Ask HabitAware: How long will it take to retrain my brain? I want my life back yesterday!

From time to time we get questions from our users that we can only guess others are thinking as well.

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Bianca from Toronto, Canada asks:

Hi, I’ve been using Keen by HabitAware and I definitely notice a huge difference in my habit on days that I wear it and days that I don’t! What would you say is the typical time period it takes for someone to take control of a behavior?

Thanks!

Bianca


Answer:

Habits are tricky and depend on how ingrained they are. We would be skeptical of anyone touting a quick solution or firm timetable, because it depends so much on the particular situation. We have seen good results with the worst habits in 2-3 months with consistent use.  The process works in a few stages:

1) Awareness of the behavior when wearing the bracelet - Most people notice increased awareness almost immediately. With consistent use, you will likely anticipate Keen's vibration before you even do the behavior -- and even before Keen!  This means you are building your awareness muscle!

2) Awareness of the behavior without wearing the bracelet - You begin to notice when you are doing it even when not wearing the bracelets.  In some cases you may be able to pull away, but in others maybe not.  This is okay, and to be expected in the beginning.

3) Determining your triggers - As you develop awareness, you'll then be able to assess the situations in which you are likely to do your behavior.  You can use Keen's app to track your behavior - just push the button on Keen's bracelet when you engage in the behavior. Then, sync back with the app. Over time, patterns will emerge.

4) Replacing the behavior - After you have identified your triggers, figure out what you can do instead of the behavior.  If it's in the office, just realizing you are anxious, stressed, bored, etc. and then proactively taking a walk, grabbing a glass of water, or doing a breathing exercise can help you refocus and curb the urge to pull or pick or nail-bite.  Over time you will build this replacement behavior into your routine, and it will override the undesirable habit circuitry in your brain with more practice.

 
 

If you have a question you want answered, email us and include "Ask HabitAware" in the subject line. We'll always write back and sometimes we just may post your question to our blog!!!

With love + awareness,

Aneela (trichster + cofounder)


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From Sketching to Shipping: Keen's Story

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If you've been following the HabitAware/Keen journey then you know that reaching this milestone has been a long time coming. (If you haven't been following, sign up here for our e-newsletter!)

What started as a fun side project for a husband and wife trying to solve her specific hair pulling (trichotillomania) problem is now a 4-founder company poised to help people around the world.

We are over the moon to have been able to grow our Minneapolis-based team and see our homegrown experiment turn into an international collaboration developing new, interesting products in the health and wellness space.

We know Keen has the power to unleash your awareness and take control, because we've seen it happen firsthand. And we’re excited to be supporting you through the journey, as many of you have supported us through today.

A LONG ROAD.

Homemade prototypes and hack-a-thons

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It seems like yesterday we were working on early prototypes and testing if my crazy wish for "something that just notified me” would work.

After being caught without eyebrows and eyelashes, I confessed my hair pulling disorder. Sameer and I then began experimenting with super low tech prototypes to help me. In one option crafted from a shopping trip to Michael's, I wore hello kitty snap bracelets, paperclips and jingle bells.  

Then there was the not-so-genius idea of using magnets near my ears and on a thumb ring. When the two got near each other I was painfully made aware of my attempt to pull my eyebrows, as the two magnetic pieces had such a powerful attraction, they would clamp my earlobe! Ouch.

As we realized we weren't making progress, Sameer & I pulled back to focus on work and a new baby. But the spark was ignited and I began opening up for the first time about my pulling, finding it less shameful to share that I compulsively pull out my hair than I feared.

Once I shared that "I wanted to build something to make me aware" with friends in the Minneapolis tech community, we started seeing doors open. A friend told me about a hardware hack-a-thon and this is where the HabitAware team came together.

Fate worked in many ways to bring us together. But we also have hard work to thank for that hack-a-thon success.

The first device was a bulky, barebones prototype. To be honest, it was pretty ugly! But, it kinda worked! Very early in our testing we were excited to see that I was succeeding!

From there we experimented with 3D printed cases and off-the-shelf hardware to iterate quickly. We learned that if you want to make something right, you must take the time to build it from the ground up, rather than attempting to retrofit someone else's product.

This goes for both hardware (the physical awareness bracelet) and software (the bracelet algorithm and training mobile app), which founders, John and Kirk have owned & rocked ever since that hack day!

MAKING SOMETHING RIGHT

A unique awareness device from the ground up

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After much testing, we realized how important it was to address not just a few, but all the challenges involved in making a discreet, safe, reliable, and beautiful wearable product designed to empower positive behavior change.

To build an awareness wearable that facilitates behavior change, we had to ask fundamental questions and get to the heart of the problem. For us, it wasn't "Here's this cool tech we know how to develop, what can we do with it?" Instead, it was "Here's this problem we have and need to solve...what's the best possible way to solve it?"

This exploration took time, we are blessed and grateful to those of you who stuck with us, and are very excited to be providing one of the first truly second-generation wearables out there.

While there are cheap, off-the-shelf wearables out there that can quickly be tweaked to do some of the things Keen does, they couldn't do everything to become an effective tool against hair pulling, skin picking, nail-biting and even thumb-sucking.

If HabitAware went "quick-n-dirty" with our production process we would not have been able to bring you a product that:

  • Can be used standalone from the phone, after training with the accompanying mobile app. This is perfect for kids without smart phone and for prolonging battery life.

  • Is fully customizable, so you can:

    • Train multiple gestures / areas, not just straight up to your face

    • Track detections and see your progress

    • Set your own vibration style

    • Nickname your bracelet for easy in-app identification

  • Incorporates replacement strategies, a core component of successful behavior change

  • Meets global safety certification standards

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By striving for the best, we deepened our commitment to this cause that runs deep within us, and have raised nearly $3,000 for TLC Foundation for BFRBs so far! That commitment has been acknowledged again and again, each time we receive an order or accolade, and we are grateful for it.

While we know there is always room for improvement, we are proud to serve our BFRB community with the Keen we are NOW SHIPPING!!


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My trich is not just a bad habit.

by Aneela Kumar, "trichster" & cofounder of HabitAware, a smart bracelet to help you become aware of your subconscious behavior (whether it be hair pulling, nail biting, skin picking, thumb-sucking or another). With awareness, you are able to gain control, retrain your brain and replace the behavior with a healthier one. (This article was originally featured on The Mighty.)

BFRBs are life-threatening. They won’t kill you — but they sure do make you feel like your life is over.

“What is a BFRB?”

BFRB stands for body-focused repetitive behavior. This is essentially an uncontrollable and subconscious action which causes damage to one’s body. Included in this group are trichotillomania (compulsive hair pulling), dermatillomania (compulsive skin picking) and onychophagia (compulsive nail biting).

“Come on, those just sound like bad habits. They don’t sound life-threatening.”

Having a BFRB may not kill you in the physical sense, but people with BFRBs who don’t get help can feel like they’re dying inside. I know because I live with a BFRB — I’ve had trichotillomania since my early teens.

In my early 20s my trich was at an all time high after being cheated on and dumped. My heart was broken — and I was taken back to when I first started pulling as a 12-year-old child watching my father wither away from leukemia. My only consolation was pulling out every eyelash and eyebrow hair I had. It somehow eased the pain, but with it came more reasons to shut out the world. I thought I was ugly and undeserving.

So yeah, I can absolutely attest to the fact that having a BFRB is life-threatening. The baldness and scars are permanent reminders that not only feed our internal guilt and eat at our self-esteem, but also gives bullies a reason to have their fun. All of which make it feel like life is over.

Growing up pulling out eyebrows and eyelashes meant constantly worrying my makeup would wipe or wash away. I hid my pulling from everyone I knew, including my parents. I still remember this one time my dad pulled up to a friend’s house to drop me off at her birthday pool party. I got last-minute jitters and ducked down in the backseat, begging him to take me home — I didn’t want to be caught.

The stress my BFRB caused me, the physical marks it left and the mental anguish of going outside “looking like that” all make daily living a chore. The compulsive pulling, picking or biting is trance-like. We aren’t able to live and enjoy life because our time is spent locked in a bathroom fixing a wig or makeup to cover it up. If not locked in a bathroom, we are locked in our own heads — trying to convince ourselves no one will notice and that we should just go out to that party we were invited to — only to finally give in to our BFRB and sit at home. And so we miss out on life’s key moments with friends and family, losing out on the opportunity to share joy and just live.

It’s hard when we feel like no one understands the struggle we endure. When people don’t understand why we can’t “just stop” engaging in our hair-pulling, skin-picking or nail-biting behavior, they:

  • Judge us.
  • Stare at us.
  • Whisper about us.
  • Laugh at us.

All this isolates us from the world and strengthens the narrative in our minds that there is something wrong with us and we are worthless.

“But what can I do about that?”

For those who don’t even know why they are engaging in these “weird” body-focused repetitive behaviors, for those whose lives are being threatened by this disorder, for the ones who are dying inside, I want them to know there is a small bit of hope for a better life. And that bit of hope lies within you, dear reader. Yes, you have the power to save a BFRBer’s life with just a few small simple actions:

  • Show some love to someone at school or work you think may be struggling with a BFRB with a warm hug or an invite to hang out.
  • Share this article so you can help someone who is hiding their suffering realize they are not alone.
  • Donate to TLC Foundation for BFRBs (bfrb.org), the only American non-profit dedicated to funding research for a cure and supporting the BFRB community.
 
 

About HabitAware
HabitAware's smart bracelet, Keen, helps you become aware of your subconscious behavior (whether it be hair pulling, nail biting, skin picking, thumb-sucking or another). With awareness, you are able to gain control, retrain your brain and replace the behavior with a healthier one. Check out habitaware.com for more info & to order, or email Aneela@habitaware.com with questions.

Please welcome Keen (formerly Liv)

Our smart bracelet helps you develop your own Keen sense of awareness over time. 

Keen is your coach, helping you take control of hair pulling, nail biting, skin picking (body focused repetitive behaviors) and thumb-sucking.

Visit our homepage to get Keen. 

With love & awareness,

Aneela

 

A smart bracelet that creates awareness of subconscious behaviors like hair pulling, nail biting, skin picking and thumb-sucking in older children. You can't change what you don't know is happening. Keen helps you become aware so you can take control.

#BFRBWeek 2016: Our favorite BFRB Advocates & "Storytellers"

It's BFRB Awareness Week 2016 and we want to thank all those in the community for making some noise! 

One of the best ways to learn about ANYTHING and overcome anything is through story-telling.  

If you want to better understand how Body Focused Repetitive Behaviors (BFRBs) shape (or distort) people's lives, I highly recommend these books & films.

Most links lead to the TLC Foundation for BFRBs store, so if you choose to purchase one (or more) of these, you'll also be supporting the only American non-profit funding research for a cure!

Trichster: The Documentary

Film by Jillian Corsie, Director/Producer/Editor

"Trichster follows seven individuals, ranging from eight years old to late twenties, as they navigate the complicated emotions surrounding trichotillomania and the effect it has on their daily lives. Whether dealing with family and friends to budding relationships and careers, each is affected differently and have unique obstacles to overcome. Ultimately each must decide how much they allow their disorder to define who they are as people."

Doesn't It Hurt?: Confessions of Compulsive Hair Pullers

Book by Sandy Rosenblatt, Editor, Blogger & BFRB Advocate

A compelling compilation of stories by 15 bfrb'ers from around the world. Each contributor shares their personal journey with hair pulling disorder, some will leave you in tears, but all will leave you with hope. 

Life is Trichy

Book by Lindsey Muller, M.S., LMHC, Mental Health Therapist

Life is Trichy is a true story, following Lindsey Muller on her journey with trichotillomania (hair pulling disorder). For Lindsey, it began at a very young age, resulting in years of hiding, as well as a desire to understand more about the behavior so that she could treat others with the same challenges.

#CompulsiveSkinPicking

Art by Liz Atkin, Artist & BFRB Advocate

Liz Atkin found healing through art. Growing up as a skin-picker, her world was very enclosed. In finding her passion for creativity, she also found her way out of the clutches of skin-picking. Her work has been on exhibition around the world and today, Liz speaks out to raise awareness of the condition.

Forever Marked: A Dermatillomania Diary

Book by Angela Hartlin, Mental Health Advocate

FOREVER MARKED: A Dermatillomania Diary shares Angela Hartlin's harrowing account of a young woman who suffers in silence with an array of mental health disorders. Her story follows her struggle with skin picking disorder, depression, anxiety, suicidal thoughts, self-hate and isolation. Despite the adversity, Angela is no longer suffering in hiding. She has worked hard to take back control of her life and is a source of hope for anyone who may feel "Forever Marked."

Skin Picking: The Freedom to Finally Stop

Book by Annette Pasternak, PhD

Although Annette's book is not a personal story, it deserves mentions because it helps teach you the tools needed to overcome BFRBs. 

Story-telling offers a way to share, learn and grow. As I've personally found in sharing my own trich story, it also offers the storyteller an outlet to begin the healing process. I encourage you to pick up a pen, a paintbrush or camera and let your story out!

With love & awareness,

Aneela

About HabitAware
HabitAware's smart bracelet helps you become aware of your subconscious behavior (whether it be hair pulling, nail biting, skin picking, thumb-sucking or another). With awareness, you are able to gain control, retrain your brain and replace the behavior with a healthier one. Check out habitaware.com for more info & to pre-order. Or email Aneela@habitaware.com with questions.

15 Ideas for what to do instead of hair pulling, skin picking or nail biting.

Hair pulling, skin picking, nail biting and other body-focused repetitive behaviors are such subconscious actions that you never really know when it is happening. HabitAware's smart bracelet is designed to give you awareness of where your hands are and what your mind is doing when you aren't really paying attention. 

But then what?!

After awareness, it's a choice. 

Once you have awareness, you have the power to choose to control the behavior you know you don't want to be doing. "You have a choice about where to aim your lens of attention." But that means you have to choose to replace the behavior with something more positive.

Here's 15 ideas to replace hair pulling, skin picking, nail biting or whatever body-focused behavior you are trying to gain control over:

1) JUST BREATHE

 
 

2) GO FOR A WALK

 
 

3) MEDITATE

 
 

4) DO YOGA

 
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5) GO FOR A RUN

 
 

6) STRETCH

 
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7) PRAY TO WHOMEVER YOU BELIEVE IN

 
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8) THINK POSITIVE THOUGHTS

 
 

9) WRITE DOWN POSITIVE AFFIRMATIONS ABOUT YOURSELF. LIKE, I WILL: 

 
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10) LAUGH OUT LOUD

 
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11) JUMP IN PLACE

 
 

12) GO TO SLEEP

 
 

13) DO ARTS & CRAFTS, LIKE COLORING OR KNITTING

 
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14) MAKE A VISION BOARD COLLAGE FROM MAGAZINES

 
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15) HOLD THE HAND OF SOMEONE YOU LOVE

 
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You have a choice in how you deal with your BFRB. We're your #1 supporter when you are ready to face it & replace it.

~ Aneela, Trichster & HabitAware Cofounder

 

About HabitAware

HabitAware is a smart band that helps you become aware of your subconscious behavior, retrain your brain and replace the behavior with a positive action of your choosing. If intrigued, sign up below to get notified of our launch this spring!

What kind of BFRB mindset do you have?

I am part of a few online communities for folks with BFRBs, specifically trichotillomania (hair pulling). I also attend monthly meet-ups with other hair pullers, nail-biters and skin-pickers in Minneapolis. Over the years, friendships have formed within these groups and I’ve noticed something interesting: even though we’ve all found a different way to deal with our BFRB, it seems there are a few different general mindsets for viewing BFRBs - some are healthy & some not-so-much!

IGNORE IT:

Many of the older trichsters I’ve talked with are kind of just over it. They don’t acknowledge their BFRBs existence in their life, simply ignoring the bald patches that result from their pull sessions, for example. They are complacent - neither attempting to stop pulling, nor attempting to hide it.

BECOME IT:

I’ve seen so many people share their stories of despair and points of no return. They let their battle with trichotillomania and other BFRBs consume them to the point that it is all that they can think about. They berate themselves, knock themselves down and have succumb to the impossibility of embracing positive change. 

HIDE IT:  

Most BFRBers in the online communities share their tips for hiding their trich from their loved ones and co-workers. The most common methods are using make up, wigs, certain hairstyles and using fashion accessories like hats to cover up any damage. Before HabitAware, this is most definitely how I dealt with my trich, namely using an eye pencil to cover up an bald areas within my eyebrows. What I realize now is that covering it just doesn’t solve it.

REPLACE IT:

One of the more positive methods I’ve seen is people sharing their tactics for replacing the BFRB behavior as soon as they notice it.  The main goal is to keep the hands busy doing something else. Many use fidget toys. Other BFRBers engage in very creative and artistic endeavors such as coloring, knitting, painting, and writing. 

FACE IT:

And lastly there are those with BFRBS who really want lasting change and are ready to face it head on. This group takes active steps to get help from experts and finds creative ways to actively manage the triggers causing their BFRB. This could be reducing their stress/anxiety through diet, sleep, exercise or meditation. Those who face it seem to have a good attitude, knowing that though there might be bad days, there will most definitely be good days.

 
             
 

You have a choice in how you deal with your BFRB. We're your #1 supporter when you are ready to face it and replace it.

~Aneela, Trichster & HabitAware Cofounder

About HabitAware
HabitAware is a smart band that helps you become aware of your subconscious behavior, retrain your brain and replace the behavior with a positive action of your choosing. If intrigued, sign up below to get notified of our launch this spring!

3 reasons we're excited for TLC's 2016 BFRB Conference

Trichotillomania Learning Center's 2016 Body Focused Repetitive Behavior Conference is coming up next month. We are excited to be attending for the second year in a row and here's why:

 

1) We get to meet old friends!

 
 

As someone with trichotillomania, Aneela's been in the online BFRB community for a while, making a few friends along the way. Having been there last year, she says, "It is such a good feeling to meet and be with people just like me, yet different in their own right. It is so freeing to not have to worry about make up or wigs and just be comfortable in my own skin."

There will be a few familiar faces, like our friends & BFRB advocates Pavitt, Nate, & Jude and we finally get to meet our twitter friend Liz Atkins, an extraordinary artist who is keynoting the event! Big "thank you" hugs await Jennifer and Leslie and the rest of the TLC Crew who works so hard to make the conference happen. 

 

2) We finally get to see Trichster!

 
We've been hoping the award-winning film, Trichster would come to a theater near us since it premiered. So thankful for director Jillian Corsie and others who are using their creativity to spreading the word about BFRBs!
 

We've been hoping the award-winning film, Trichster would come to a theater near us since it premiered. The wait is over! The Trichster team is screening the film the first night of the conference. We are thankful for director Jillian Corsie and others who use their creativity to spread the word about BFRBs!

 

3) We get to make new friends!

 
 

As a conference exhibitor, we'll get to meet lots of new friends. We want to know more about your BFRB experience, and let you try out HabitAware so you can see what it can do. So, please come say hello!

(If you can't make it to the conference, feel free to say hello via email or sign up below for our newsletter.)

Light, Lights, Lights

This article was written by Dr. John Pritchard, HabitAware co-founder & lead hardware engineer. It is reprinted with his permission from his blog.

Shenzhen is a fascinating place. It lives up to its reputation as the electronics mecca of the world and isn’t afraid to show it. Some of the largest manufacturers of LEDs and LED strips are located here, so it’s no surprise that the buildings are completely laced with them. Additionally, everywhere you turn there are massive, high-def billboards scattered around main intersections that are impressive but obnoxiously bright at night.

KK100 Building in Shenzhen

Brightest billboard I've seen yet

I suppose the only comparison I could draw to relate would be Vegas, but it feels a lot different here. These flashy displays and billboards seem to be extensions of the buzzing activities in electronics going on in the city. It’s everyone too, not just engineers and people in the maker scene. Just about everywhere I turned I would run into some weird little kiosk selling the most random electronics on the street, or a group organizing the different batteries they somehow acquired. I’ll never forget eating at a restaurant and noticing a group of kids sit at one of the tables and tear apart about ten cell phones, organizing the common parts into little bags. I thought, “What could they possibly do with them? I mean, I suppose they could use the parts to make something interesting, but really why do you need that many?” After being introduced to Huaqiangbei, I realized what the fuss was about.

Huaqiangbei Electronics Market

SEG Electronics Mall

SEG Electronics Mall

You can’t talk about Shenzhen without mentioning Huaqiangbei. The place is a maker’s dream. It is the mother-load of electronics. Located at the heart of the city, it’s comprised of about three big malls (HQ1, HQ2, and SEG) with maybe 6 floors each and they only sell electronics — components, computers, screens, tablets, phones, cables, loads of fake stuff, drones, power bricks, microchips, development boards, passives, pick-and-place machines, re-flow ovens, you name it. It is insanely overwhelming but a super exciting and energized place to brainstorm your next cool invention or pick up parts on the fly. Imagine Fry’s Electronics, Best Buy, Radioshack, Digi-Key, and Mouser met at a party and decided merge into a behemoth of a parts shop but gave absolutely no directions on where things are and no consistent pricing. As a test, several of us ran around and all bought Arduinos at all different prices (ranging from $1.50 — $10, all but one were fake by the way).

Floor showing each electronics component booth

This is when I began to realize why the kids had salvaged all the components from the phones. Each booth specializes in something, and will buy or sell (but mostly sell) components of interest. I imagine they popped over to the market to make some cash.

One really interesting thing after spending hours (and days) trolling around the malls is that there is actually an internal network that expands out to the original manufacturers of some of the parts. A little bit of organized chaos you could say. For example, I stopped by one of the booths for a specific surface mount resistor, and was eventually directed to an office that had reel after reel of resistors.

Each of these reels carries about 10,000 parts, so it’s clear that there are easily millions of parts in this corner. The manager of the shop has connections with some of the factories that make these parts, so if I wanted to get these in bulk I could go through him.

So let’s recap this. I walk into the mall, find someone to sell me a resistor, they introduce me to a manager of a resistor shop, and this manager can connect me to the local factory to buy in bulk at a low cost. This is one of the beauties of Shenzhen.

It takes someone really special to be a pro at navigating around these different shops and to source genuine parts properly, and I am not one of them. It will take me a lot of time and it might benefit for me to learn Chinese. Many people here speak English, but I find it at least a courtesy to have some of basic things down. However, it’s been getting easier, especially now that brilliant minds such as Bunnie Huang have been creating resources to help.

Overall, I am ecstatic about the opportunity here, and inspired by the dedication Shenzhen has to the electronics industry.

We're In China!

In mid January of 2016, the HabitAware team traveled from our Minnesotan headquarters to Asia to participate in HAX. HAX is a hardware startup accelerator program in the heart of the manufacturing capital of the world, Shenzhen, China. HAX has a very small acceptance rate so we are honored to be chosen. HAX provides expertise and mentorship on all the various aspects of making a smart physical product - including hardware manufacturing production, design, certification, software development, packaging and more. 

We are here through May 2016 to take the prototypes we've been making to the next level: effective, beautiful and ready-to-wear bands to help you break your bfrb habit.

 
 

Our fave #BFRBWeek Tweets

#BFRBAwarenessWeek may be over, but it's important to continue the conversation. Here are some of our favorite #BFRBWeek tweets from Oct 1 - Oct 7, 2015. Thanks to all these courageous people for being vulnerable & sharing their stories. We hope to help you all!

Guest Post: Mental Health and Stigma

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By: PAVITT THATCHER

My friend, PAVITT THATCHER wrote this inspirational piece on mental health & how it affects our lives during #BFRBAwarenessWeek.  Pavitt & I met at the 2014 Trichotillomania Learning Center Conference.

Her story is a beautiful analysis of how the mind works. Thank you, Pavitt for allowing me to share it here!

We all have a story. We all have our own personal journey in life and our own hardships to bear. Positive and negative. The good and the bad. Are you a glass half empty person or a glass half full person? I have to admit that my default thought process is a negative one. I wish it was not like that, but hey ho, I am what I am and but I also know there are things I can do to help that thought process move towards a positive one. Someone once told me that it’s not about ‘changing’ the negative thoughts, or stopping them. It’s about ending on a positive one. So here is my contribution to what has been an amazing BFRB awareness week this year. So many inspirational people are speaking out about a very common disorder that no one wants to talk about. Why is that?
Mental health is a subject matter that a lot of people don’t talk about openly. It may be embarrassing for some, or awkward or difficult for others. You never know how the person you are talking to will respond, will they think I am crazy? a freak?, a psycho? That girl needs help! It’s a hard subject matter to casually just bring up in everyday conversation. For example, how does someone bring it up over a cup of coffee in Starbucks or a meal out with friends? I tried to bring up the subject quite recently with a group of friends. ‘I have trichotillomania, I have trichotillomania, tricho-tillo-what?’ Pause. This is usually followed by, oh you’ll just grow out of it, do you still do it now? I know someone that ‘self harms’, oh that’s strange, or ah yes I used to have ocd when I was young’.
It’s hard for some to imagine that mental health affects a huge cross section of our communities, all over the world. Because these days it’s all about exteriors. The media tells us every day what a person ‘should’ look like, and if you don’t conform you are clearly the odd one out. Glossy magazines, tv, facebook, Instagram, the news and fashion and make up industry all have a part to play. Everyone is busy trying to fit the mould of what is acceptable in everyday society. The perfect hair, clothes, eyebrows, the perfect weight and the perfect accessories to match. So what is really going on behind a person’s exterior? And what does it mean to be an individual? Where do people go when they don’t conform?
I have trichotillomania and I can tell you now that I never conformed. Not by choice, but because of the way I looked. I stood out and was punished for what I did. I didn’t know why I was doing it and I had no answers to give. I remained silent because I couldn’t explain my behaviour to all those around me who were asking me. Worse still, I was so unaware of what I was doing that I only really realised when I was shouted at or hit for having a bald patch. So what room is there in society for people like me? Well, if you are around about my age and have a bfrb, I can pretty much guarantee that you would have suffered alone, in silence and hiding for a very long time, years and years. People like me found a way of existing and coping with everyday life whilst going to school, growing up, having friends, doing exams and going to college/university, and trying to maintain friendships with friends and family as best we could. But people like me would have had to keep a deep, dark, terrible secret. A secret they were too afraid to admit to, a secret that would eat them alive, a secret that would lead them to believe they were the only person on this earth that does this crazy thing. You would probably say to yourself that ‘everything is fine’ and believe that you are really coping well in life and that life isn’t so bad. But the sad truth is, that to be unhappy, depressed, alone, isolated and punished has become your normal state of being. And the fact that life doesn’t have to be like that is a totally unthinkable concept.
Trichotillomania is so much more than a hair pulling compulsion. In fact, for me, it’s a lot less about hair than it is about how I feel about myself. I remember a girl once said ‘at the end of the day, hair
is just dead protein’. She was absolutely right. So what’s the big deal? What does hair signify in today’s society? Femininity, beauty, power, self esteem? What does hair mean to a person with trichotillomania? Frustration, anger, self sabotage, maybe even hatred, perfectionism, control, conflict, a war zone. A war zone that is all over you constantly, a war zone that you cannot get away from no matter how hard you try. And so all you can do is deal with it, live with it, manage it. But this war zone can also be your biggest strength, your biggest lesson and your biggest way of personal growth and emotional intelligence. Because to feel pain means you can also learn strength and happiness. Having a bfrb has taught me never to judge others, to be accepting of others and that you never really know what’s going on with someone behind closed doors. It has taught me to be calm and take a step back. Above all, it has lead me to many wonderful, amazing, beautiful friends. Friends who are individuals in their own right, with their own creative personalities and their own personal journeys.
So, to all those who are still suffering and who are still isolated, there is nothing more powerful than realising that you are not alone, you are not the only one – and yes, there are others that do this and there is actually a name for it! Over time medicine changes, psychiatric illnesses become re-classified, we learn more, the stigma breaks down and people are able to reach out for help and not suffer in silence anymore. The stigma of mental illnesses has changed a lot over the years. But it still exists so deeply in society and in all walks of life. We all know cancer, leukaemia, arthritis. These are known causes that we have heard of. The victims of these illnesses are innocent people. They are victims of circumstance and terrible misfortune. We feel for them, we are there for them, we provide support and care as we absolutely should do. But how do we deal with the mentally ill? Or someone with depression, trichotillomania – snap out of it? You’ll grow out of it? It’s your fault because you are doing to yourself, if you really want to stop you would. And all too often once you describe yourself as having a disorder, your friends leave, your family have had enough, your world is falling apart. Very few provide support and care because they’ve just had enough of you and your ways. They are sick and tired of you, of seeing what you are doing to yourself time and time again. They are bored of the same person who pulls their hair out because it’s just not fun anymore. They are fed up of you just not stopping. This is the harsh reality. Life with addictions isn’t clear cut, it affects everything and you cannot separate things out, lines become blurred and before you know it, your entire approach to your whole life is rolled into everything, friends, family, relationships, work – everything has submerged into each other like the titanic and the addiction doesn’t allow you any clarity anymore. You’re a sinking ship and cannot separate these components of life because the addiction has consumed you, taken over, twisted your mind, deceived the reality and friends and family don’t need that in their life. ‘She’s doing to herself so serves her right’. It makes sense to support someone who has a physical ailment because it’s not their fault they got it, but someone who is pulling their own hair out is ‘doing it to themselves’.
And that is why trichotillomania is so much more than just about hair. In fact, it’s hardly about hair at all. And that is why I wrote this article about stigma, because it’s important to break it down. If we support people with a broken leg, we should be supporting people with a broken mind. People with BFRBs are kind, talented, strong and I am proud to be a part of this community. I have learned to love myself and be kind to myself. I like being a non conformist, I like to challenge the world around me. So, next time someone tells you they are struggling with a bfrb illness, what will your response be?

What are BFRB's?

The information shared in this article is an amalgamation of my own research and personal experiences. It is a mix of opinion and fact. I encourage you to visit Trichotillomania Learning Center and Canadian BFRB Support Network for more detailed information.

BFRB stands for Body Focused Repetitive Behaviors. BFRBs are exactly as described: the repetitive movement of a body part (usually the hands), concentrated to another part of the body and typically causing physical damage. Some examples of BFRBs include:

  • Onychophagia is the most common BFRB and the most socially acceptable. Those with onychophagia sufferer from the urge to compulsively bite their nails.
  • Excoriation Disorder (previously dermatillomania) is the compulsive desire to pick at one's skin. Severe skin picking can result in noticeable red blemishes, scarring and infection.
  • Trichotillomania is compulsive hair pulling of the scalp, eyebrows, eyelashes, underarms, pubic hair and/or other areas, resulting in bald patches. 
  • Trichophagia is when a hair puller eats the hairs they pull. This can cause life-threatening harm because the stomach cannot digest hairs. The hairs collected in the stomach can only be removed by surgery.
  • Dermatophagia is when someone compulsively bites their skin, like chewing on lips or the inside of one's cheeks. This may not seem like a big issue, but can cause serious infection if left untreated.

These compulsive and automatic behaviors are often misperceived simply as "bad habits." In reality, BFRBs are much more than bad habits. They are a group of psychological disorders in which people are unable to resist the urge to behave in one (or more) of the manners described above. Although more than 50 million people in the US have at least one of these disorders, not much is known in the mainstream about BFRBs. Because of this lack of education, BRFBs often go unreported and undiagnosed.  

Even medical and mental health experts are still learning about BFRBs. Many studies have been conducted in an effort to understand more about BFRBs and find effective methods of treatment. The exact cause has yet to been determined.  Some studies have found that there is a genetic pre-disposition and other studies hint that environmental factors trigger the onset of the behaviors.

A person with BFRBs will engage in the behavior after experiencing the emotional states of boredom, stress, or anxiety as a way to release the tension and self-soothe. The action "feels good" momentarily. But, most people with BFRBs then quickly experience shame, anger and embarrassment as a result of the physical damage done and their inability to control these automatic actions.  These feelings, coupled with the subsequent bullying that may follow reduces a sufferer's self confidence and self worth further, and increases their internal negative self-speak. In short, the problem is made worse and a person may engage in further BFRB activity to attempt to further self-soothe.

Varying in severity, having a BFRB makes it difficult to lead a normal life. If severe and left untreated, it can destroy a person's capacity to function at work, at school or even to lead a comfortable existence in the home. Consumed by their BFRB, a person may miss out on sharing positive life experiences with their family and friends. It is a double-edged sword in that this behavior provides the reward of fleeting relief but also causes so much personal anguish.

Despite this, all hope is not lost. There are many ways to cope with BRFBs. Due to the societal pressure placed on physical appearance, most people with BFRBs are driven to hide the damage done using make up or wigs. Professional treatment options, such as behavioral therapy guided by a licensed psychologist, hypnotherapy, or medications prescribed and monitored by a psychiatrist may be cost prohibitive for many. Changes in diet, regular exercise and stress-reducing activities like meditation or yoga are also methods to help reduce the behavior.

If you have a BFRB, the most important thing to know is that you are not alone. There are many organizations, like Trichotillomania Learning CenterCanadian BFRB Support Network and HabitAware that are ready to help you when you are ready.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month!

May is Mental Health Awareness Month.  If you didn't know, now you are aware :)

The world around us affects our mental well being. According to MakeItOK.org, mental health issues can be caused by all or some of the following: 

  • "Trauma. Sometimes traumatic events can play a role in triggering a mental illness.
  • Chemical imbalance. Chemical or biochemical changes in the brain can affect mental health.
  • Genetics. Some mental illnesses get passed along from one generation to the next.
  • The environment. Exposure to toxins, illnesses, drugs or alcohol can affect the developing brain in utero."

Body focused repetitive behaviors (BFRBs) are mental health disorders that include hair pulling (trichotillomania), skin picking (dermatophagia) and nail biting (onchyophagia). Like many mental health disorders, BFRBs are still taboo. We are not as comfortable vocalizing the issues we face when our brains fail us as we are when we have other physical health illnesses, like cancer or diabetes. This infographic from MakeItOK.org shows that Mental health disorders (they refer to them as "illnesses") are more common than one would think:

And this video from Mental Health America has a very powerful message. If our bodies fail us, we do not wait to seek medical attention, so why is it that we prolong our mental health disorders, thinking we'll "get over it" in time?  Our bodies don't heal that way. Our brains don't heal that way.  Mental health disorders are treatable and we should not wait too long to seek help. 

Many of us are essentially battling with our own selves. We could all be a little nicer to one another, hopefully for more than just Mental Health Awareness Month. 

 

 

Is a device really going to work?

HabitAware’s goal is to make you aware of when you are engaging in a repetitive physical behavior subconsciously.  Awareness is the first step in reversing body focused repetitive behaviors and studies show that treatment via awareness enhancing devices can help you take control of your life by stopping these behaviors.

Scientists are very interested in finding a solution to body focused repetitive behavior disorders, often obtaining government grants to conduct their research.  The premise for HabitAware is backed by many of these academic studies. 

In 1998, a study used an awareness enhancing device to augment habit reversal therapy. One patient was examined for this study. A tone sounded when the patient was about to pull hair. When the tone was heard, the patient was trained to replace the behavior with a “competing response,” that occupied the patient’s hands, thus making it even more difficult for the patient to pull. This resulted in near-zero pulls compared to habit reversal treatment on it’s own, which was not effective for this patient. (1)

In 2008, a group of researchers simulated an awareness enhancing device by having observers carefully monitor a small group of patients and manually “page” the patient when a noticeable trich-related event occurred. They compared the subjects’ instances of pulling with and without the device and noted that all of the pulling happened when the device was not in place. (2)

Put simply, if you use HabitAware, you can gain awareness of your subconscious behaviors. And once you have the awareness, you then also have the choice and the power to pull away instead of pulling your hair.

Research Reference:                                                                                                       (1) Augmenting simplified Habit Reversal with an Awareness Enhancement Device: Preliminary Findings (1998) —John T. Rapp, Raymond G. Miltenberger, Ethan S. Long     (2) Prototype awareness enhancing and monitoring device for trichotillomania (2008) — Joseph A. Himle, David M. Perlman, Laura M. Lokers


This is personal

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Starting HabitAware has been a very personal journey. Here's is part of the story. Over time, I will write more about an the idea to help one person evolved.

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I started pulling in my teens, around the time my dad fell sick with leukemia. In my twenties I learned that my condition had a name - trichotillomania- and that I was not alone. But I still felt alone + ashamed, so I hid behind eye liner and fake lashes.

Three years into our marriage, my husband, Sameer, had finally caught me without my cover up make up on. I could not lie any more, I could not hide anymore. And most importantly I didn’t want to live in shame anymore.

I showed him how I pulled when I was frustrated, stressed anxious, and even bored. I confided how I didn’t realize I was pulling until the hairs wound up between my fingers. Even as I watched them fall onto my keyboard or the floor, I would still keep pulling. I shared how difficult it was to stop, even once I knew it was happening.

As a tech lover, I told him how I wished I just had something to alert me when I was engaging in the behavior so I would know. I thought that if I knew I was doing it, then I would be able to stop.

With his love, support & desire to help me, Sameer & I set out to make a device to help me break the trance of pulling and become more aware. Because when I have the presence of mind to pause and reflect, I can choose not to pull.

HabitAware has already helped me so much in a few short months. I am convinced it has the power to help others that are ready to take a positive step forward. I hope you will join me on this journey of awareness.

— Aneela Idnani Kumar, Co-Founder