Raise your hand if you've ever described meditation apps as "so boring," "too hard," "I tried it and I just couldn't get into it," or "Yeah, I'll definitely look into them…at some point."
Now raise your hand if you've been noticing that your chest is tight, your heart rate is high, you're waking up with a feeling of dread, or you've been fixating on worst-case scenarios. The coronavirus pandemic is giving many people their first taste of clinical anxiety. And for longtime anxiety sufferers, a public-health-based national emergency doesn't exactly help. If you think you need help, you should talk to a doctor or therapist. But here's some advice we could all use: Try meditation apps.
To skeptics, meditation can seem like a vague, un-science-y way to respond to the real, pressing human issue of anxiety. But plenty of serious research backs up the belief that meditation can powerfully alleviate anxiety.
According to the National Institute of Health (NIH), "There’s evidence that [meditation] may reduce blood pressure as well as symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome and flare-ups in people who have had ulcerative colitis. It may ease symptoms of anxiety and depression, and may help people with insomnia." A 2014 systemic review from Johns Hopkins analyzed 47 clinical trials that had looked at the effectiveness of meditation for "stress-related outcomes" (i.e., anxiety, depression, etc.). They found "moderate evidence" of improved anxiety, depression, and pain. (One important caveat: The NIH warns, "Don’t use meditation to replace conventional care or as a reason to postpone seeing a health care provider about a medical problem." Meditation is great, but it's not the same as going to the doctor.)
So in this age of increased anxiety, come, all ye eye-rollers, fidgeters, and people convinced you're being productive in self-quarantine only if you spend every second cooking Julia Child recipes and learning to play the French horn. Lizzo is doing it; Deepak Chopra is doing it; you can do it too. Let's get calm.
Headspace is the daddy/zaddy of meditation apps. It's easy to navigate and comprehensive, great for beginners thanks to a program that welcomes you to meditation instead of just throwing you into the deep end. Headspace also has workouts, and has even put out specific meditations for living during coronavirus.
Glamour culture director Mattie Kahn says, "Headspace has these nighttime meditations designed to help listeners relax, and they have never failed me! I’ve either been listening to that or just replicating the deep-breathing technique Headspace recommends before bed, and it has been one truly dependable thing in this scary time." A delightful bonus: All of Headspace's guided meditations are narrated by a man with a British accent.
Cost: $12.99/month or $69.99/year (it also offers a free trial)
Calm is the number two best-reviewed app in the entire health and fitness category in the iPhone app store. A subscription includes a seemingly endless number of meditations, "sleep stories" (bedtime stories for grown-ups), and nature sounds. "My anxiety often hits at night, and the sleep stories are reliably relaxing," says Glamour senior wellness editor Macaela MacKenzie.
Calm has even been the subject of a clinical study of college students who used the app over eight weeks—the study found that perceived stress was lower in the group that used Calm than the group that did not.
The graphics on Calm are different than the cartoon illustrations on Headspace—more realistic and, depending on your taste, more calming. The meditations are in just one speaker's voice, a woman with an American accent.
Cost: $69.99/year (which is $5.83/month). The basic version also has some free content.
Oak has, in its relaxing, watercolor-ish way, the qualities of a good addictive cell phone game. You can earn badges by doing meditations, and receive daily inspirational quotes. The free version comes with simple breathing exercises, sleep sounds and sleep breathing meditations, and basic, daily meditations that function, pleasantly, like a Chipotle—you customize your meditation by topic (mindful or loving kindness), time (5 to 30 minutes), speaker (male or female), and background sound (cave water! fireplace! Tibetan om! wood sauna!).
Cost: Free, or $5.99 to take an in-app course
Liberate is a meditation app designed specifically for people of color. It includes carefully curated meditations on concepts like microaggressions as well as talks about self-love designed for a population that endures racism and discrimination. "The app design is minimal and easy to navigate," says Lauren Brown, senior visuals editor at Glamour. "They have 20- to 30-minute sessions for beginners, like me. I've used it a few times and found it helpful."
5. Insight Timer
Insight Timer bills itself as "the largest meditation community on earth," and claims that over tens of millions of people use it daily. Part of that success is likely because of its robust free version, which has 35,000 meditations. The premium version has meditation classes, plus shares income with its meditation teachers.
The app offers simple silent meditations, a variety of teachers, and a function that allows you to search meditations by duration. The design is a little WordPress-y, but it's user friendly and offers a huge diversity of meditations, even in the free version.
Cost: $9.99/month or $59.99/year (that's $4.99/month). Or the free version has plenty.
6. The Mindfulness App
This app looks a little bit corporate, but it's steady and straightforward. Its goal is to get you into a true daily habit of meditation.
Though it still has fun perks—in every meditation session, you can opt to add background sounds, like rain or beach sounds.
The shortest meditations are under three minutes long; the longest are over 30. The vast majority of the themed meditations (in categories like body, emotion, and relationships) are available only in the premium version, but the free app has a nice function that allows users to essentially design their own meditation, picking the duration, the background noises, and whether it is silent or guided.
Cost: $9.99/month, $59.99/year (that's $4.99/month), or $299/life. Or the free version is decent.
Buddhify, a membership-based program, has some of the most pleasant graphics and design of any of these apps. Among the regular soothing offerings, membership includes what the app makers describe as a "karaoke-style feature," which allows users to lead others in guided meditations by reading along with prompts on the app.
Buddhify is navigated using a strangely lovely colorful wheel, which guides users to a number of readings, courses, and longer meditations.
Cost: $4.99 to access the app
Tide has plenty of good meditations, with slightly more unusual themes ("basking," "emptiness," "headache"), but the app's distinguishing feature is sounds. Luxurious sounds (with a much less computer-generated quality than those on other apps), like "ocean" and "storm," can be layered over meditations or breathing activities. Or you can pay for more couture "sound scenes," like the sound of paint being spread on a canvas (seriously, it's nice), a dishwasher (surprisingly great), and wild gibbons (not sure this is necessary).
Cost: $11.99/month, $59.99/year (that's $4.99/month), or $399/lifetime with a decent amount of content in the free version.
9. Simple Habit
The premise of Simple Habit is that just five minutes of meditation should be enough to help you feel better. A diverse group of teachers lead micro-meditations on this aesthetically inviting app, which recommends themed sessions based on goals you input, or allows you to choose.
Cost: $11.99/month or $89.99/year (that's $7.50/month,) or the free version has some content.
10. Meditation app
This straightforward-named, charmingly illustrated app offers courses with a series of different voices that can be personalized with background sounds and various durations. It comes with plenty of ambient tracks and sleep sounds, as well as bedtime stories that Glamour found…kind of chilling? But hey, some people fall asleep to true-crime pods; we're not here to judge.
Cost: $3.99/week, with a decent amount of content in the free version
11. Smiling Mind
Smiling Mind is a little different—it's not a glossy start-up or the genius work of a college-aged coder. It's an app made by an Australian nonprofit, developed by psychologists and teachers with kids, teens, and families in mind. It asks users to note how they're feeling ("Happy?" "Content?" "Alert?") and offers intro courses, family courses, classroom courses, and sleep programs. As you go along, the app explains why everything is being done, without being condescending.
12. Ten Percent Happier
This app accompanies the number-one New York Times best-selling book of the same name, by Dan Harris. That book's full title is 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works—A True Story.
The app is just as comprehensive and just as wordy. Harris aims his app at "fidgety skeptics," and the app is a series of video courses—not just audio, like most apps—each led by a different teacher. The app keeps track of your mindfulness practice with a fitness-tracker-style statistics page.
Aura, with a shimmery, flowing interface, asks users to share information to personalize their experience, then offers daily meditation sessions led by one of a number of experts, based on that day's emotion. The app also includes a number of soundscapes, coaching, and antianxiety exercises as short as 30 seconds long.
Cost: $59.99/year (that's $4.99/month)
Okay, it's not a meditation app…it's so much more. Multiple Glamour staffers insist that the app Design Home—an interior decoration mobile game—has the calming powers of walking while being gentle showered in CBD drops. "Long before COVID-19, I've used Design Home to help curb anxiety," says Glamour senior entertainment editor Anna Moeslein. "The premise is simple: Furnish beautiful homes with delightfully bland furniture, then vote on others' designs to win prizes. The highest stakes are whether or not your new glass West Elm coffee table would look best in your Denver townhouse or Palm Springs ranch home." If Tibetan singing bowls and ocean sounds don't float your boat, Design Home just might (or it will at least give you a covered garage in which to store your fictional boat).
Jenny Singer is a staff writer for Glamour. You can follow her on Twitter.
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