxiety symptoms, including scalp symptoms.

Regularly brush your hair – Brushing your hair can stimulate blood flow to the scalp and brush away dry and flaky skin, reducing this symptom.

Wash your hair regularly – Since stress can dry out the skin, including on the scalp, and dry skin can cause burning and itching, washing your hair regularly can wash away dry and flaky skin. You might also want to use a hair moisturizer to keep the scalp well hydrated.

Change your shampoo and hair conditioner – Sometimes, stress can increase chemical sensitivities and allergic reactions, including to commonly used shampoos and hair conditioners. Changing them could reduce incidences of this symptom if it is aggravated by increased sensitivity.

Therapy

Unidentified and unaddressed underlying factors cause issues with anxiety. As such, they are the primary reason why anxiety symptoms persist.[13][14][15]

Addressing your underlying factors (Level Two recovery) is most important if you want lasting success.

Addressing Level Two recovery can help you:

  • Contain anxious behavior.
  • Become unafraid of anxiety symptoms and the strong feelings of anxiety.
  • End anxiety symptoms.
  • Successfully address the underlying factors that so often cause issues with anxiety.
  • End what can feel like out-of-control worry.

All our recommended anxiety therapists have had anxiety disorder and overcame it. Their personal experience with anxiety disorder and their Master's Degree and above professional training gives them insight other therapists don't have.

If you want to achieve lasting success over anxiety disorder, any one of our recommended therapists would be a good choice.

Working with an experienced anxiety disorder therapist is the most effective way to treat anxiety disorder, especially if you have persistent symptoms and difficulty containing anxious behavior, such as worry.

In many cases, working with an experienced therapist is the only way to overcome stubborn anxiety.

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Prevalence

In an online poll we conducted, 58 percent of respondents said they had burning, itchy, and tight scalp symptoms because of their anxiety.

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The combination of good self-help information and working with an experienced anxiety disorder therapist, coach, or counselor is the most effective way to address anxiety and its many symptoms. Until the core causes of anxiety are addressed – which we call the underlying factors of anxiety – a struggle with anxiety unwellness can return again and again. Dealing with the underlying factors of anxiety is the best way to address problematic anxiety.

Additional Resources

Return to our anxiety disorders signs and symptoms page.

anxietycentre.com: Information, support, and therapy for anxiety disorder and its symptoms, including Burning Itchy Tight Prickly Scalp anxiety symptoms.

References

1. Berczi, Istvan. “Walter Cannon's ‘Fight or Flight Response’ - ‘Acute Stress Response.’” Walter Cannon's "Fight or Flight Response"  - "Acute Stress Response", 2017.

2. Godoy, Livea, et al. "A Comprehensive Overview on Stress Neurobiology: Basic Concepts and Clinical Implications." Frontiers In Behavioral Neuroscience, 3, July 2018.

3. Elbers, Jorina, et al. "Wired for Threat: Clinical Features of Nervous System Dysregulation in 80 Children." Pediatric Neurology, Dec 2018.

4. Teixeira, Renata Roland, et al. “Chronic Stress Induces a Hyporeactivity of the Autonomic Nervous System in Response to Acute Mental Stressor and Impairs Cognitive Performance in Business Executives.” Current Neurology and Neuroscience Reports., U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2015.

5. Bear, Connors, Paradiso (2016). Neuroscience: Exploring the brain - Fourth Edition. In Neurons And Glia (pp. 29-53). New York, NY: Wolters Kluwer

6. Chudler, Erica. “Neuroscience For Kids.” Neuroscience For Kids - Brain vs. Computer, 2018.

7. Bear,Connors, Paradiso (2016). Neuroscience: Exploring the brain - Fourth Edition. In Sensory and Motor Systems (pp. 265-517). New York, NY: Wolters Kluwer

8. Ross, Valerie. “Mar 2019.” Discover Magazine, 15 May 2011.

9. Z, Fatahi, et al. "Effect of acute and subchronic stress on electrical activity of basolateral amygdala neurons in conditioned place preference paradigm: An electrophysiological study." Behavioral Brain Research, 29 Sept. 2017.

10. Justice, Nicholas J., et al. “Posttraumatic Stress Disorder-Like Induction Elevates β-Amyloid Levels, Which Directly Activates Corticotropin-Releasing Factor Neurons to Exacerbate Stress Responses.” Journal of Neuroscience, Society for Neuroscience, 11 Feb. 2015.

11. Laine, Mikaela A, et al. “Brain Activation Induced by Chronic Psychosocial Stress in Mice.” Advances in Pediatrics., U.S. National Library of Medicine, 2017.

12. Saif, Ghada A. Bin, et al. "Association of psychological stress with skin symptoms among medical students." Saudi Medical Journal, Jan 2018.

13. Hofmann, Stefan G., et al. “The Efficacy of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy: A Review of Meta-Analyses.” Cognitive Therapy and Research, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 1 Oct. 2012.

14. Leichsenring, Falk. “Is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy the Gold Standard for Psychotherapy?” JAMA, American Medical Association, 10 Oct. 2017.

15. DISCLAIMER: Because each body is somewhat chemically unique, and because each person will have a unique mix of symptoms and underlying factors, recovery results may vary. Variances can occur for many reasons, including due to the severity of the condition, the ability of the person to apply the recovery concepts, and the commitment to making behavioral change.