> HabitAware

Retraining the brain to choose healthy soothing strategies

For more than 25 years, Aneela Idnani pulled out her hair as a coping mechanism for anxiety. Since age 12, she hid this behavior out of shame and fear of judgment. After Aneela shared her secret struggle with trichotillomania (hair-pulling disorder), she worked with her husband, Sameer Kumar, and two technologist friends, Kirk Klobe and John Pritchard, PhD, to build a smart bracelet, Keen, to bring awareness to the trance-like behavior.

Today, Keen’s parent company, HabitAware, is a mental-health startup serving those with body-focused repetitive behaviors (BFRBs). Thanks to Keen, 20 million Americans with BFRBs can find alternative soothing mechanisms for stress and anxiety

Hair-pulling disorder (trichotillomania) and other Body-Focused Repetitive Behaviors (BFRBs), like compulsive skin picking (dermatillomania) and excessive nail biting (onychophagia), are so trance-like that one cannot “just stop.” Unavoidable and subconscious triggers, including stress, boredom, exhaustion or anxiety, lead to these automatic behaviors that result in physical defects, including baldness, skin infections, and lesions. BFRBs can severely impair social, physical and mental well-being. Shame, guilt and fear of judgment keep people from talking about their suffering, and as a result, BFRBs are very common (1 in 20 Americans), yet extremely misunderstood.

People with BFRBs are underserved when it comes to treatment options. While Cognitive Behavioral Therapy with a psychologist is effective, treatment is often inaccessible or unaffordable. Most just try to avoid scrutiny by covering bald spots and skin redness with wigs, makeup, and clothing. Research partner Dr. Doug Woods, Marquette University Graduate School Dean and member of the TLC Foundation for BFRBs Scientific Advisory Board, shares, “Keen has great potential to improve BFRB outcomes and we are looking forward to collaborating on research to establish the effectiveness of Keen for BFRBs.”

Keen’s gesture detection technology helps “Retrain the Brain” by detecting and interrupting a specific trained behavior with proprietary and patented motion-sensing algorithms we specifically developed to identify BFRBs. Keen is trained with a mobile app by performing a “scanning” behavior (e.g. playing with hair before pulling, feeling skin for imperfections before picking) for 20 seconds. The bracelet records the custom repetitive behavior, much like a voicemail, and silently monitors the wrist movement. When Keen detects the trained behavior, a vibration interrupts the pattern in real-time.

Keen’s vibration is like a “hug” on the wrist, a gentle reminder of where the hands are. This creates awareness and empowers a moment of pause to choose healthier coping strategies. These strategies can include initiating Keen’s deep breathing light, getting a drink of water, or stretching. Those in the HabitAware Keen family are encouraged to find the healthy replacement strategies that work best for them. To better understand their behavior, they can also track their activity in the app and see their progress.

HabitAware has pioneered customized micro-motion recognition technology using proprietary hardware, firmware, and mobile apps to get to that all-important first step of behavior change: awareness. There is opportunity for HabitAware Keen to support treatment professionals as Dr. David Kosins, Psychologist and Instructor at the University of Washington, who shares that Keen is “invaluable for bringing into awareness habitual physical movements that lead to the problem behavior. Without this awareness, patients cannot begin to implement the therapeutic strategies that they are seeking my help to learn.

Shipped to over 50 countries, HabitAware Keen is the first widely available and affordable system to help the BFRB community. HabitAware holds research grant awards from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) to improve Keen. The company has been featured in The Washington Post, Prevention, SELF Magazine and is a 2018 TIME Magazine Best Invention.

As Mindy, a mom in the Keen family shares: “Your bracelets have helped in a way that is indescribable. Instead of coming home from school and isolating himself because he’s ashamed of pulling his hair, my son comes home and wants to talk about how many times his bracelet reminded him of where his hands were.”

With Keen awareness, and a willingness to change, an individual suffering from BFRBs finally has the power to take control and change their life.

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