'A Lot to Learn' Podcast : Ania Wysocka
In this episode of A Lot to Learn, Ania talks about her own experience with panic attacks, how the concept for Rootd came to be, what it’s like being a female founder in tech, and how society as a whole views and talks about mental health. Enjoy the episode, and as always, please feel free to reach out if you have any comments or questions. We all have a lot to learn.
Mental health, which was once taboo to talk about, has grown into an imperative topic in so many industries, from sports to the corporate workplace. Canada’s largest mental health teaching hospital, CAMH, reports that 1 in 2 Canadians has or has had a mental illness by the time they reach 40 years of age. Furthermore, it’s become widely acknowledged that mental health conditions have worsened for many since the onset of the pandemic. When you combine medical concerns, social restrictions, job loss, and financial hardship, emotional strain is almost inevitable. Even if you don’t personally struggle with mental illness, it’s extremely likely that you know or interact with someone who does.
As the prevalence of mental health concerns has become more widely known in North America, so too has the need for de-stigmatization. Many public figures have spoken openly about their own battles with depression and the like, and many companies have begun initiatives to raise awareness and foster an open dialogue on the issue. But on an individual level, one of the most important facets in tackling mental health concerns is having accessible tools and resources on hand.
Ania Wysocka is the founder of Rootd, a panic attack and anxiety relief app. Like so many other innovative creations, her idea for Rootd was conceived from personal experience and the desire to solve a problem. She was in the final year of her International Relations degree, with the dream of working for the UN and partaking in public speaking, when something changed that trajectory; she started having panic attacks which were seemingly out-of-nowhere. While panic attacks can manifest differently in everyone, they can be described as a heightened form of anxiety which alerts your sympathetic nervous system. The result? You might experience a racing heart, intrusive thoughts, blurred vision, hot flashes, and your mind can escalate to a feeling of doom. While it’s happening, you may feel inconsolable and have extreme difficulty getting yourself back to a place of neutrality. Ania didn’t have a family doctor and felt uncomfortable talking about it socially, so her instinct was to reach for her phone for easy-access tools, but at the time there was no such thing.
In an effort to better understand what she was experiencing, Ania started doing her own research. She sought help through counselling and leading an active lifestyle, finding that journaling and running were two methods that worked for her. While studying at the University of British Columbia, Ania’s side hobby of graphic design and web development slowly grew into something more, and she later started her first post-grad job with a digital agency. But the desire to create a digital tool that could help herself and others lingered, and a couple of years after her first panic attack, she started sketching the first wireframes for Rootd.
Ania’s background in writing and communications, web design, and her personal experience with panic attacks all aided in the creation of Rootd. A great example of this is Ron– you could call him the “mascot” of Rootd. He’s a friendly monster who’s meant to be a personification of anxiety itself, an effort to help you familiarize yourself with the concept and see it not just as something that happens to you, but as something that you can understand and work through. This kind of tool is what Ania naturally envisioned when she was thinking about what would help her personally. It’s clear that Ron is a helpful tool for others too, as she’s gotten requests for Ron plushies, videos, and animations, and has received countless messages about how thankful people are for him. Some of the app’s other features include the Rootr, which is a process that helps those in the middle of a panic attack ground themselves, as well as breathing and visualization exercises, and both long and short term lessons. The app has reached 500,000 downloads across 150 countries at the time of this episode’s recording.
Find Rootd online:
Free premium access for 45 days because of the pandemic covid19response.rootd.io
2:55 - Braden, Mike, and Ania talk about Ania’s background. They touch on her upbringing in Canada, South Korea, and Poland, and the fact that she can speak English, Korean, Russian, and Polish.
7:20 - Braden asks Ania how Rootd came to be and she explains her first experiences with panic attacks and how she didn’t have the resources to deal with them.
8:50 - Ania explains that she took to educating herself on anxiety and panic attacks since she was far from home and didn’t have a family doctor.
10:50 - Ania touches on what defines a panic attack; a heightened form of anxiety which alerts your sympathetic nervous system. She talks about some of the differences between general anxiety and a panic attack.
17:20 - Braden asks what tools Ania uses now to keep herself grounded. She says that journaling and maintaining an active and healthy lifestyle, especially with running, are key components in managing her anxiety.
22:25 - The group talks about what it means to be a female-led app. Ania explains that Rootd’s main demographic is 18-25 year olds, and a majority of them are women. She says that many are excited that they’re using a female founded program.
22:30 - Mike asks about the challenges Ania has faced in her design phase or elsewhere. She says that there are challenges associated with being a female in tech, a predominantly male driven industry.
24:10 - Ania explains who Ron is: a friendly monster who is personified as a way of coping with anxiety.
28:50 - Braden asks when Ania is most excited about her work. She talks about her love for the product and the business side of Rootd. She goes on to say that early meetings with people who would suggest investment/partnership terms that were unfavourable to her made her even more steadfast in the business and analytics side of things. She mentions she also likes marketing, PR, and sales.
31:40 - Braden talks about a big PR moment for Rootd. Amidst the 2020 Presidential election, the news was splashed with stories about Trump and the volatility of American politics. Daily News had a top story titled “Woman Creates Anxiety App”. This article and the tension around election day contributed to a huge spike in users and downloads.
33:50 - Ania touches on an analytic she finds surprising - that the demographic of her app matches herself.
35:10 - Ania talks about a WHO article that was sent to her about women in Brazil struggling with anxiety and panic attacks, which led to Portuguese being the first language translation for Rootd. She says the app is now translated into French, Polish, Spanish, and Mandarin and in the midst of being translated into German.
37:15 - Braden asks about Ania’s future goals. She says she would love Rootd to be the most widely used app for panic attacks in North America and Europe. Having grown up all over the world, she loves the idea of it being available worldwide. Another goal of hers is to have concentrated launches and campaigns in new markets.
39:08 - Braden states a recent poll says that 50% of Canadians have reported worsening mental health since the pandemic started. She says that her app’s growth definitely coincides with the current world climate. She mentions that it’s a positive thing that the government talks about mental health as the topic is still more stigmatized in other countries.
40:10 - Braden asks how Rootd can be differentiated from other anxiety apps. Ania explains that many other apps focus on meditation which is great, but likely not doable for someone suffering from panic attacks and having intrusive thoughts. Rootd starts with the basics.
44:00 - Ania touches on the future of Rootd. She mentions that they’re implementing a German translation as well as a journaling feature. The journaling feature will be useful in tracking the frequency of panic attacks and is an efficient way of being able to refer to your experiences when talking to a counsellor. She’s also thinking about mood questionnaires and surveys, and distraction games.
47: 48 - Mike asks about coping mechanisms for anxiety or advice on how to help those in our communities who suffer from panic attacks. She says that when talking to someone who struggles, try to avoid the phrases “don’t worry” or “don’t freak out” as it might make the person feel misguided in their feelings. Ask them what works for them and what helps so you know for the future. Publicly, encourage talks about mental health. She mentions that she realized that sharing her story is helpful so she’s getting more and more comfortable with it. “You can talk about this at a dinner and not have everyone look down or look away from you. Whereas, even 5 years ago that wasn’t always the case.”
51:10 - Ania mentions that Rootd is meant to be symbiotic with other things like talking to a therapist.