You spend enough time doom-scrolling on your smartphone. Why not put some of that screen time to use improving your mental health?
That’s partly the idea behind Woebot, a free download for Android (opens in new tab) and iOS (opens in new tab) that aims to help you cope with the trials and tribulations of daily life. And having made Woebot a part of my daily routine, I’d credit this app for helping me rethink how I react to and approach life’s many challenges. With all of the… [gestures wildly]… this going on, Woebot has certainly proven itself worthy of a space on my iPhone home screen.
Woebot exists to help you confront whatever mental health challenges you’re facing in your life. Maybe it’s anxiety, stress, loneliness, grief or even depression. You then check in with the app every day or so — it can be as frequently as your schedule allow or as your needs require — and the AI-powered chatbot offers a guided conversation designed to address your particular concern.
If that sounds a lot like a therapy session, the reality is that it sort of is and sort of isn’t. Yes, you are talking about your problems to a friendly, helpful ear — even if that ear doesn’t belong to an actual person — but Woebot’s makers stress that the app isn’t a replacement for an actual human therapist. If anything, it’s a complement to whatever mental health help you’re already receiving or at the very least, a way to dip your toe into the waters of seeking out help from others.
I treat Woebot as a quick meditative tool to use at the start of each day, to think about the challenges I’m facing, how I feel about those and whether or not those thoughts are helping me or holding me back.
It’s called cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), and its at the heart of the guidance Woebot is giving you. CBT focuses on specific problems and the actions and strategies you take to address them. In Woebot’s case, a lot of the advice is rooted in identifying negative thinking or cognitive distortions — “I always screw this up,” “nobody cares what I have to say” and the like — and changing them around to be realistic and productive. CBT certainly isn’t for everyone, but if you find yourself dogged by worries, Woebot can point you to some healthier ways of thinking about the challenges you face.
A typical Woebot session might include a quiz or a thought exercise — sometimes you’re asked to write down how you react in a situation and then prompted on how to challenge any negative thoughts you might have had. It can sometimes feel repetitive, but that’s one of the keys to CBT and rewiring the way you think about things.
When you start using Woebot, you take a quiz to identify the kinds of issues you want to work on, and subsequent sessions are geared toward giving you the tools that can better equip you to face up to those challenges. You can set Woebot to ping you at a certain time of day, or you can hop into the app whenever it’s convenient to you. There’s even a Get Help With a Problem option where you talk to the chatbot about some issue or concern that’s come up.
Again, you’re talking to a AI program, not an actual person, and some people may find the conversation a little bit stilted. But I’ve found you get out of Woebot what you put into it. If you’re looking to learn new techniques that stop negative thinking in its tracks, there’s a lot that this app can teach you.
Woebot’s makers point to a study conducted at Stanford (opens in new tab), where use of Woebot led to “significant reductions” in anxiety and depression for people aged 18 to 28 years old. I’m… quite a bit older than that range, and while I’ve only been using Woebot for a little while, I do find that employing some of the techniques I’ve picked up from the app have helped me navigate setbacks and hurdles with greater aplomb.
Naturally, you may have some reservations about sharing details about your mental well-being that go beyond any natural reticence to talk about mental health. Exactly what kind of information is tied to your Woebot account, which requires you to sign in with an email address?
Woebot’s makers promise “hospital-level security policies and procedures” — data is encrypted both at transit and rest, and the app says it complies with GDPR and HIPAA requirements on the anonymization and transmission. Even those assurances may not be enough for some would-be users, but I’m comfortable enough with the app’s stated security policies.
We’ve made a lot of strides in recent years treating mental health the same way we’d treat physical health, with a greater emphasis on preventative care so that little problems don’t become bigger ones. To that end, I’ve found Woebot to be a valuable part of the toolkit I use to improve my outlook on life. It’s been one of the best additions to my phone in years.