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“I think we need to recognize that our minds are fragile and mental health disorders can strike at any time.” with Aneela Idnani

I also think we need to recognize that our minds are fragile and mental health disorders can strike at any time. We need our governments, our insurance companies, our education system and our healthcare providers to build a better support system for those with mental health conditions. We need more preventative care and early intervention. […]


I also think we need to recognize that our minds are fragile and mental health disorders can strike at any time. We need our governments, our insurance companies, our education system and our healthcare providers to build a better support system for those with mental health conditions. We need more preventative care and early intervention. We need parity when it comes to insurance coverage and just like an annual physical checkup is covered by most insurance policies, I believe an annual “mental checkup” should be too.

I had the pleasure to interview Aneela Idnani is Cofounder & President of HabitAware. HabitAware created its Keen smart bracelet to help people “Retrain the Brain” from unwanted behaviors, like hair pulling disorder (trichotillomania), compulsive skin picking (dermatillomania) & nail biting to healthier strategies. Having grown up hiding her hair pulling disorder in shame, Aneela is now an outspoken mental health advocate, raising awareness of these common yet unknown conditions. HabitAware is partly funded by a research grant from the NIH and was named a TIME Magazine 2018 Best Invention.


Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us the “backstory” about what brought you to this specific career path?

As a first generation American, I grew up seeing my two immigrant parents work together at their own business endeavors. My mom practiced dentistry and ran her own practice and my dad traded products from / to overseas. We are Indian Sindhis and are descendants of the “business class.” As such, I grew up feeding my creativity with various art projects and playing “office.”

My career path has taken a lot of twists and turns. I started in accounting, because I loved the way T accounts just balanced. For someone with anxiety, it was very calming! However, three years into working at a top audit firm, I found myself craving a creative outlet. I left accounting to travel and then continue my studies in art direction, copywriting and creative strategy. I then spent 6 years in top ad agencies in NYC and Minneapolis — learning more about entrepreneurship than one could ever imagine.

Today I am a co-founder of a mental health technology company, HabitAware (habitaware.com). My entire life — from the ups to the downs — have led up to this moment and I wouldn’t trade any of my past missteps because it might mean HabitAware would not exist today.

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?

In American culture having cancer or diabetes is not a sign of weakness, yet when someone has a mental health disorder, it is judged and seen as a mark of shame. We don’t chastise someone because they can’t process insulin, yet we bark orders to “buck up” to people suffering from depression and anxiety.

This is stigma and it exists because of lack of compassion and understanding. It exists because it is really very hard to understand something that is to an extent invisible.

Can you tell our readers about how you are helping to de-stigmatize the focus on mental wellness?

I believe sharing our mental health stories and struggles can make the invisible visible. In this way we can slowly educate those that do not understand the gravity of mental health disorders. This is my personal mission and I share my struggle with hair pulling disorder (trichotillomania), OCD Intrusive Thoughts, and anxiety. I am now open about my past battles with depression. For more than 20 years I hid my hair pulling behavior out of shame and embarrassment. I thought I was alone and weird for doing this to myself. But it is not a choice and I no longer live in fear. I pull out my hair, but it does not define me, in the same way that excess blood glucose levels don’t define someone living with a diabetic condition.

Was there a story behind why you decided to launch this initiative?

YES! HabitAware was born out of necessity. It solved my personal 20 year struggle with trichotillomania. A few years ago, by accident — or serendipity — my husband caught me without eyebrows. In this moment I shared my hair pulling secret and explainedthat it was the way I coped with stress, anxiety and boredom. I also shared how trance-like and automatic this soothing mechanism was for me. I just didn’t realize until the damage was done. Then, one day as we were sitting on the couch watching tv, he grabbed my hand. He had noticed I was pulling. I turned to him and said “ I wish I had something that notified me.” Fast forward to today, he, myself and two technically inclined friends have built Keen by HabitAware. Keen is a smart bracelet that uses custom gesture detection to bring “keen” awareness to these body focused repetitive behaviors (BFRBs). This behaviors include hair pulling, as well as skin picking (dermatillomania), nail biting and thumb sucking. BFRBs affect 1 in 25 Americans, but again, because of the stigma, many hide like I did.

Now, our Keen bracelet is reviving HOPE! Keen connects to a mobile app for a 30-second gesture training process. When Keen senses a match to the gesture trained, it sends a vibration — a gentle “hug” on the wrist — reminding a wearer of where their hands are. This power of awareness is critical to making healthier choices.

With consistent practice, one can leverage the awareness Keen creates to retrain their brain and take control of these behaviors. We are helping thousands of people around the world in this endeavor and it so exciting to bring this community together! We are not alone anymore!

In your experience, what should a) individuals b) society, and c) the government do to better support people suffering from mental illness?

To better support people suffering from mental illness we need a cultural shift. People need to recognize that Mental Health is HEALTH. Our minds and our souls are just as important, if not more so, than our physical health. What good is a strong body if we don’t have a capable mind?

I also think we need to recognize that our minds are fragile and mental health disorders can strike at any time. We need our governments, our insurance companies, our education system and our healthcare providers to build a better support system for those with mental health conditions. We need more preventative care and early intervention. We need parity when it comes to insurance coverage and just like an annual physical checkup is covered by most insurance policies, I believe an annual “mental checkup” should be too.

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 have a lot of strategies that I employ to stay mentally well. Here are some of my favorites:

(1) Rewriting MY story — For a very long time, negative memories filled my mind. In working with my psychologist, she had me talk through a pervasive negative memory. I shared how I was in a new school setting, at around 9 years old and how a girl had made fun of my jacket. This and similar memories, along with my hair pulling, fed a vicious cycle of negative self-speak. My psychologist helped me re-write this memory so that it no longer had a hold on me.

(2) Prayer — I believe that you need to believe in something higher than you for this world to make any sense. I have learned to turn my worries, my hopes, my dreams to this higher power. This doesn’t mean I sit back waiting for things to happen, it means I am more focused on what I need to do to accomplish my dreams.

(3) Affirmations — In an effort to combat my lack of self-confidence, I employ a variety of affirmations. I even now try to speak these words over my two young sons at bed time. I want them knowing who they are, I want them defining who they are, before other people can.

(4) Gratitude — This is my favorite trick! Instead of just noticing things that happen each day that I am grateful for, I focus on things in the future that I am grateful for. I complete this sentence: “I am happy and grateful now that …” For example, back in 2011, my husband and I were coming up on 1 year of marriage. He was looking for a job and I was burning out in mine. I kept with my mantra of “I am happy and grateful now that we have awesome careers that we love and enjoy. We live in the city that brings our family happiness.” A few months later we moved from New York City to Minneapolis. A few years later, we now have two awesome kids and work together doing something we love: helping others leverage the power of “Keen” awareness to take control of their mental health conditions!

(5) Sleep! — In using Keen and tracking the behavior with the app, I was finally aware enough to recognized that most of my pulling happened late at night, when I was forcing myself to stay awake to work but should really have been sleeping. Now, I just go to sleep!

(6) Time for Creativity — I need a creative outlet beyond designing and writing while at work. I love making things with my hands and find art to be therapeutic because of the level of concentration needed. It’s hard for the mind to wander when you are trying to create something you’ve never created before.

What are your favorite books, podcasts, or resources that inspire you to be a mental health champion?

I am inspired by The OCD Stories (https://theocdstories.com/) and the Feeling Weird Podcast (http://feelinweird.com), both of which share the stories and struggles of people with mental health conditions in an attempt to educate and crush stigma. I also like Natasha Daniels / Anxious Toddlers + Teens Youtube channel (https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCuoDSSCePQ6xkbi2FJNm9kA) — especially the “for kids” videos because it explains mental health concepts in such simple language that anyone can understand!

Thank you so much for these insights! This was so inspiring!

Thank you so much! I am ever grateful for the chance to share my story in hopes someone reading has an “ah ha!” moment.

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