Vision Boarding — I use this as a practice to help me focus on what is important to me that I want — and don’t want. Though everything might not come true, the idea is to plant the seeds of hope. After Sameer and I were married, we were living out of boxes in limbo, waiting for a new job to come through for him. Rather than focus on envisioning “a job in New York,” I left it open, writing “we are in the city that brings us peace, love, and success as a family.” A few months later we were leaving NYC behind for Minneapolis — and a few years later, our 2 sons — and HabitAware were born!
As a part of my series about “Mental Health Champions” helping to promote mental wellness, I had the pleasure to interview Aneela Idnani.
Aneela Idnani is co-founder of HabitAware, a digital health company serving the ~20 million Americans with Body Focused Repetitive Behaviors (BFRBs), like compulsive hair pulling (trichotillomania), skin picking (dermatillomania) and nail biting (onychophagia). Living with trichotillomania for more than 20 years, Aneela is now a mental health advocate, author, and TEDx speaker raising awareness of these very common, yet unknown conditions.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you a bit. Can you tell us a bit how you grew up?
Thank you for allowing me to share my mental health journey.
I grew up in Long Island, NY in the ’80s and ’90s with my parents and sister. My parents moved to the United States with five hundred dollars, one suitcase and graduate degrees from India. Though they faced challenges as immigrants, on the whole, they lived the proverbial “American dream” of working hard to build a close knit family and successful careers. My mom is now a retired dentist and entrepreneur, having run her own dental practice for nearly 30 years. My dad was also an entrepreneur, running his own import/export business from home, right up until he lost his 4-year battle to cancer when I was 17. I still remember how we moved his fax machine into his hospital room so he could continue to receive and fulfill order contracts while getting chemotherapy. Work ethic is one of many things my parents instilled in me.
Growing up I was considered “shy,” but now I know it was really a social and general anxiety disorder. I was an introvert with low self-confidence who preferred watching tv, crafting and reading books to playing outside with the neighborhood kids. Civil Rights History enthralled me and I was drawn to the lives of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Anne Frank. As an empath, I felt a deep connection to their struggles, despite living in safety and security. They inspired me, for they lived bravely, selflessly, and purposefully. All I truly dreamed of was finding purpose in life like them — a reason for being, something — no matter the size — to commit to and make a difference in, not just for myself, but for others as well. But at 17, I felt lost after my father’s death and hopeless in this endeavor.
You are currently leading a social impact organization that is helping to promote mental wellness. Can you tell us a bit about what you or your organization are trying to address?
10 years prior to the start of HabitAware, I nearly took my own life. Today, I am truly humbled to be living my dream with HabitAware.
As a TIME Magazine Best Invention and recipient of Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grants from the National Institute of Mental Health and National Science Foundation, HabitAware is serving an underserved mental health community and empowering their mental wellness.
HabitAware addresses a critical hurdle to recovery for the ~20M Americans living with Body Focused Repetitive Behaviors (BFRBs), specifically hair pulling (trichotillomania), skin picking (dermatillomania) and nail biting (onychophagia). Here’s how:
Our hands are the gateway to the mind and when our minds are restless, our hands become restless as a way to cope with the stress, boredom, hunger, tiredness, or anxiety that we endure. Hair pulling, skin picking and nail biting behaviors are the “fight, flight or freeze” part of the brain on overdrive.
HabitAware’s newest innovation, the Keen2 smart bracelet, empowers the BFRB community to face the automatic and trancelike nature of these behaviors head on. Keen2 uses patented gesture detection technology to bring awareness to the unwanted hair pulling, skin picking and nail biting hand movements.
Without awareness, making lasting lifestyle change is near impossible. Awareness is also the first step of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, a gold standard of care for people with BFRBs. Keen2’s gentle vibration is a reminder to notice where the hands are and to replace the unwanted behavior with healthier coping strategies. Keen2’s mobile app also provides access to digitized evidence-based treatments of Habit Reversal Training to further cement this behavior change practice for those in our Keen family.
Can you tell us the backstory about what inspired you to originally feel passionate about this cause?
As a tween I turned to hair pulling as a soothing mechanism for school bullying and as a way to deal with my father’s battle with cancer. It was a natural progression as a childhood thumb sucker and hair twirler. At the time, I felt alone, embarrassed and afraid that I was pulling out my hair. I was terrified kids at school would have more reason to ignore and outcast me. It also seemed minor compared to my father’s challenges, as I had no idea it was a mental health condition — we didn’t have the internet yet! So, I hid in shame for more than 20 years. Hair pulling became my goto outlet for all my stress and my black eye pencil was my partner in crime. I had gotten so good at hiding the damage I was doing that friends complimented me on how pretty my eyebrows were! But, I was far from confident and my compulsive hair pulling weighed negatively on my internal self-speak, my abilities and decisions. I never thought I’d be good enough.
Fast forward to today, I realized that if I had support and HabitAware when I was a kid, I would be in a different place in life right now (though, I have also come to understand that my past pain was always guiding me to this work!)
Knowing that the HabitAware team can change the trajectory of peoples’ lives for the better is what fuels me to continue raising awareness of hair pulling, skin picking and nail biting. We need more education and empathy for others in the Body Focused Repetitive Behavior community to feel safe enough to shift their time, effort and energy from concealing to healing.
I am seeing such strides in the community since HabitAware’s 2015 start and feel proud of the work we are doing to shatter stigma and judgement!
Many of us have ideas, dreams, and passions, but never manifest it. They don’t get up and just do it. But you did. Was there an “Aha Moment” that made you decide that you were actually going to step up and do it? What was that final trigger?
The idea for HabitAware happened because I was caught — after 20+ years of hiding. One day, as I walked into the bathroom to grab my black eye pencil and cover the pulling damage from the night before, I bumped into my husband and now co-founder, Sameer. He squinted and asked “where are your eyebrows?” At that moment, I shared my hair pulling secret.
A few weeks later we were sitting on the couch watching TV and I was pulling in a trance-like state. Sameer noticed and gently grabbed my hand and that was my “aha moment” of “If I knew I was pulling my eyebrow or eyelash hairs out, could I change course?”
It started out as a fun project to try to make something just for me, but when it worked, we became more methodical in how HabitAware came to be. It was a mix of hard work and luck — or as I prefer to think of it, the universe guiding our way:
- First, we focused on testing the hypothesis with prototypes made from local craft store trinkets to see, “Does the idea of knowing where my hands are have merit?”
- Then, we asked ourselves, “Can we build it?” This meant sharing both my mental health condition and business idea with friends in the Minneapolis tech community to find teammates that could help us develop a technical version. Through friends and serendipity, we ultimately met our technical co-founders, Kirk Klobe & John Pritchard.
- Together we tried to figure out “Will it work?” And it did! Even with early flawed prototypes, I built awareness of when my hands pulled at my eyebrows, stopped sooner, and used healthier tactics to cope with triggers. We shared more developed prototypes with alpha and beta testers and received similar results, as well as important feedback to improve future iterations of the HabitAware device.
- Then, we asked the best question any entrepreneur must ask, “Will other people want it and pay for it?” At a non-profit conference our rudimentary prototypes were met with praise, excitement and pre-orders, confirming that the community we sought to support were open to our innovative technology.
The final trigger that pushed the four of us from just hacking nights and weekends to focusing on HabitAware full time was receiving an invitation to attend HAX.co, the premiere hardware accelerator program. It meant moving to the electronics manufacturing capital of the world, Shezhen, China, for three months — with a three year old! — to dedicate our time and effort to building a high-tech product for our mental health community. All the previous questions we asked ourselves answered the final question, “Should we go?”
It was a definitive “YES!” and a defining moment for HabitAware. HAX was both a financial investor, as well as an extension of our team, allowing us to move faster to market with a quality product.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
There is not just one interesting story, but more so, a series of fortunate events that have pushed HabitAware forward. Our startup journey has been like the quote from Paulo Coelho’s book, The Alchemist, “When you want something, all the universe conspires to help you achieve it.” Our recipe feels like two parts hard work, one part community support, and one part serendipity. Here’s but one example:
At the start of 2019, I glued the TEDx logo to my vision board. A few months later, the organizing team at Emerging Prairie invited me to speak. Their invitation was based on a recommendation from a mutual connection: one of their advisors had judged my pitch at a 2018 Minneapolis-based startup competition.
2 years after HabitAware started shipping, I humbly stepped on the TEDxFargo stage and shared how I used the power of awareness to overcome trichotillomania. Nearly 60,000 people have seen my story, allowing us to raise awareness of hair pulling, skin picking and nail biting disorders, and build empathy and connection.
None of us can be successful without some help along the way. Did you have mentors or cheerleaders who helped you to succeed? Can you tell us a story about their influence?
Whenever I have been at my lowest points, my mom and sister have always been there to catch me. During my depressive spiral, I decided my sadness was rooted in a lack of self worth and loneliness. It was my mid-twenties — the customary time for an Indian girl of my age to marry. Instead, my mom encouraged me to quit my job and figure out how to make right what I felt was wrong. For 4 months, I stayed with my sister, who by then had moved with her husband to Mumbai, India. Spending time with her, in the high-contrast city of Mumbai, and with extended family was enough to feel found again after my father’s death. I thought I had lost him, but found he was still there with me. With a renewed mindset, I returned home to New York. I moved in with my mom and she introduced me to the things that helped her cope with the loss of my dad — the power of positivity, prayer, walking with friends, and Buddhist chanting. I incorporated her practices into my own.
My mom and my sister continue to cheer me on — rightfully sharing the successes of HabitAware as though they are their own — because without their love and guidance, I would not be here, and neither would HabitAware.
According to Mental Health America’s report, over 44 million Americans have a mental health condition. Yet there’s still a stigma about mental illness. Can you share a few reasons you think this is so?
There is a cultural perception that because mental health conditions are of the mind, stemming from our thoughts, feelings and actions, that we are in control. It’s this sense of control that creates mental health stigma. We are faulted and blamed for our mental illnesses. The “buck up” philosophy makes us feel guilty and ashamed that we simply can’t “just stop” or “just toughen’ up!”
A person with diabetes is not chided because their body cannot produce insulin. It is understood that the person has no control over pancreatic insulin production. What a diabetic can control is what they eat, how much they exercise, the type of medication they take, etc. These are all lifestyle changes designed to improve their ability to manage the chronic physical condition.
In the same way, society must realize that mental illness is rooted in the automatic brain, genetics, hormones, and trauma, none of which are things we can control! Again, what we can do is learn to manage the mental health condition with lifestyle change. This is the system we strive to impart to our Keen family in taking control of body focused repetitive behaviors.
In your experience, what should a) individuals b) society, and c) the government do to better support people suffering from mental illness?
Mental health IS health. To support people with mental illness is to support everyone. Everyone has mental health and even if someone is “fine” today, they may not be tomorrow. Though no one is immune to mental illness, some are more likely to suffer as research shows financial issues and childhood trauma often go hand-in-hand with mental health problems.
At the individual and societal levels, we need a communal reset. Seth Godin said it best, “The best lesson of high school might be that everyone has a noise in their heads, everyone feels uncomfortable, and everyone would appreciate a little kindness and respect.” When we don’t receive empathy and compassion, it weighs on us and degrades our thoughts about ourselves. (This was the start of my mental decline.)
With regard to government intervention, we need investment in an equitable system of mental health care to help people today. But to create long term change, we need to invest in our children through the education system. First, our system needs to be redesigned to better match how the brain develops, focusing on learning social skills and resilience through play in the early years. Then, it needs to teach kids healthy coping mechanisms that fuel the mind, body and soul — meditation/deep breathing, art/music/writing, physical play (exercise) outdoors etc. If we can instill these lifestyle rituals, along with a desire to learn, be curious and innovate, we will have not just mentally stronger adults, but a stronger economy and country in the future.
What are your 6 strategies you use to promote your own wellbeing and mental wellness? Can you please give a story or example for each?
I’ve alluded to a few of my wellness strategies already, but here they are in more detail:
- Vision Boarding — I use this as a practice to help me focus on what is important to me that I want — and don’t want. Though everything might not come true, the idea is to plant the seeds of hope. After Sameer and I were married, we were living out of boxes in limbo, waiting for a new job to come through for him. Rather than focus on envisioning “a job in New York,” I left it open, writing “we are in the city that brings us peace, love, and success as a family.” A few months later we were leaving NYC behind for Minneapolis — and a few years later, our 2 sons — and HabitAware were born!
- Sleeping — In using the data from HabitAware Keen, it finally hit me that working while overly stressed and exhausted late at night was a big trigger for hair pulling. Since then, I’ve practiced going to bed at 11pm instead of 2am. Even though the work is still there in the morning, at least my hair is too!
- Creating — Ever since childhood I have loved the sense of accomplishment in creating art or crafts with my own hands. As a perfectionist, I’ve also found art to be a source of frustration, as I fear imperfection. I struggle with not being able to bring pieces to life exactly the way I see them in my mind. I once even painted over an entire canvas because I just couldn’t “get it right.” But I’ve learned from that and have created a safe space to experiment and apply new techniques without getting in my own way — it relies on simply getting extra material and experimenting in the same way we did for HabitAware!
- Hydrating — In an effort to lose weight after my 2nd child, I started exercising and eating healthier. I also knew hydration was important so I opted for coconut water as it provided some flavor. Months later my body and weight were not changing. So I researched it and read that replacing coconut water is a good source of hydration when substituting unhealthy sodas, but does a disservice to the body when substituting for actual water! So I switched back to water and woke up more refreshed and focused.
- Writing — Whenever I am feeling “blocked” or agitated with a situation, I turn to writing to help clear my mind and negative thoughts. Releasing my feelings from my mind and onto paper reducing the hold those feelings have on my actions. My trick is to keep asking myself “why” I feel a certain way until I can get to the core negative belief that is the driving force — and then I write affirmations to flip the belief to the positive.
- Praying — Worrying has consumed me to the point of becoming Intrusive Thoughts, an OCD. I found that believing in — and talking to — a higher power quiets the noise in my head.
What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a mental health champion?
As previously mentioned, Paulo Coehlo’s The Alchemist saved my life. I read this book during a deep depression that nearly took my life. It gave me hope to trust in the universe and to follow my heart. I also read James Altucher’s Choose Yourself a year before HabitAware started and it gave me the confidence to quite literally choose myself!
My current podcast feed includes PsychHub (https://psychhub.com/podcast/) co-hosted by former Congressman Patrick J. Kennedy and Marjorie Morrison. It is a new weekly show that shares the mental health journeys of public figures and from mental health experts creating solutions to our national mental health crisis.
I also enjoy listening to The Big Life Journal Podcast (https://biglifejournal.com/pages/podcast) during the ride to school with my two young kids. My hope is to instill a growth mindset in both of them — and myself — and encourage resilience and the practice of other soft skills needed to face life’s challenges.
If you could tell other people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?
We must believe and trust that regardless of the size of our impact, we are here for a reason. It’s this mindset that pulled me out of my depressive and suicidal spiral in my early 20s. Rather than convince some as to why they should make a positive impact, I ask, “Why would you not consider making a positive impact? What do you lose by trying to leave this world a little better than you found it?”
How can our readers follow you online?
We welcome you joining our community by following @habitaware on Instagram, Facebook and Twitter and by signing up for our inspiring weekly email at www.habitaware.com/newsletter.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!
Thank you for your support. I hope my story inspires others to see purpose in their pain and take positive action.