If you're stealing a few minutes of zen and want to achieve something like contentment in the face of chaos and uncertainty, you might be tempted to download a meditation app.
Studies show that meditation can relieve stress and reduce symptoms associated with depression, anxiety, pain, and insomnia. The vast majority of meditation apps are relatively affordable and convenient. However, knowing where to start can be overwhelming, especially when you want to find a destination that suits your unique needs.
Before downloading any of these apps, however, you should be clear about what these meditation apps can and cannot do.
What is mindfulness
The content of many meditation apps is relaxing to listen to – babbling brooks, waves breaking, and birds chirping – but mindfulness meditation is an active practice. You focus on thoughts and sensations while they are puffing up in the moment and watch them without judgment. You are not in the zone. When your attention shifts, focus gently on your breath again. The more you practice training your attention this way, the more robust the benefits of mindfulness meditation.
Meditation is not meant for you to "get happy and escape," said Amishi Jha, associate professor of psychology at the University of Miami and a neuroscientist who studies attention. "You might actually get unnecessarily frustrated thinking that the goal is something this app will take you to."
For many people, feeling happy amid this pandemic is not a realistic goal. In fact, being unable to maintain a positive mentality when you feel like you should, could make you feel worse. Instead, she recommends a more mindful attitude: accept that things are the way they are. This is more restorative.
Mindfulness meditation can improve your alertness. When your attention span is increased, many other beneficial effects usually follow, said Dr. Yeh. Filtering out distracting thoughts can help you be more productive. The satisfaction of being able to accomplish what you need to accomplish in a day makes people feel better, she added.
Increased alertness also allows us "to notice that our own thoughts wander when we get into those bad ruminant loops," she said. Two Harvard researchers conducted a study in 2010 that found that 47 percent of the time, people thought about something other than what they were doing: things that happened in the past and things that might be in the Future happen or not. This wandering of mind usually makes people more unhappy. By breaking this cycle that mindfulness meditation aims to achieve, we can reap the emotional benefits of focusing only on the here and now.
An app cannot replace an expert
For those learning how to practice mindfulness meditation, experts said you need one-on-one personalized instruction to ensure you are on the right track. You can read about meditation and think, "It's really simple and easy to do. But I think what people don't understand is that it's really easy to get it wrong," said Sara Lazar, an assistant professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School, which studies the neurosciences of yoga and meditation, but experts agreed that the right meditation app can make a great addition to a real teacher you can work with remotely.
Experts warn that meditation apps are not a substitute for clinical treatment. Whenever you have a clinical mental health diagnosis, you should always contact your doctor.
Meditation apps have not been "proven"
There is a misconception that meditation apps are widely studied and supported by science. You are not. "There are probably 10 studies done with apps that are good and actually meet clinical trial standards," said Dr. Yeh. We are only at the beginning to examine them for their effectiveness.
There's a movement in place for mindfulness teachers to be certified and accredited through an independent accreditation organization called the International Mindfulness Teachers Association, said Diana Winston, director of mindfulness education at U.C.L.A. Mindful Awareness Research Center and author of "The Little Book of Being". However, these important standards have not yet made it into the apps, so there is a quality control issue. "They have no idea if the teacher leading the meditation on the app is someone who has 20 years of experience or someone who tried to teach this and run the app just a week ago," she said .
While there are no official organizations that monitor these apps, there are some websites that can help you evaluate them. PsyberGuide is a non-profit project that aims to provide accurate and unbiased reviews and ratings to mental health apps. The American Psychiatric Organization also has an app rating model. The website helps you position an app: when there is scientific support, when there is transparency about how your data is being used and how easy it is to use. These tools ensure that any apps you download are safe, verified, and easy to use.
"Don't be afraid to download an app," said Dr. Wilhelm. "Just do a little research and choose the right one."
How Do I Pick a Good Meditation App?
Identify your goal. Just as you likely walk into a department store and have an idea of what to buy, you should have a goal in mind before jumping into the App Store. Experts said some goals could include: relieving stress, minimizing anxiety, quitting smoking, fighting insomnia, and promoting mindfulness. If you are unsure of what to look for, the choices can be overwhelming.
Make sure the app is transparent with its privacy settings. Some apps use sensitive personal information. Your private information could be sold to third parties or stored in places where it might not be intended. "There are very few apps that have no risk," said Sabine Wilhelm, chief psychologist at Massachusetts General Hospital and professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School.
Look for access to a live coach if possible. "You will inevitably have questions," said Dr. Yeh. Just like talking to a trainer to make sure your form isn't off at the gym, you want someone to consult to determine if you are meditating properly.
Look for a variety of offers. This is helpful, said Ms. Winston, because it allows you to try different modules at different times. Some apps offer guided meditations, breathing exercises, or even just timers, and you might appreciate the variety.
Look for an exit. Hopefully each app you download is an addition to a meditation habit that you want to expand. You shouldn't think about buying this app to be dependent on it forever, said Dr. Yeh. Over time, try to reduce the amount of guidance you need to get to the point where there might be only one bell ringing at the beginning and end.
Try a few. Ms. Winston recommends listening to a variety of teachers from each app and seeing if you connect with any of them. "Nobody will be for everyone," said Ms. Winston. "Different people are attracted to different teachers."
Dr. Lazar suggests being open to the fact that your mindfulness preferences might change over time. She recommends articulating what you like or dislike about what you've tried. That will help you figure out which ones are a good fit for you.
Pros and cons of some popular meditation apps
All of this is available on iOS and Android devices.
Headspace. Wirecutter, a New York Times company that reviews and recommends products, has selected Headspace as its preferred all-round meditation app. In addition to a charming user interface, there is an extensive library of guided courses and a variety of targeted meditations that will please both beginners and experts. Access to full programming costs $ 69.99 per year after a free two-week trial.
Quiet. This app has more of a New Age atmosphere with ambient music, nature sounds and landscapes. There are many individual exercises and multi-day guided meditations as well as progress reports and calming sleep stories. There is also content for children and experts for subscribers. There is a free trial for seven days and an annual membership fee of $ 69.99 gives you access to all sessions.
Simple habit. This app is designed for those who want to keep their meditation habit. After completing a questionnaire to evaluate your goals, the app suggests a personalized meditation program. Expect lots of notifications to make sure you stay on top of things. If you're not the type of person who enjoys notifications, look elsewhere. It costs $ 11.99 per month or $ 89.99 per year. A lifetime membership is $ 299.99.
Insight timer. Insight Timer is marketed as an app for sleep, anxiety and stress and has a huge catalog of over 45,000 guided meditations and music tracks. Unlike other popular meditation apps, you can access the content of this app without creating a profile. However, when you create an account, you can connect with friends, track your progress, and bookmark favorite meditations. There are plenty of free plans out there, but after a 30-day free trial, it costs $ 60 per year.