The Lowdown on Meditation Apps: Are they Worth it?
Updated: Jun 10
Mindfulness, What’s That?
This year has been rough, not just physically but mentally on us all. Before us sits an endless list of boxes yet to be ticked, tasks left incomplete, and responsibilities that fall to the wayside while the list of procrastination is ever faithfully filled out. Can’t focus? Check. Can’t sleep? Check. Can’t stop binging that latest period drama on Netflix? No, just me? Well, I’m still checking it because I see you Linda! In all honesty my phone and tablet have been my trusty companions through this procrastination period, a comforting presence that seems to say “Hush, scroll, binge to your heart’s content! What else are you going to do anyway?” And it does seem that way doesn’t it? What else are our phone’s for, if not to provide endlessly mind numbing entertainment?
Recently I found myself in yet another cycle of wakeful restlessness. I’m sure you can relate: that feeling where you’re too tired to do anything but too guilty to go to bed because it is only four in the afternoon and you’re supposed to be a fully functional adult. Cue guilty media scrolling for the next several hours until there’s nothing left to do at 2am. Relatable right? I’m sure I’m not the only one experiencing this kind of wakeful restlessness and I’m sure it’s a problem for many of you. Whilst in the middle of my mindless midday Facebook scroll session when something caught my eye. On my screen was this article called “Mindfulness: Present Moment Awareness” from Psychology Today and it got me thinking.
Now I’d heard of mindfulness before and I’d always associated it with hippies, like the kind of people that have a different crystal for everything that ails you. Mindfulness to me meant some kind of mystical aura nonsense, some sparkly New Age enlightenment that was both inexplicable and unattainable for me, your common couch potato. Yet, here was Psychology Today talking about mindfulness? And here’s how they defined ‘living mindfully:’
“To live mindfully is to live in the moment and reawaken oneself to the present, rather than dwelling on the past or anticipating the future. To be mindful is to observe and label thoughts, feelings, sensations in the body in an objective manner. Mindfulness can therefore be a tool to avoid self-criticism and judgment while identifying and managing difficult emotions” (Psychology Today, 2021).
Now I don’t know about you, but as someone who had spent the last few months being an unproductive social media zombie, this mindfulness thing sounded like the exact opposite of my everyday life. If anything I was living in a bubble, a cocoon of (admittedly) my own making where I was comfortably numb to the scary outside world. However, as someone who has become increasingly agitated with the sameness of the world I’d created and the effects of my potato lifestyle, this mindfulness thing had its appeal.
The concept of being present, aware and (most of all) productive had me incredibly interested in the power of the hippies. What was their secret? According to the article mindfulness has just two components: awareness and acceptance. “Awareness is the knowledge and ability to focus attention on one’s inner processes and experiences, such as the experience of the present moment. Acceptance is the ability to observe and accept—rather than judge or avoid—those streams of thought” (Psychology Today, 2021).Increasing our acceptance of our thoughts relaxes our minds, which in turn allows our bodies to return from fight-or-flight mode to rest-and-digest mode. Mindfulness improves our health by allowing our bodies the space to reduce inflammation, repair muscles and joints, lower our blood pressure, and enjoy restorative sleep (Hoffman & Gomez, 2017).
Sounds simple right? In concept, sure, it was easy to understand I’d been unfocused and avoiding the present but that only gave me the why and now I needed the how. I already knew my behavior was bad; but this article didn’t give me the information I needed to become more mindful. It gave me some basic ideas about being mindful: Breathe! Meditate! Focus! Great buzz words but ultimately useless when you’re trying to make lifestyle changes. Breathe how? Meditate when? Focus on what? These were the answers I needed!
According to the article there are amazing benefits to mindfulness:
“Mindfulness refers to a process that leads to a mental state characterized by nonjudgmental awareness of the present moment experience, including one’s sensations, thoughts, bodily states, consciousness, and the environment, while encouraging openness, curiosity, and acceptance” (Hofmann & Gomez, 2017.)
Really hitting the nail on the head when you’ve become something of a shut in, right? Living my current lifestyle has become a cycle of stress, trying to forget my stress and only ending up back at my original stress. I mean sleep, who’s she? I crave a reduction in my stress and anxiety and an increase in my productivity, both at work and at home. But how?
Instead of despairing and returning to ‘harmful ruminating’ I decided I’d find something to teach me the art of being mindful. But where was I going to find a zen master, a sage of the ages to teach me these mystical techniques? I turned to the convenient scapegoat for my current problems, my phone, for answers. If technology could facilitate my downward spiral it could lead me to the answers to escape them! I opened the App Store and I was all at once inundated with hundreds of meditation apps. Each one stated they would be the one to teach me the wisdom, the answers to mindfulness.
Of course, it wasn’t that simple. The App Store was a maze of apps. Most apps were full of useless information, only provided music, or were so incredibly convoluted in their design they were practically unusable. Apps that I did like were hidden by charges or monthly subscriptions -- and as much as I wanted to be enlightened, I didn’t want to necessarily pay for the privilege.
I ended up deciding on a set criteria of what I wanted from an app:
First and foremost, it had to be free. While some people might say that when learning you should be expected to give up something, I disagree. I wanted an app that didn’t hide all its knowledge behind a subscription fee and that’s just me. So the apps I’ll be discussing were either free or provided enough free content to be worthwhile.
Ease of access was another important criteria for me. I needed to be able to easily access the information and the lessons needed to be incredibly clear to follow (I’m a beginner after all.)
I also wanted an app that offered a variety of lessons for my concerns. In this case I focused on sleep, anxiety, stress and motivation, on top of just learning how to be mindful I wanted to be able to improve multiple areas of my life.
With this in mind I ended up finding two apps that satisfied all my conditions: Smiling Mind and Insight Timer. I’ll be discussing the pros and cons of these apps in depth in just a minute but I wanted to say they were both an extreme pleasure to use and I continue to use them in my daily life!
The Apps Selected
1. Smiling Mind - I want to start by saying Smiling Mind has the most calming app design ever: the logo is adorable, the color choices are charming, the menu was incredibly easy to navigate on mobile and the sound design is great. This app offers a great introduction to mindfulness beyond just, “Well relax but think while you relax.” The ‘Introduction to Mindfulness’ course was the first course in a set of recommended modules that you follow for a few days while you understand the basics of mindfulness. One thing that was integrated into the lessons (beyond the incredibly calming Australian narrator, whom I could listen to forever) was a blue breathing circle that expanded and decreased to a recommended breathing cycle. After watching the courses for a few days I genuinely began naturally following the breathing cycle while listening to the lessons, almost subconsciously!
Smiling mind also has lessons called ‘Bite Size’ that are mini-meditations you can do in bed, at work, in traffic, or any time you need a minute of calm before you can focus. For slightly longer meditations they have ‘Everyday Mindfulness,’ which taught me the concept of a ‘body scan’ -- no, it isn’t an alien mind technique, but a technique where you take a minute (or several) to assess what you’re doing in the moment. You basically sit with your eyes closed and think, “Where am I right now, what’s my body feeling right now, what can I do for me right now?”
This all goes back to the awareness and acceptance that Psychology Today was talking about! You have to be aware of yourself and your surroundings, focusing on the present without worrying about the future. Instead of being overwhelmed with the many things we have to do, the “Everyday Mindfulness” program teaches you how to work in the present moment.
One way this technique has been useful in my daily life is at work. In a moment of idleness, I conduct a body scan while sitting at my desk, when in the past I’d grab my phone instead. It was like suddenly having complete clarity after having blinders on, I was better able to differentiate myself, my feelings and emotions from my situation. Instead of being on autopilot and just doing the same thing I’d normally do I was able to identify why I was making those choices and choosing to do something different. Taking a few moments out of my day to conduct a body scan, especially as soon as I wake up, has increased my productivity immensely!
One con about Smiling Mind is that, while it does offer a variety of lessons and techniques (see their 21 Day Sleep Program you insomniacs, article coming soon!) it has a limited range of lessons. It is easy to explore the whole library of content in a short amount of time. Even though most of the lessons have high re-listenability, you might find yourself becoming bored of their limited content or answering their questions at the beginning of each lesson.
2. Insight Timer - After learning a thorough understanding of mindfulness basics from Smiling Mind, I began to seek variety in other apps -- and boy, did I find variety. In terms of pure variety, Insight Timer has every other mindfulness app completely beat. They offer thousands of free videos, and they provide new content every single day! Want to learn how to do yoga, they’ve got live teachers to teach you! Want to learn how to love yourself from a monk living in Nepal, they have that too! Want some music for doing your nightly body scan, they have hundreds of playlists that range from guided meditations to Tibetan singing bowls to binaural beats! Everything you can think of to assist in your mindfulness journey, they have it for free! The only thing that makes this app not completely free (I know, I know but did I mention 80,000 free videos) is that you have to pay to unlock all the content. They offer what’s called Member Plus courses that you do have to pay for, but honestly, I’m not mad at it! I love the variety and I love the accessibility of having everything I want in one place and having multiple teachers.
The Takeaway: Do Mindfulness Apps Work?
For me, mindfulness apps have been absolutely amazing at teaching mindfulness, the basics and more complicated techniques. Obviously you won’t become an experienced mindful guru overnight by using them, but they do help you to better connect to the present moment and help you to create better reactions to things you can or can’t control. Will they make you instantly calmer, sleep better, become a transcendent mystical being? No, those things only happen in our dreams, but they can be an easy and accessible way to learn new adaptive behaviors that can help you become a little less of a potato.
Hofmann, S., & Gomez, A., (2017). Mindfulness-Based Interventions for Anxiety and Depression, Psychiatr Clin North Am. 40(4), 739-749. doi: 10.1016/j.psc.2017.08.008.
Mindfulness: Present Moment Awareness. (n.d.) Psychology Today, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/mindfulness.