Mclean Hospital
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Peace of Mind: There’s an App for That

Could the key to serenity be just a few clicks away?

October 1, 2020

More and more people are turning to mindfulness apps for wellness and emotional support. According to The Washington Post, Headspace, Calm, and other apps were downloaded some 750,000 times during the week of March 29, 2020.

The soaring interest in these apps is hardly surprising. Anxiety, depression, and even boredom brought on by the coronavirus pandemic is causing many to seek ways to better cope with their lives. By offering tools, exercises, courses, and videos designed to help people meditate, sleep better, and manage their stress, these apps promise improved emotional health.

Mindfulness Practices Are on the Rise

Despite the surge caused by the COVID-19 crisis, interest in wellness courses and tools has been steadily rising in recent years. In 2018, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Health Statistics published a study on the number of adults and children in the U.S. who practiced mindfulness activities. The study showed that participation in meditation and yoga classes, along with visits to chiropractors, had gone up significantly during the previous five years. Experts link the growing interest in mindfulness apps to this overall trend.

Illustration of woman doing yoga using a phone app
Though not a replacement for seeking professional health care, meditation apps can be a useful wellness tool

“Mindfulness and meditation apps are by far the most popular mental health or wellness apps used by our patients at McLean Hospital’s Behavioral Health Partial Hospital Program,” said Courtney Beard, PhD, director of the Cognition and Affect Research and Education (CARE) Laboratory and co-director of clinical research for the Behavioral Health Partial Hospital Program. “In a recent study, we surveyed over 300 of our patients, and almost half of them had at least one mental health or wellness app currently downloaded on their phone. Mindfulness or meditation apps represented 71% of the apps used by our patients.”

What Do These Apps Do?

The apps take many approaches. Some present guided meditation sessions, while others offer training aimed at stress reduction. Users can tap into breathing and relaxation exercises, tips on getting a good night’s sleep, or soothing music and videos. Some have opportunities to take part in Q&A sessions with wellness experts online.

One of the most popular apps is Headspace. Offering daily guided meditation sessions and a library of mediation courses, Headspace downloads have doubled since mid-March, according to The Washington Post. The app provides instruction on mediation and aims to reduce stress, improve focus, and improve sleep.

Joe started using a meditation app when he and his partner ended up in lockdown. “I looked apps up after my wife and I talked about how we were both feeling anxious,” he said. They tried a short, guided meditation together before going to sleep that night and found it helpful enough that they tried it again the next night. “Headspace tells you how long your streak is, and at a certain point, you don’t want to stop your streak since you’ve come so far,” he shared. At the time of publication, he and his wife were on a 109-day streak of nightly meditation and didn’t plan on ending the streak anytime soon.

Calm and Ten Percent Happier are also popular apps that focus on meditation, sleep, and relaxation. Calm provides meditation training and tools for beginning, intermediate, and advanced users. In addition, Calm subscribers can find relaxing music and nature scenes. Ten Percent Happier offers mediation training and tools as well as a popular podcast that discusses related topics like trauma, anxiety, and emotional awareness.

Do They Work?

App effectiveness depends on a variety of factors. The quality of the instruction, the “user-friendliness” of its design, and the commitment and attention of the user will produce different results for different people. “There is a strong evidence base for mindfulness-based interventions in general,” said Beard. “Apps hold much promise for increasing access to such evidence-based treatments.”

Some warn that no smartphone app can replace a trained meditation professional. A recent New York Times story quoted experts who said that mindfulness apps can serve as a useful supplement to personal, guided training. The article also reported that efforts are underway to evaluate the many apps available and guide users toward more effective options. Currently, PsyberGuide presents reviews of various apps, and the American Psychiatric Association offers an app evaluation model.

“People’s typical pattern of app usage is to eagerly download a new app and then never use it past the first week or two,” explained Beard. But, like an exercise regimen, having a regular routine with mindfulness can lead to better mental health outcomes. “Like any intervention,” she said, “consistent engagement and practice is the key to obtaining benefits.”

October 1, 2020

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