"Dear Ellen:" Help for Hair Pullers, Skin Pickers & Nail Biters

"Dear Ellen:" Help for Hair Pullers, Skin Pickers & Nail Biters

Ellen from the HabitAware team here. I am thrilled to share with you a recent correspondence I had with one of our Keen family members, Layla.  I was so touched by Layla’s openness to share her story with me, her willingness to control her BFRB and how she looked inwards to help herself.  Her questions about moving into recovery were so insightful. We thought sharing our email convo might inspire and help others in our family, and Layla agreed.


Dear Ellen,

I have enjoyed reading your emails for the past few months. I speak for many of us who are grateful for your support, encouragement, and advice.

I started pulling late in life, about 10 years ago, when I was 55 years old!

I have gone through a few phases where recovery seemed possible, but I always backslid into daily pulling.

I am hoping you might give me some advice or knowledge that could finally make sense to me and help me stop.

I bought the Keen bracelet about 5-6 months ago, I got very optimistic and used it daily and listened to its nudge, and it helped me slow down my pulling.  But here I am now about 6 months later, and I am still pulling every day. Less, but still daily...

As you can imagine, I am so tired of this compulsion. I attended one of Christina Pearson's conferences in 2012. I was pull free after that for 2.5 weeks, and then started up again.  I had CBT for a few months about 5 years ago and didn't really think it helped me.

I'm writing to you because I am impressed with what you were able to do in taking control of your BFRB, and am really hoping that maybe something you suggest to me may give me hope again. I guess I would like to hear maybe more in-depth details as to how you slowed down and STOPPED your daily pulling after you got your Keen.

Thank you, Ellen, you're a great example for us.






Dear Layla,

I am so delighted to hear that you are giving Keen a try and that you are finding its gentle nudge helpful.  I also get it that you want the urges and daily pulling to simply stop.

Here at HabitAware, we don’t believe in striving for pull or pick free.  I personally believe picking or pulling LESS is enough for me to consider myself in control of my BFRB.

I still do pull from time to time.  I'm not 100% pull free. But I am a solid 95% pull free.  You might find that you continue to pull daily, but if you pull only 1 or 2 hairs a day (or even a dozen) vs hundreds, that is a huge win!  

As I tend to say, everyone picks and pulls differently.  Recovery will be different for each of us and we will have a different pathway that gets us there.     

With that said, I do believe we can learn from each other.  Here are a few specific things that really helped me get control.    

  1. wanting to change (I didn't always)
  2. associating the Keen vibration as a “hug” on my wrist and being good to myself
  3. I did an 8 week group therapy, lead by a licensed therapist trained in the comB model of therapy
  4. having my replacements ready - for me it is a pencil with a good eraser, a cup of something to hold (water, tea, coffee) and my new fav a fur ball keychain.

There are therapists who specialize and are trained in treating BFRBs.  Those therapists help you create your own personalized treatment plan. You’ll learn to pause when you are pulling and notice, where am I, what am I doing, how am I feeling to create the plan along with strategies within the different situations.  

Yesterday was a "pully day."  With my strong awareness muscles, I noticed that I was moving my hands to my hair much more often than usual. When this happens I will pause and ask myself, “what is going on?” Yesterday I visited a challenging friend. And that is another story in itself that I won't get into.  But I will share that I have guilt and, once I paused and asked myself what’s going on, I realized it was those uncomfortable feelings that are causing my hands to rise. Knowing that, and having Keen as my guard + my trusty pencil and water bottle, I’m able to stop.

Track hair pulling, skin picking, nail biting with the HabitAware mobile appLayla, I would encourage you to track your pulling without judgement.  Press the button on the side of Keen and begin to track your pulling in the HabitAware app.  At the same time, get your trusted supplies, like fidget toys, and have them with you in your danger zones.  Keep tracking and see if your hair pulling goes down, and when it does, celebrate that win.

If you're up for it, maybe see if you can find a group or a therapist that follows the comB model. Check out www.bfrb.org for therapists in your area.





Dear Ellen,

I am so grateful for your response!

I am going to print out your email and keep a copy in my car, in my office, and on my nightstand...

You gave me some really good insights that I will use.

  1. For instance, I have NOT been tracking my urges or pulls on the Keen. I don't know why but I just stopped doing that months ago. I will start it up again.
  2. Also, I do not keep any tools near me. I knew about that, but I guess I ignored that advice. On my phone and in my car are tempting times for me.

However, since I have been wearing the Keen, I have slowed down my pulling. I used to go into the 'trance' and stay in there for a couple or more hours. That has changed quite a bit, and now I will pull several hairs, with my Keen nudging me, until I tell myself - "OK, do you really want to continue this? This has never been good in the past, you will never really get rid of those funky hairs no matter how many you pull out, so it's best to just stop now."

I'll admit that I am not kind to myself. I get despondent when I have a 5-10 minute pulling session. For the past few weeks, I have been trying to go 3 days without pulling (as a goal), and I can only go 2.5 days. Then I berate myself, and make myself start all over back to Day 1. I have not been able to go 3 days.

When I am under pressure because of family dynamics (which is often), my hand will go right to my head and start looking for the 'right' hair. I tell myself I'm only touching, but touching always leads to pulling. It's amazing how many times I think I can get away with "just touching", it's like my brain really deceives me!

Another thing I've noticed more recently is that when I am in "search mode" feeling around on my scalp for just the right funky-feeling hair, and I pull it out, when I finally look at it, the hair doesn't even look that bad. I tell myself "that was a perfectly good hair you just pulled out for nothing." Yet, when I was feeling around for it before I pulled, and finally found it, it FELT like a really twisted wiry hair (sight unseen).

What I'm trying to say is, it's as if my brain 'deceives' me when I'm feeling without looking. The sensation on my fingertips of the roughness of the hair is greatly exaggerated. I could say it's almost a quirk of my brain that received these sensations and magnifies them in my mind.

Lastly, my husband has gone through the whole spectrum of support and lack of it for the past 10 years. Right now, he is very kind and supportive, yet wants to hold me accountable. If he sees my hand going up to my scalp, he'll stop whatever he's doing, come over to me, and tell me my hand is up there why don't I bring it down? He says, "Get up, walk around, do something else."

And I get really kind of upset with him for mentioning it. This has been a sore topic for us. I do not confide in him when I have pulled, and he has stopped asking.

I want you to know that Aneela, Sameer, you, and the rest of the staff are doing a huge labor of love to all of us who are afflicted with these compulsions.

Thank you, thank you, thank you!





Dear Layla,

Keen Smart Bracelet - Hug on the WristI’m thrilled to hear you are going to start tracking again.  Data helps and it’s non-judgmental. The HabitAware tracking is super easy and no one knows you are doing it. Just press the button.  Plus the act of pressing the button will give you a physical sensation, you’ll feel a quick vibration, like a hug. The visual queue of seeing your progress in the app helps as well!

I also like that you are identifying your personal danger zones, like while on your phone and in your car.  While you are figuring out what tools to keep in the car, pop some pens and pencils in the cup holder. If you get the urge then hold one in each hand while holding the wheel.  It’s much harder to pull when you are holding onto something. But use something. Don’t use the excuse that I don’t know what to use.

And I totally get being despondent when you’ve worked so hard and then have a pulling session.  We all make mistakes. We eat too much, or yell at our kids, or at our spouses. I suggest making your goal to pull less not to be pull free.   Work on pulling less tomorrow than you did today and if you do pull, then you did.  No beating yourself up. Just "turn the page" and start again.

Layla, I love those kinky curly hairs too.  The good news is you’ve noticed a pattern, touching your hair leads to pulling.  Congratulate yourself for seeing that pattern! Now, try touching something else when you find you are touching your hair.  I have a fur ball keychain that is my new fav. Experiment. Make it a game!

Husbands.  I have one too (LOL).  When our loved ones call us out, it truly sucks.  That's why Aneela and Sameer invented this!  While she loves him, she didn't love when he would gently pull her hand away from her eyebrows. Same with me. When my husband would tell me to stop, I would feel embarrassed, angry and upset, then I’d want to pull more.  

One idea is to share with your husband what support looks like from him to you.  Only you know what that is and once you do, you can say to him, “When you see me pulling, I’d like it if you would..." i.e.: hand me a cup of tea, hand me a magazine, use the code word rubber ducky, or whatever will make you feel good.

You’ve got this, Layla, and we are here for you!

& If you're like Layla, know that we are here for YOU too!




wishing you love, strength & awareness,

About Keen by HabitAware
HabitAware makes Keen, a smart bracelet that helps manage nail biting, hair pulling, thumb sucking, and other subconscious behaviors. Customized gesture detection brings you into awareness and helps you develop healthier habits.
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