Illustration: Anna Dunn
Illustration: Anna Dunn

Mind

I replaced my therapist with an app

Last month, Liz Haycroft “consciously uncoupled” from her therapist. She knew that a £2.99 mood journalling app would never replace face-to-face therapy, but could it actually help?

Added on

By Liz Haycroft on

Here's the thing: I already track my running. I've logged 4,192 sleeps on SleepCycle, I record my daily steps, the hours spent on my phone and if I wasn't on the pill, I'd probably track my periods, too.

So, when I heard about Moodnotes, a pretty new iOS app that helps you record your moods and over time, track changes, explore feelings and emotional habits, I thought I'd give it a go.

First though, a little about my therapy.

Earlier this year, I experienced something unexpected and traumatic, resulting in what I thought was mild PTSD with a hint of insomnia. My poor mother, concerned about the fallout, suggested I go to see someone. I went to a dentist, in hope he could fix the clicking in my jaw that often seemed so tight.

The dentist was appalled. Unbeknownst to me – little, laidback me – I’d subconsciously chewed deep grooves into my cheeks and ground down my canine teeth, while the jaw pain was a result of constant clenching.

"What? Do I need a mouthguard?" I gasped, to which he replied with a smile: "Just stop doing it."

It was at that point I knew it wasn’t about a mouthguard, but instead time to look at why I was grinding my teeth all night – and, more importantly, how I could stop.

My knowledge of therapy to this point was limited to popular culture – Dr Katz, Dr Melfi, not to mention all those Woody Allen movies. I didn’t know what to expect when I found a brilliant, licensed therapist through It’s Good to Talk. With almost 20 years’ experience, she was whip-smart, matter-of-fact and just a little bit intimidating. Her private rates weren’t cheap but, for six months, I decided to forgo clothes shopping and invest instead in my emotional wellbeing. (Ergo: my teeth, too).

She always began with a simple, “So… How’s your week?”, to which I could expand any way I chose. There were ups. There were downs. Sometimes I cried, mostly unexpected tears, when she asked me a particularly probing question and sobs came, instead of a reply. Sometimes I felt uncomfortable and squirmed in my chair and sometimes I used a vocabulary I never managed in general conversation – like regular words couldn’t express what I really wanted to say. I felt open, honest and more emotionally attuned than ever before.

Each session closed with a “We can look at that a bit more next time, if you’d like”, an open offer she never forced upon me the following week. I’d leave a little elated, empowered and totally, mentally drained.

Within time, I became a therapy evangelist, telling everyone how incredible it was to talk to someone who not only actively listened, but asked difficult questions that your friends would never dare. My therapist would surprise me by recalling things I’d mentioned months earlier, and by forming connections between events in my childhood and what was happening right now. Like why, possibly, my dear Polish grandparents may not have been emotionally equipped to deal with World War Two, and in turn, how, perhaps, they’d passed on their stresses to my mother, who may have then taken to clenching her jaw in silent rage, so many years on.

Then, after six months of this-exhausting-but-always-revelatory-soul-searching, as the summer approached, I felt more secure and a whole lot less angry. (The teeth grinding stopped, too.)

And so it was, earlier this month, that I decided to try Moodnotes.

Developed by ustwo (a London agency known for their smart, user-centred digital products), Moodnotes was created with clinical psychologists at Thriveport to apply the principles of cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), to encourage healthier thinking by allowing users to monitor their daily emotional habits.

Moodnotes, it must be noted, is not designed to replace actual therapy, but instead work as a journal that increases self-awareness. The app itself is super-intuitive – it presents a simple smiley face, which you manipulate to reflect your current mood. Emotions are ranked on a scale of one (grey: unhappiest) to seven (yellow: happiest). You can also add notes, set goals and assign feelings, both negative and positive, although you can’t currently include physical states (“tired”, “energetic”).

After just a few weeks of use, my “Moodtrends” graph was primarily green (five: pretty damn happy). There were some super-happy yellow sevens (when I went for a run and then enjoyed a load of peanut M&Ms at the movies), one “very happy” dark-green six (a night at an exhibition) and lots of “happy”, green fives, primarily on days I exercised or met friends for lunch.

So far, so smug, right?

There were a couple of darker moments, too, like the time I was waiting for a reply to an important email, or the 6:23 pm Sunday-night-feeling when I knew that my weekend was over. I even noted an annoyed blue "four" when a staff meeting ran overlong, a mood repeated when a friend visiting from Japan cancelled just 20 minutes before we were supposed to meet for dinner.

Frustrated at the unexpected cancellation, I opened Moodnotes and made an expanded entry. In the list of emotions, I selected:

85 per cent disappointed
80 per cent annoyed
50 per cent resentful

All this negativity must’ve surprised poor Moodnotes, who promptly offered me the chance to “Check a Thought”. A message appeared: "We all fall into thinking traps", it cooed, "Describe what went through your mind that contributed to all these negative feelings."

I bashed out my response in anger: "Why don’t people give more notice?"

Moodnotes presented a selection of thinking traps, from fortune telling (making negative predictions about the future) to downplaying positives, all-or-nothing thinking, blowing things out of proportion, labelling and pointing blame.

I decided I was blaming my friend for not letting me know sooner. Moodnotes asked me to think about the situation again but, this time, without assigning any blame.

After a brief pause, I added, "She’s travelled halfway across the world and probably has jet lag. Plus... this means I can go home and go for a run."

Suddenly, miraculously, I felt better. Or as I noted in the app:

75 per cent happy
65 per cent grateful
50 per cent relaxed
60 per cent relieved

Holy shit! I thought, It actually works. Instead of cursing my friend for ruining my evening, I now had the whole night to myself, and I felt like I’d attained some sense of emotional enlightenment.

This heightened sense of self-awareness, however, wasn’t quite as evident when it came to bigger problems. I regularly checked small irritations but, when faced with an actual problem, I really didn’t want to get out my phone and tell it how I was feeling. The question is, was I lying to my Moodnotes? Or was I lying to myself?

Most people only present their best self online. Our social media feeds are full of parties and dinners and holidays and workouts and so rarely reflect the full gamut of human emotions. Why should an app be any different?

Nearly a month on, I’m still adding to my Moodnotes, and trying to be more open with it about my feelings, although it’s so much harder to be honest with an app than it was with a real therapist. But when I think about how it changed my approach to my flaky friend, I want to give it another go. I’d like it to reflect the whole spectrum of feelings – not just the good times. And somehow, between therapy and my Moodnotes, I think I’m making some actual emotional progress.

@littlelizu

Illustration: Anna Dunn
Tagged in:
In My Head
Technology
Therapy
Breathing Space
Mental Health

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