Can ChatGPT do psychotherapy?
Published 1 February 2023. Written by Chris Worfolk.
ChatGPT is an artificial intelligence (AI) computer programme that allows you to interact conversationally and generate responses. Could such a programme be used to do therapy? In this article, we will explore that idea.
What is ChatGTP?
ChatGPT is a computer programme that can understand and respond to human language. It has been trained on a large amount of text from the internet, which allows it to generate text that sounds similar to how a human would write or speak. It can be used for tasks such as generating responses in a conversation, answering questions, and completing text. It is designed to make it easier for people to interact with computers using natural language as we use in daily life.
Can it do therapy?
The idea that an AI could do therapy is nothing new. Chatbots have been around for a long time and over the years (and now decades) people have tried to apply them to counselling. Examples include Woebot, Wysa and Youper.
ChatGPT has taken the wider world by storm, though, because of the large dataset used to train it (the information fed in) and produces far more detailed and articulate answers than previous chatbots have typically done.
It is worth noting that ChatGPT says it is programmed to avoid inappropriate responses and is likely to avoid offering medical advice. Therefore, one of the limitations is that it is designed not to do therapy, especially compared to therapy-specific chatbots.
Trying it out
In the following dialogue, I asked ChatGPT for help with my anxiety.
Me: I'm feeling anxious
ChatGPT: I understand that you're feeling anxious. Anxiety is a normal emotion that everyone experiences from time to time, but when it becomes excessive or chronic, it can interfere with daily activities and affect overall well-being. If you're struggling with anxiety, it may be helpful to speak with a mental health professional or counselor who can help you develop coping strategies and tools to manage your symptoms. Additionally, there are also a number of self-help strategies that may be helpful, such as practicing relaxation techniques, getting regular exercise, and engaging in activities that you enjoy.
Me: Tell me more about these self-help strategies
ChatGPT: There are a variety of self-help strategies that can help manage anxiety symptoms, some examples are:
- Relaxation techniques: These can include deep breathing exercises, progressive muscle relaxation, and yoga. These techniques can help to slow down your breathing and heart rate, and reduce muscle tension, which can help to reduce feelings of anxiety.
- Regular exercise: Regular physical activity can help to reduce feelings of anxiety by releasing endorphins, which are chemicals in the brain that act as natural painkillers and mood elevators. Exercise can also help to improve sleep, which is often disrupted in people with anxiety.
- Engaging in activities you enjoy: Doing things you enjoy can help to take your mind off of your worries and provide a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction. This can be anything from hobbies to social activities.
- Mindfulness and meditation: Mindfulness is the practice of paying attention to the present moment. Mindfulness practices can help to reduce anxiety by teaching you how to focus your attention on the present moment rather than dwelling on the past or worrying about the future.
- Get enough sleep: Adequate sleep is important for overall health and well-being, and it can be particularly beneficial for managing anxiety. Aim for at least 7-8 hours of sleep per night.
- Eating a balanced diet: A healthy diet can help to keep your body and mind in optimal condition. Eating a diet that is rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean proteins can provide your body with the nutrients it needs to function properly.
It's important to keep in mind that these strategies can be helpful, but they may not work for everyone. If you're struggling with anxiety, it's important to speak with a mental health professional who can help you develop an individualized treatment plan that works for you.
Me: I keep worrying that I will lose my job.
ChatGPT: It's understandable that you may be worrying about losing your job. Job insecurity can be a source of stress and anxiety for many people. Here are a few strategies that may help you cope with this concern:
- Identify the triggers for your worry: Try to identify the specific situations or thoughts that trigger your worry about losing your job. Once you know what triggers your worry, you can develop strategies to manage or avoid those triggers.
- Challenge negative thoughts: It's common to have negative thoughts when worrying about losing your job. Try to challenge these thoughts by asking yourself if they are realistic or if there is any evidence to support them.
- Create a plan: Create a plan of action that you can implement in case you do lose your job. This could include updating your resume, networking, or researching other job opportunities. Having a plan in place can help to reduce feelings of uncertainty and anxiety.
- Talk to someone: Talking to someone about your worries can help you to get a different perspective on the situation and to feel less alone. You can talk to a friend, family member, or a mental health professional.
- Make sure you have enough savings: Having a savings account will help you to have a safety net in case of job loss.
- Focus on things you can control: It's important to focus on things that are within your control and not to waste energy on things you can't control. This can help you to feel more in control of your situation and reduce feelings of anxiety.
- Practice self-care: It's important to take care of yourself both physically and mentally. Maintaining healthy habits such as getting enough sleep, eating a balanced diet, and exercising regularly can help to reduce feelings of anxiety and improve overall well-being.
Remember that it's normal to worry about losing your job, but it's important not to let this worry consume you. Remember to take action and to take care of yourself.
Me: How do I challenge negative thoughts?
ChatGPT: Challenging negative thoughts is an important step in managing anxiety. Here are a few strategies that can help:
- Identify the thought: The first step in challenging a negative thought is to identify it. Try to be specific about what the thought is and when it occurs.
- Examine the evidence: Once you've identified the thought, examine the evidence for and against it. Ask yourself if there is any evidence to support the thought or if it's based on assumptions or past experiences.
- Consider alternative perspectives: Try to look at the situation from a different perspective. Ask yourself if there is another way of looking at the situation that might be more balanced or positive.
- Use "reframing": Reframing is the process of changing the way you think about a situation by looking for the positive aspects or the potential benefits.
- Focus on facts, not feelings: Negative thoughts often stem from emotions and feelings, rather than facts. Try to focus on the facts of the situation and not let your emotions cloud your judgement.
- Practice self-compassion: Be kind and understanding with yourself. Remember that everyone has negative thoughts sometimes, and that it's normal to make mistakes.
Challenge the thought with a positive affirmation: Once you've identified and challenged the negative thought, replace it with a positive affirmation. For example, if the thought is "I'm going to lose my job", the positive affirmation could be "I am valuable and I will find another job if I need to".
Me: Can you write me a step-by-step plan for dealing with my work anxiety?
ChatGPT: Sure, here's a step-by-step plan for dealing with work-related anxiety:
- Identify the triggers: Take some time to reflect on what specific situations or thoughts trigger your anxiety at work. Write them down and try to be as specific as possible.
- Challenge negative thoughts: When you notice yourself having negative thoughts, take a step back and challenge them. Ask yourself if they are realistic or if there is any evidence to support them. Try to reframe them into a more positive light.
- Create a plan of action: Develop a plan of action that you can implement if your anxiety becomes overwhelming. This could include taking a short walk, talking to a colleague, or practicing deep breathing exercises.
- Prioritize self-care: Make sure to take care of yourself both physically and mentally. This includes getting enough sleep, eating a balanced diet, exercising regularly, and practicing mindfulness or meditation.
- Talk to someone: Don't hesitate to talk to someone about your anxiety, whether it's a trusted colleague, friend, or a mental health professional.
- Take a break: If you feel overwhelmed, take a break from work.Go for a walk, read a book, or do something that makes you feel relaxed.
- Refocus on your goals: Remember why you are doing this job, what are your goals and try to refocus on them.
- Seek professional help if needed: If your anxiety is interfering with your ability to work or enjoy life, consider seeking professional help. A therapist or counselor can work with you to develop a treatment plan and provide support and guidance.
Remember that it's normal to feel anxious at times, but it's important to take action to manage your anxiety. By following this plan, you can reduce your anxiety levels and improve your overall well-being.
Me: How do I reframe the thought "I will lose my job and not be able to pay my rent?"
ChatGPT: Reframing is the process of changing the way you think about a situation by looking for the positive aspects or the potential benefits. Here's an example of how you might reframe the thought "I will lose my job and not be able to pay my rent":
- Identify the thought: "I will lose my job and not be able to pay my rent."
- Examine the evidence: Ask yourself if there is any evidence to support the thought. Is there any indication that you are going to lose your job? Or is this a fear based on assumptions or past experiences?
- Consider alternative perspectives: Look at the situation from a different perspective. For example, instead of focusing on the possibility of losing your job, focus on the steps you can take to prevent it from happening.
- Reframe the thought: "I am valuable and I will find another job if I need to." or "I am capable of finding new opportunities even if I lose my current job."
- Focus on the facts: Remind yourself that you have a job now, and you're able to pay your rent. Focus on the things you can control and take action on them, rather than worrying about things that may happen in the future.
- Use positive affirmations: Repeat positive affirmations to yourself, such as "I am strong and capable" or "I trust in my ability to handle whatever comes my way."
It's important to keep in mind that changing negative thoughts takes practice and patience. You may not be able to change the initial negative thought instantly, but with time and practice you'll be able to reframe it and see things in a more positive light.
Evaluating the result
You may have your own take on the above conversation. Allow me to share some of my thoughts.
ChatGPT seems very good at generating ideas and self-help resources. It provided me with a number of options, including some cognitive behavioural therapy approaches such as identifying triggers and challenging negative thoughts.
When I asked it to put together a personalised plan for my therapy, it provided a list what was pretty similar to the original list, suggesting that although the responses are detailed, it can only go so deep.
That is the kind of limitation we might expect from an AI programme. But the barriers are coming down. When I asked it to reframe me worrying thought, it provided two personalised responses: "I am valuable and I will find another job if I need to" and "I am capable of finding new opportunities even if I lose my current job."
It is not clear whether a computer programme could ever replace a person: part of the reason therapy works is because of the personal connection between therapist and client.
However, as we can see from this short example, chatbots can not only gather information and resources, but they are beginning to provide personalised responses that could really help people when working with a therapist is not an option.