Sorry this is so long. I tried to edit as much as possible. I'm just very verbose.
Why do you say protective styling may not be for you? Have you ever done protective styling before? If so, what was/were your style of choice?
I've experienced this severely before and mildly as of late. I've posted about it a lot before if you care to search. In a nutshell here's what I've done that got me a remedy: cutting off the damage (there's really no way around this if you want optimally healthy strands of hair), protective styling, moisturizing and sealing my hair daily, no heat, low manipulation, and protective styling(oh I already mentioned that).lol
In my experience, the mid strand splits are brought on by a combination of things. The most important is not having a proper balance of moisture and protein. Secondly, excessive tension, which is what you've identified. Manipulating the hair too often and too harshly will wreck havoc on your strands- especially kinky curly ones. The natural haven did a blog post about the structure of kinky hair and how over stretching it can encourage those splits. I wish I was eloquent enough to explain it. I'd try if I weren't on my iPod. Lastly, HEAT. Self explanatory really. this is the main cause of my recent, but much smaller, setback.
The first time around I just did a bc down to 1 inch and started from scratch because it was easier. I tried the gradual trimming but I had too much damage. Not even mini chops were helping. The thing with doing it gradually is that they will get worse if you're not cutting off enough of the damage. I wore extensions for 6 months after I bc'd and when I took them out I had a plan on managing my hair and it worked well for me (kept them at bay foe over a year, did not need to trim my hair much at all).All I did was moisturize and seal my hair everyday , and I did my hair on a weekly basis (wash, dc, detangling). I detangled less often if i wore twists. I wore twist outs during the summer and twists during the fall/winter.
I started to slack on my regimen and used heat twice and then the setback came. This time I'm not gonna do another bc because I don't have that much damage. Its at the ends for the most part. I did a trim before I put in my current protective style and I'll see how much more I need to trim after I take these out.
I won't tell you how much to cut because it's up to your level of comfort, but if you've had this problem for a while and it isn't getting any better then you may have to just bite the bullet for the sake of healthh hair. But then again, the extent of the problem may not be as bad as you think so it is possible to do it gradually if you stay on top of your maintenance. Really assess your damage though. Looking at the shed hair is a good way to gauge the extent of the damage. And consider your rate of growth in this as well. That may help you make a better decision. If it seems slower than average, choping as much as possible may be a better option. You may notice better retention or "faster growth" afterwards, like me. If its average or above average, you may can do well with the gradual approach. I'd advise against waiting till next spring to do any cutting though. Not a good idea IMO. That will just give the splits more time for traveling up the hair strand. There's no stopping them. At the very least start a trim schedule/regimen if you're adamant against mini chops or a bc.
Finger combing is a really good idea. I haven't used a tool since maybe march or April.
Get that moisture/protein balance in order. Work on those cuticles. The healthier they are the less damage your hair will experience. Evaluate your products and their ingredients. How's the overall feel of your hair?
Decreasing manipulation will benefit you as well. How do you normally wear your hair? Do you have a relatively consistent process or regimen? It's getting cooler outside and dry weather is approaching as well. You should think about how you'll wear your hair if you don't want to put it away.
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