END THE STIGMA: Mental Healthiness for (not just) Tech/Startup Culture

As part of The HabitAware mission to end the stigma around body focused repetitive behaviors (bfrbs like hair pulling / trichotillomania, skin picking / dermatillomania, nail biting / onycophagia), our team coordinates events to share our first hand experience, build understanding around mental health issues & raise donations for TLC Foundation for Body Focused Repetitive Behaviors. 

On Friday 10/13/2017, our cofounder, Aneela, along with experienced entreprenuers, Thomas Knoll, Dana Severson and Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist (LMFT), Kimberly Knoll spoke at Twin Cities Startup Week 2017, Health Track event sponsored by Healthcare.MN

The event, “End the Stigma: Mental Healthiness for Tech/Startup Culture” was widely attended by Minneapolis+St. Paul residents in the tech industry, and had a focus on the impact mental health has on entrepreneurship and vice versa. We shared our experience with mental health issues and how they link to startups / tech culture. As a therapist, Kim also walked our audience through an amazing emotional regulation exercise that attendees now have in their toolkit.

Although the talk was tailored to this group, I believe anyone with an interest in their mental health will benefit from the recap & resources below! 

Entrepreneurship & Mental Illness: Lonely Together

The lifestyle of being an entrepreneur is a bit manic. From ideation to exit, there are so many highs and lows on the journey to starting a company.

While there is likely a genetic pre-disposition to mental health disorders, it’s also likely that those same folks are “wired” for entrepreneurship given their high tolerance for risk-taking & dysfunction. As Steve Jobs once said:

In our talk, Dana shared how he developed anxiety in college, particularly a fear of flying. But, years later, he was an entrepreneur in a premiere accelerator program, which required flying to San Francisco on a weekly basis.

Although he is now quite outspoken about his mental health afflictions, Dana understands that many entrepreneurs don’t want to talk about their conditions. He created Startups Anonymous as an online safe haven where founders can talk openly about their struggles and failures under anonymity.

Let’s face it, no one wants to be seen as “flawed.”

In order to end the stigma, we need to understand why people, including entrepreneurs, feel the need to hide their mental health conditions. 

I believe it is because acknowledging a mental health condition shows weakness. And weakness can allow others to call your ability into question, no matter how accomplished you may be. In the case of entrepreneurs, it could mean the difference between closing on a client contract or securing potential investment in your business idea.  

It is only by talking about our conditions that we will shift this perception & stereotype. The reality is that there are many high-functioning, successful people out there, who just happen to also have mental health conditions.

Should you Advise the Startup or the Entrepreneur?

Happiness does not equal success

Much is written about developing a company, but what about developing the founder, the maker, the hacker, the doer?

That’s just what Thomas & Kim do. Their coaching develops the founder, not just as a business executive, but also as a productive member of society.

After having both worked at startups and mentored with top tier accelerator programs, like 500 Startups + Techstars, Thomas & Kim recognized a gap in the advisory industry for startups. They also spent time in Vegas, where they saw firsthand how a fanatical focus on happiness winds up destroying any chance at being happy. Unfortunately they’ve lost more than 1 founder-friend to suicide. Now they hope to help Twin Cities entrepreneurs develop the skills needed to keep their business healthy AND their mind healthy too.


Entrepreneurship is a lonely road…hey, so is mental illness!

According to the CDC almost 90% of entrepreneurs will develop anxiety or depression at some point in their career. Their loneliness drives their mental illness. The business world is wrought with frustration, sadness & pain. And often times, it’s difficult to share these feelings with friends. Firstly, they just may not understand (especially if they are not entrepreneurs themselves). Secondly, fear & shame hold people back.

Startup culture dictates that you must always be “killing it!” So most put on this facade because of the gap between perceived reality vs. true reality. An entrepreneur may wonder, “Why is everyone else doing amazing?…If I let it out that I am not, people will think there is something wrong with me.” And in doing so, that entrepreneur will decide to withdraw and hide out of shame. Does this sound familiar? It does to me, as a person with trichotillomania, hiding my hair pulling secret.

Emotional Regulation for Business Regulation

Entrepreneurs are supposed to be business savvy & rationale decision makers. As Kim pointed out, no decision is made without emotion. If your emotions are disregulated, you may find yourself getting overly anxious. This is your body going in to “fight or flight” response state. You simply cannot make informed, thoughtful decisions in this state of mind. So you need to learn to regulate those emotions!

For most people, the instinct is to avoid, or push down negative emotions like stress, fear, sadness or frustration. But the best way to overcome a negative feeling is to allow the feeling to occur – to acknowledge it, identify it, and FEEL it, without judgement.

Daily life of a entrepreneur is riddled with “fire drills.” The knee-jerk reaction is to alleviate the anxiety or fear brought on by these “fire drills” by dealing with the issue immediately. And when you put out that fire, it’s quite a rush! So you continue to feed into the cycle and suddenly, your whole day, week, month, year is filled with fire drills!

So how do you regulate our emotions?

You need to train yourself to be aware of when our emotions are getting out of control. Then you need to take stock of what is really going on. What are you really feeling – and where in the body is it manifesting? To process the emotion, you must entertain the beginning, middle & end of the feeling.

Deep breathing is an important tool to help in this respect. It’s also scientifically proven to calm the body, mind & soul.

Here’s 3 ways to practice deep breathing:

1) Kim recommends breathing in deeply for 4 seconds and breathing out for 8 seconds.

2) My personal favorite, as taught to me by twitter-friend & psychologist, Dr. Ali Mattu, is thinking of it as smelling a hot, delicious slice of pizza (breathing in) and then blowing out birthday candles (breathing out).


Kim also took us all through a mindfulness exercise:

“Let’s begin by taking 3 deep breaths. 

Now, as you shift your body in your chair to find a comfortable position, begin to close your eyes.

Try to quiet your mind of your to do list. If you find your mind wandering, let those thoughts go & bring yourself back.

Picture a river so deep and blue, with light glistening on the surface.

Imagine red and orange leaves fallen on the river bank. If your mind wanders, bring yourself back to the river.

Notice your body. What emotions do you feel in this moment? Where in your body do you feel them? Where in your body do you feel happy?

Now, identify your main emotion. Welcome it in, without judging it, or pushing it away.

Give that emotion a hug, whether positive or negative and then place it on the river. Watch the emotion float down the river. Wave goodbye.

Take 3 deep breaths & bring yourself back. Open your eyes. How do you feel?”

Getting a team on board

Mental healthiness is wonderful on an individual level, but its only when the collective takes part that we truly benefit. One of the main questions posed during our event was “How do we get others on our team to open up about what’s bothering them?”

The resounding answer: by opening up ourselves. We need to lead by example and be vulnerable and honest about our own thought processes. The more we share, the more we chip away at the fortresses others have built around themselves. This is how we establish trust and can begin the process of healing.

It’s OK to say that things are not OK!

Secrets make you sick

I truly believe that “Secrets make you sick.” So the longer you hold it in, the more your body will ruminate on it, feed on it, and deteriorate because of it. Whether you are a founder or not, if you find yourself in a negative headspace, there is help and it is OK to seek it out. 

Here’s a quick primer on some of the more common mental health disorders, along with where to get help:


Body-Focused Repetitive Behaviors (BFRBs) are the most common disorder you’ve never heard of. These issues are related to excessive self-grooming, anxiety management, or sensory stimulation. The most common BFRBs are trichotillomania (hair pulling), dermatillomania (skin picking), onychophagia (nail biting), dermatophagia (skin biting), rhinotillexomania (nose picking), as well as cheek biting and joint cracking. These behaviors tend to be chronic, and those who have them report feeling pleasure and/or pain from these habits. Although many people with BFRBs want to stop these behaviors, they are compelled to perform the behavior. Many hide the behaviors out of shame and embarrassment.

Additionally, many sufferers are not aware of them. Keen by HabitAware is a smart bracelet that uses custom gesture detection to help sufferers built their awareness and over time empowers them to take control of these behaviors.




TLC Foundation for Body Focused Repetitive Behaviors

Canadian BFRB Support Network

PickingMe Foundation



Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) can cause life disrupting anxiety. Everyone has intrusive thoughts sometimes, but when you have OCD it is invasive and won’t go away. Examples include excessive concerns with right and wrong, fear of harming others, perfectionism, and contamination. Compulsions are repetitive behaviors of thoughts used to get rid of an obsession. The more you engage in a compulsion, the worse and stronger the obsession gets. People with OCD feel the need to engage in compulsions in order to get rid of the obsessive thoughts and the accompanying paralyzing and life disrupting anxiety they’re experiencing. Examples of compulsions include mental reviewing, seeking assurance checking.


International OCD Foundation

The OCD Stories Podcast



“Anxiety disorders are characterized by a general feature of excessive fear (i.e. emotional response to perceived or real threat) and/or anxiety (i.e. worrying about a future threat) and can have negative behavioral and emotional consequences.” (Source)

Depression is a condition in which a person feels discouraged, sad, hopeless, unmotivated, or disinterested in life in general for more than two weeks and when the feelings interfere with daily activities. Major depression is a treatable illness that affects the way a person thinks, feels, behaves, and functions. At any point in time, 3 to 5 percent of people suffer from major depression; the lifetime risk is about 17 percent.” (Source)


Anxiety & Depression Association of America

Anxiety in Teens


ADHD stands for Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. ADD stands for Attention Deficit Disorder. They are commonly used to reference the same condition.

The three main symptoms of ADHD are hyperactivityimpulsivity and inattention. All of these impact behavior, mood and thinking. That’s why ADHD meets the criteria for mental illness.



General Mental Health Resources:

National Alliance on Mental Illness

Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255 

Mental Health in the Tech Community:

Open Source Mental Illness (OSMI)

Local Therapists, specializing in the mental health needs for entrepreneurs:

Further Reading:

Daring Greatly, Brene Brown

The Upside of your Dark Side, Todd Kashdan 

The Power of Music:

Lastly, I leave you with this: Music has the ability to empower sufferers and break down stigma. Infusing the mental health conversation into pop culture is a crucial part of making progress. 




Be Alive Today.

with love & 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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