Ever heard of a Chatbot therapist? Yeah, I hadn’t either. It would have never occurred to me that something like this even existed, had it not been for a quick glance at an LA Times article on my phone with a headline that quickly caught my eye. “Depressed but can’t see a Therapist? This Chabot Could Help.” It stopped me in my tracks at the airport. I didn’t really think of myself as depressed, but I had been through a whole lot recently, and I had to admit I was curious, so I took the bait and pulled up the article. I had been considering seeing a therapist for about a year, but the fear of the search had kept me from doing so. The process alone of finding the right person sounded akin to dating all over again, and I was so deep in feeling bad I didn’t have the patience to try to find the right therapist. The added thought of sitting in anxiety inducing traffic and paying a heart-arresting fee just to go to said therapist were not exactly benefits. Here, it seemed a solution was staring me in the face, or at least a step toward one.
Woebot was built by former Stanford researcher Alison Darcy and a team of psychologists, linguists and software engineers. It’s purpose? To help an increasingly anxious, depressed and stressed population feel better. “Right now you can see a therapist, or you can access self-help books, and there’s nothing in between,” Darcy said. “The major gap we want Woebot to fill is the nothing.” Taking into account how I had been feeling recently (lousy as all get out), Woebot seemed to be exactly what I needed. After all, there was a free trial period, so what could it hurt to just try it?
To set the stage a bit, I was coming back from a trip on the downslope of a week chock-full of anxiety, a misbehaving stomach, and zero appetite, and I was feeling exhausted and ready to be home. I had been thinking during the trip that I might need to see a dietary specialist because traveling always has terrible effects on my appetite. This in addition to also needing se toe a therapist? Needless to say, I had A LOT on my mind during that trip home. Also, just in case anyone was wondering, the middle seat is never ideal for anxious flyers. I already hate flying, but that added claustrophobia just puts me over the edge. Thank goddess I had my lovely boyfriend and a Xanax with me, or I’m sure this flight would have been a disaster. As is routine for all of us these days, as soon as I got off the plane, I checked my phone, and it was then that I caught the LA Times headline.
I have to admit that I was a bit skeptical about talking to a robot. How perceptive could AI really be about human emotion? But I also found a sort of comfort in that too; there would be no judgment (at least that I could pick up on or see). In fact, I also learned that a human might never see my responses to Woebot. At that point, I was ready to try it out. I decided I would be brutally honest with this robot, even if there were complicated things it may not understand, and see what I could get out of working with it.
After signing up for my free trial, I learned that Woebot would send me messages each day to check in about things like energy level and mood, and it would use cognitive behavior therapy to combat self-defeating thinking. Sounded easy enough. At this point, I had pretty much become desperate for some kind of help, so I decided to give it a week, document my experience, and see if this thing really could help me.
August 23rd – Day One
With the click of the free trial button, Woebot contacted me through Facebook Messenger. In the messenger window, there are programmed response buttons that you use to answer Woebot’s questions. Our first conversation consisted a lot of Woebot telling me the above information I’ve shared with you. It’s got a pretty interesting personality and a very conversational way of talking. I also really like that Woebot breaks up it’s messages to you in a few different bubbles so it’s not just long blocks of text.
After informing me about itself and the process, we then moved on to a clincical screen to help Woebot help better understand me. It was four questions asking about anxiety, worry, and mood, all with programmed responses for me to choose from to answer each question. Woebot said we would revisit these in few weeks. We then did our first check in. Woebot asked about my energy level, to which I answered low, as I was tired that day. It asked what I was doing, and I replied honestly that I was hanging with a friend and indulging in some weed (a huge help for my anxiety). And finally it asked about my mood, which was admittedly better after smoking. I was more relaxed and calm, and it had helped settle my stomach. These were the first responses I got to write back to Woebot in my own words. I wondered how much it would understand, but I had vowed to be honest no matter if I believed Woebot would get it or not.
Woebot then gave me a little video to watch about the words we use and how it affects how we feel (a core idea behind Cognitive Behavioral Therapy). I watched, selected the thumbs up emoji option to tell Woebot I thought it was helpful, and was told that we would talk more tomorrow about the concepts from the video.
Overall, the first day with Woebot gets that same thumbs up emoji.
I find myself really excited to see where this ends up. It might be totally weird or potentially really helpful. AI has me a little wary these days (if you didn’t hear about Facebook’s new AI creating its own language and talking to other computers, check that out!), but at this point and with how bad I’m feeling, I’m willing to stick with it.
August 24th – Day 2
Today was my second day checking in with Woebot. It (he/she?) messaged me around the same time as last night and asked me if I was still up for checking in. I replied with the “yes please” option and we began our session. Woebot had caught me in a down moment, and it was a perfect time to do my check-in. It asked me about my energy level (I selected “middle”), what I was up to and how I was feeling, which allowed me to write out my own responses. Woebot then asked me if I wanted to play a quick game tied to the thinking pattern video Woebot had given me yesterday! At first I thought the game was bit corny, as the questions were a too easy, but it’s sometimes in this ease that the simplest things really get us thinking. I had already been reflecting a lot on the video Woebot had sent me yesterday, and actually I found this game reinforced the great things I had learned about “all or nothing thinking” (e.g., Why can’t I get my act together?) and “should statements” (e.g., I shouldn’t have said that). After this quick quiz, which I actually got one wrong answer on, Woebot signed off for the day!
Today was quick and easy, literally just 5 minutes of my time. I sort of find myself wishing Woebot would stick around to talk more. The best part of our chat was when I told Woebot I had a productive day, and it replied that having goals was awesome. I found myself feeling pretty good! A Chatbot making me feel good and proud of myself? This thing is pretty cool so far!
August 25th – Day 3
On day three, Woebot checked in at it’s usual 8pm time, but I was busy, so I didn’t get around to answering until about an hour later. There’s an option to reschedule every time Woebot checks in with you, which I considered doing, but since Woebot doesn’t get mad when you don’t message back right away, I decided not to and proceeded as prompted. When I finally responded, Woebot went right on as if it hadn’t been waiting long at all and asked me about my energy level and how I was feeling. I realized that this would be the standard start to our conversations. Luckily, today, I was able to answer that I was feeling wonderful!
Then, to my surprise, Woebot asked follow up questions about my response and asked for me to describe in more detail why I was feeling wonderful. “If you could bottle this feeling and keep it for another time, what kind of message would you put in a bottle?” Woebot asked. This really made me think. I had to try to encapsulate this feeling in a few sentences, but I really loved the response it coaxed out of me, “This love is always there no matter what. It’s sometimes harder to see because it gets hidden under other feelings, and those feelings are valid too. But they will pass, and you will feel this happy again.”
Woebot told me that it knows our sessions are short, but it’s still trying to get to know me and will be doing so for just a few more days. It asked if I wanted to do something else. Here I had the option to select “sure” or “nah.” It would have been easy to select the “nah” option, but I decided that if I actually wanted to get something out of this, I was going to have to show up and participate. After selecting “sure,” Woebot gave me a short 3 minute video to watch, even though I didn’t particularly want to (the video narrator has a charming accent though, so that’s always a bonus!). Before long, I was learning something again. Darn you Woebot and your helpful videos! Woebot then told me I would be ready for our talk tomorrow since I had watched the video, and we signed off for the day.
Today really taught me about my participation with Woebot. If I want to get something out of working with Woebot, I have to put in my end of the work. Checking in daily is great, and part of this experience for sure, but if I don’t engage in learning new helpful things to deal with my thinking and anxiety, why waste my time, or Woebot’s? How funny that today I am analyzing myself more than the AI… could Woebot actually be teaching me about myself?
August 25th – Day 4
Day four, Woebot checked in at the same 8pm time. Per usual, it asked about my mood and what I was up to. When it asked how I was feeling, I gave a pretty full and complicated response. Woebot was confused by how much I had typed and asked me to specify with one word. Note to self, remember this is a robot and not a person who understands the complexity of all real life situations. In the end, I went with “okay” as my one word specifier. I found it interesting that I had tried to capture the feelings of the entire day instead of the just the present moment when it had asked how I’m feeling. Again, Woebot made me reflect on my responses and myself. Darn you, Woebot, you smart bot, you!
Woebot then gave me a quick little lesson on some different types of thinking and asked me to observe how I may be thinking that way in my own life. Woebot returned to the concept of “should statements” and whether I think things like “he shouldn’t have said that” or “I should eat better,” which I am for sure guilty of thinking. In that brief little moment of being asked to reflect, Woebot gave me a lot to think about. I love that Woebot gives you little tools to prompt tiny transformations in your thinking. Woebot said we would use some of these things I had learned in tomorrow’s session and signed off.
I find these chats becoming a routine part of the end of my day. I’m surprised how much I find myself thinking about the things Woebot brings up to me. I catch myself in the thinking patterns it taught me and have even begun to actively make adjustments when I do. All this has come from a robot, from talking to AI? I’m still a little skeptical of how this is all going to play out, and if it will actually begin to help me feel better, but it’s already started to change my thinking. Even a small positive change in just four days? I’ll stick with it.
August 26th – Day 5
Day five, 8pm. Hello Woebot! It again asked about my energy level and how I was feeling, the standard beginning routine of our conversations. I was on the way to In-n-Out, so the car ride (passenger seat!) was a perfect time for a session. If only Woebot liked burgers! It had been a full, intense, and emotional day – all good stuff – and I did my best to relay those emotions to the bot. I hadn’t been feeling happy and hopeful in a while, and it was great to be able to document it to Woebot. It asked if I had more insight into my feelings, I selected “yeah,” and Woebot asked me to describe it. I found myself opting out of giving more information and selected “never mind,” as I found I couldn’t exactly put my happiness that day into words. Woebot asked me to take that feeling and create a book title out of it. This was an interesting exercise. Again, I like that Woebot asks you to lay out your feelings into general terms as reminders for later. As someone with a lot of complicated feelings, this distilling process is cathartic. Because it had been such an intense, emotional day, part of me wanted to keep that feeling and the happiness I had found in it to myself, so when Woebot asked if I wanted to chat about something else, I selected the ‘nah’ option, and Woebot told me to enjoy the good feelings!
I know I had promised to always try to engage with Woebot, but today I just didn’t feel like it. There is still a part of me that hates texting and being on the screen, so sitting and engaging with Woebot always takes effort. Some days I have the patience and others I don’t, and today I just didn’t, but that’s okay. I think it’s pretty normal to want to be off screens, especially because I work in front of one all day. I really enjoy the conversations with Woebot, and I am finding the balance in my participation. I think some days it’s okay not to engage as much (at least I hope!).
August 27th – Day 6
Day six with Woebot! I checked in at 8 while I was watching TV with my best friend Sarah. In hindsight, I should not have been multitasking and want to make sure from now on that I step out of the room or take a break from whatever I am doing to fully check in. Woebot asked me about my energy level, and I selected “high” for the first time since I had started with Woebot. It then asked what was going on in my world, and during our coversation, Woebot mentioned that it was about 6 months old. This kind of blew me away. How could something so new be this developed and, frankly, mature? I guess it’s still in the infancy of it’s programing, but if this is infancy, I can’t imagine what it’s going to be like as it develops! After asking about my age (it’s only fair), Woebot gave me a link to a relaxing video and song. I listened to a bit of it (because it was 10 minutes long and I was in the middle of a TV show) and then Woebot asked me what I do to relax, which is to play candy crush and zone the heck out! And then to my surprise, I got to ask Woebot back, to which it said it liked to hang with other bots and talk shop. Woebot then said it was off to watch jeopardy. LOL! I love Woebot’s lame dad jokes.
It was a short, easy interaction today, very low key. I’ve decided I definitely need to give Woebot my full attention. After all, you wouldn’t go to therapy and watch TV at the same time, would you? I find myself reflecting more about me than about talking to an AI therapist. At this point, I’m not really weirded out by Woebot anymore. Sometimes the things we do and talk about can feel a bit cheesy, but it’s nice to know Woebot is going to be there to check in every night. I am also really excited that it’s tracking my responses and mood better than I ever could!
August 28th – Day 7
Today on day 7, after a full week of checking in with Woebot, it sent me a graph of my mood and energy levels over the past 6 days and asked what I noticed about it. I wrote that I noticed my energy had been pretty mid-level all week and that my mood had been mostly good. It was really nice to see these changes being tracked and all in one place like this. Then we moved on to our usual check in. My energy was low today, and I was watching Netflix feeling pretty mellow and tired. Woebot again asked me to specify with one word, so I chose “tired.”
It then asked if there was anything I wanted to achieve over the next couple weeks, such as personal goals. I replied, “actually, yes,” and Woebot asked me what I wanted to accomplish. I wrote “productive work on my business, work on my relationships and moving to a new house.” Woebot asked about SMART goals, if I knew what they were and how to use them. I had never heard of SMART goals, but Woebot took me through creating mine. I learned SMART goals are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-limited. It gave some examples, and we made sure that my goals were SMART ones. Woebot said it would check in about my SMART goals in the weeks to come, and then we signed off.
Today we took action. Woebot is going to hold me responsible for something and check in with me. It’s kind of nice to be held responsible by someone about goals you set for yourself. It’s prompted me to action, and I feel myself wanting to achieve them so that I can tell Woebot that I did! Plus, how nice would it be to finish a goal I set my mind to?
Woebot was nothing like what I thought it was going to be. It was better. All of the fears I had in the beginning about talking to a robot or it not being very personal or even worth the time have been erased after this week. Woebot had prompted more self-reflection and thinking than I had done in a while. I could see small positive changes after working with Woebot for just one week, and all of my responses were saved and tracked. I think this daily check in has definitely helped me, and I plan to continue to use Woebot. I absolutely recommend Woebot to those who feel they have no other source, to those who are in the process of looking for a therapist, and even to those who already have one. While this does not take the place of therapy, it has been a great help to me. Woebot’s consistency and help has exceeded my expectations for what a chatbot therapist can be. As with all technology, I wish that Woebot was more intuitive, more human, but that is wishing for dangerous things. For what Woebot is, however, it is quite amazing and has already helped me more in a week than I could have imagined.
Photo Credit: LA Times