Woebot in the time of Covid-19

The first time someone mentioned Coronavirus to Woebot was on January 2nd. For the rest of that month, there was a slow creep of mentions. In February, Coronavirus mentions doubled biweekly, then weekly, and finally in March, mentions doubled from one day to the next. Sound familiar? Indeed, the curve that denotes the fear and worry caused by this virus looks just like the graph of contagion of the illness itself.

At the same time that our staff were packing up their desks to work from home, we dropped all other projects and turned our attention to supporting our users through this unprecedented time. Our team and especially our engineers and our writers have worked day and night. We launched our Coronavirus program on March 17th with a lesson called “Perspective”. In typical Woebot fashion, it is whimsical, hopeful, warm and authentic with a touch of humor.

The goals of the program are not to provide more Coronavirus information per se, but rather to lift spirits, and to help people stay grounded during this anxiety provoking time. Over the course of the program, users can look forward to more guided meditations, as well as practical tips like ideas for staving off cabin fever, things to do with others via technology, a story about shared anxiety among chickens called “Chicken Study for the Soul”.

Aside from our regular conversations, we have improved some of our existing tools to deal with grief, and economic hardship. Unlike our thought challenging and mindfulness exercises, these tools are from another evidence based approach called Interpersonal Psychotherapy (IPT) and focus on processing loss and role transitions.

Our Chief Clinical Officer, Dr Athena Robinson, a mother of two, has produced a series of blog posts on how to navigate this time covering everything from social distancing to helping children and parents adjust to distance learning.

In addition, our engineers built a web tool that is a slimmed down version of the Woebot offering that allows people to get immediate access to a helpful tool to manage anxiety, bypassing the need to download an app and register. I’m proud to say this web tool is currently being translated to Italian to help one of the worst affected areas.

In just a couple of weeks the landscape of our company and the world has shifted. The unique ability for digital tools to meet people where they’re at has never been as self-evident and that is a conversation we find ourselves no longer needing to have.

The truth is that the ability to focus our energy on such meaningful work at this time has been a blessing and a privilege. At times like this when there’s so much that one can’t control, it helps to focus on the things you can. So we support people, because that’s what we can do.

The Indoor Days

Mitigating the spread of the Coronavirus requires that we social distance and stay inside of our homes. Yet, how do we successfully adapt to and make the most of life indoors? Truthfully, we are all just learning the answer to this question as we make our way along. Here are a few ideas to contribute to our growing, collective body of knowledge about living our best indoor days.

Build in Structure
Educators, employers, and mental health providers promote building a schedule into your daily life at home. Get up each morning and engage in a routine – shower, coffee, waffles for the kids, etc. Change out of those comfy pajamas. Talk with your partner and family members about how to structure your daily schedule and physical space within the home so that you have time together… and ideally, a wee bit of alone time and space too.

Engage in Small Acts of Kindness – Each Day (yes, each and every day)
Ever notice how being kind to someone can brighten your own mood? Being kind is a gift we can give to both others and ourselves. Offering kindness also temporarily shifts the focus of our attention and worry off of ourselves and onto someone else – which can be a huge help when managing persistent stress and low mood.

Thanking someone is an example of a small – yet powerful — act of kindness. For example, join me now in thanking the employees and people out on the ground; those who are dedicated to helping our activities of daily life continue in regularity as much as possible (i.e., grocers, waste management crews, food delivery services, postal workers, technical engineers enabling virtual communication, and of course, all of the health care providers worldwide.)

Learn & Practice Skills to Tolerate Uncertainty
Uncertainty is a hallmark characteristic of the Covid-19 pandemic. We remain uncertain about various aspects of the illness, how long shelter in place will be sustained, when our children will return to school, when businesses will re-open, the economic fallout of the situation, and more. All this being said,, it’ll be important to build our uncertainty-tolerance muscles in the coming weeks and months. Here are few ideas:

(1) Shift the Panic-Promoting Stories in Your Mind
For decades, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) has taught that the way we interpret situations can directly impact our emotions and actions. The potentially panic-provoking stories in your head about the uncertainty surrounding Covid-19 can worsen your mood, increase anxiety, and backfire by reducing health-promoting behaviors. For sustained mental wellness, I invite you to be mindful of the amount of the time and energy you spend thinking through worst-case scenarios and other highly frightening possibilities. Both will necessarily predict the degree of panic you experience. Don’t get me wrong, anxiety is actually quite normative and expected in this situation — it is, after all, literally anxiety-provoking. But panic changes us and pushes us into pure flight or fight – when we panic, we lose our ability to access wise mind, to make choices that are best for our mental and physical health. Panic consumes our time, zaps our energy, reduces clarity of thoughts, and prevents us from being mindful and present during precious moments of calm and enjoyment. CBT skills such as thought restructuring can be instrumental in mitigating the degree of anxiety and panic you experience.

(2) Practice Mindfulness, Relaxation, and Exercise
Get to know your body’s signals of heightened anxiety. For many people, it manifests in a racing heartbeat, sweaty armpits, clammy hands, tight muscles, and/or poor sleep. Upon noticing these body sensations, intervene via a mindfulness meditation, relaxation exercise, and/or physical activity. Taking steps to dial down your anxiety before it escalates may help reduce how many times you hit intense panic.

Infuse calm through:

  • Circumscribing a time block in your day to ingest the news. Be connected to what is going on and select your top media outlets, but be intentional about how much news you consume (and when you consume it). Often, folks find reading the news right before bedtime can disrupt sleep. Experiment with what time works best for you.
  • Find a time each day to get grounded and centered. Diaphragmatic breathing, mindful meditations, and physical activity can be instrumentally helpful.
  • Gratitude journal daily. Write down and/or share aloud with others what you are grateful for each day. Even though it may seem to be odd to practice gratitude during this time, it’s actually more important now than ever– in fact, it can help you build reserves of strength and positivity to draw from when the going gets tough. Perhaps you are grateful that your kids engaged in their distance learning programs (even for a little bit!), you had a delicious cup of coffee, or found a fantastic yoga video on You Tube. Gratitude Journaling gives a microphone to the sunshine in our days.

Our journey through this pandemic will be a marathon, not a sprint. Together, let’s work our way through this.

We’ve Got This.

Let hope be the antidote to fear.
Let solidarity be the antidote to blame.
Let our shared humanity be the antidote to our shared threat.
— Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, Director-General, The World Health Organization

The Covid-19 pandemic feels so surreal. Yet it’s a stark reality we all face together. And we will continue to face it for an undefined amount of time. Across the globe, we are now challenged to dramatically accelerate comprehensive understanding of the illness,adapt to 24-7 life at home, away from our routines and loved ones,perhaps face a quick loss of income,
teach and practice patience and calmness during a storm, maintain, or work to quickly return to, strong physical health,grieve the pandemic’s impact,
appraise our emotional wellness barometer and seek support accordingly,
and above all else, tolerate uncertainty.

It’s quite a list. And I’m sure I’ve left important things off.

Can we do this?
YES. Personal, familial, generational, and global history reminds us about what we have endured, survived, and grown from. We humans possess many attributes that make us fundamentally wonderful. The capacity to love, empathize, learn, adapt, ideate, as well as be creative, scientifically minded, and resilient. Together, we can manifest a path forward, through this pandemic, and into our next phase.

Social Connectivity Matters – Even While Social Distancing
We live amidst critically important recommendations for social distancing, shelter in place, and quarantine. Adhering to these literally means limited physical proximity to loved ones. It doesn’t mean however, that we can’t connect. And connect we must. Social connection and social support are part of the very life blood of being human. We are social creatures. Look around – see the marvelous ways in which we’ve built our world to directly enable connecting with each other. Brick and mortar structures and technological platforms alike have been crafted with the goal of connectivity in mind. In fact, for thousands of years we humans have garnered support, empathy, and love from each other through our conversations and written word. Decades worth of psychological literature also document the power of social support to facilitate in achieving behavior change and recovery from various conditions. Connectivity is essential for vitality, hope and yes, even offers some space for humor in the midst of it all. Let’s leverage technology to help us connect. Call, text, video conference, social-media. Any of them. All of them. Leave no text unanswered; no thread unread. Social support is a reciprocal, mutually beneficial interaction. And remember, as we walk through the real-time impact and wake of Covid-19, we must promote and engage in social connectivity & social support while simultaneously abiding by the distancing recommendations set forth by national and global scientific experts and governing bodies.

My way of connecting is writing and sharing this post. Discover yours. After all, this is the time for it.

Hang in there everyone, we’ve got this.