Self Care

What Are the Best Meditation Apps & Do They Actually Work?

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We’re one week back from a restful Thanksgiving break—big thank you to the servers, bartenders, cooks, and delivery drivers literally risking their lives this year—and somehow, most of us still feel like shit.

In 2020, “rest” isn’t restful. Your vaccine appointment is months away, your paycheck depends on either avoiding the coronavirus or surviving the next round of layoffs, and your parents will absolutely not stop singing in their 35-person, indoor church choir every week.

All of this stress likely makes meditation apps seem attractive.

But before you download anything, you should know what you’re getting into, whether the science bears out on these apps, and what lessons you can take away with you, app or no app.

Which Are the Best Meditation Apps to Choose?

There are literally hundreds of meditation and mindfulness apps on both the Apple App Store and the Google Play Store, which can complicate the decision-making process.

There’s the extra-popular app Headspace, which provides guided meditation programs for beginners. There’s another favorite called Calm, which offers breathing visualizations, ambient music, and less-structured classes for folks who might have a little more experience in setting a daily meditation routine. For the always busy, there are the apps Buddhify and Simple Habit, which both promise to bring mindfulness in just minutes a day.

Finding the so-called “best” app, however, is tricky. Online searches serve up several guides and reviews, but most of those guides date back to a time before the pandemic overhauled our entire way of life. The Oprah Magazine’s guide? Published March 16. The Wirecutter’s guide? Updated March 24.

All credit due to the writer, but I think we need an update on the best meditation app since March 16.

Listen, I am a different man today than I was on March 24. On March 24, we thought our shelter-in-place order would last three weeks. On March 24, wearing a mask hadn’t yet been contorted into a political statement. In fact, mask-wearing hadn’t yet been recommended at all in the Bay Area!

So, excuse me, but these March recommendations feel a little useless.

Do They Work? 

Any meditation and mindfulness app requires scrutiny. If you listen to these apps’ own marketing campaigns, you’d think that, in just minutes a day, you could be on your way to a life with less stress, lowered anxiety, better sleep, and improved appreciation.

The science backing these claims, however, is limited, as recent studies are so rare in number.

The few studies we do have, though, offer positive results.

A 2017 study showed that nurses who used a mindfulness app reported less fatigue and burnout than nurses who learned some of the same mindfulness techniques during an in-person class. A separate 2018 study found that within a group of 70 adults, those who used Headspace’s guided meditations reported more positive emotions than other participants who simply listened to an audiobook about meditation. One major caveat for that 2018 report, though, is that every author who worked on it was also an employee of Headspace.

Aside from those studies, the field remains quite barren.

Therefore, to provide some much-needed fill for this scientific gap, I ran my own entirely unscientific study on three apps: Headspace, Calm, and Insight Timer, which offers a few celebrity-hosted mindfulness sessions.

Best Meditation Apps Russel Brand

If comedian-led meditation sessions are your thing, Insight Timer has the goods.

For five days, I ran through multiple exercises on the apps, often at different times of the day. Here are my findings:

These apps do a great job of training you on how to make space for yourself, your thoughts, and your emotions. They also train you on how to accept your surroundings and how to accept your body and your mind’s reactions to those surroundings in a non-judgmental way. That’s good!

Sadly, I found it was quite difficult for me to take some of these lessons to heart during a pandemic. I get it—I need to practice to really incorporate these mindfulness techniques, but over the past few days, I simply struggled. I don’t want to accept a lot of things of 2020.

I want change. I want to live in a country that offers a dying public more than a one-time, $1,200 check. I want my state to stop literally burning for just a few months.

Another problem I found is that I received these lessons on the same device that I’ve come to hate in the past nine months—my phone. I do not like my phone. I do not want to look at my phone. I hate every email vibration, every Slack tick-tack-typing sound, every notification whatsoever that reminds me that I’m not working from home—I’m living at work.

Which, for me, revealed the bigger problem here.

Real Relief 

Almost one year into this pandemic, the real problem is our workload. We’re not just having to work during the spread of a deadly disease, we’re having to do it alone, and, for most of us, we’re having to do it more than before—productivity has stayed the same or increased during the pandemic, according to 94 percent of employers.

Best Meditation Apps Meme

Phoebe gets it, but your employer (Joey) likely doesn’t. Credit to @amberdawnwrites.

Can meditation apps help with that? Absolutely, but it depends on how you use them and how willing you are to practice their techniques.

But even if you’re not thrilled on the idea of a mindfulness app, there are some important lessons you should take with you today.

You should make space for yourself right now, and you should try to find time for self-care, whether that means reading a book, walking outside, trying a new recipe, or revisiting, guilt-free, every season of Gossip Girl. You should also make space to grieve for your life before the pandemic. It was likely easier, and it’s hard to say goodbye to those things.

More than anything, you should know that you deserve better than what you’re receiving right now: an ineffective Congress, a nonexistent Federal health plan, and—here in California and the city—an embarrassing display of political hypocrisy from our local leaders who just cannot forego a night at The French Laundry.

We all deserve better right now.

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