The best apps to help you relax and reduce stress

Instead of only stressing you out, your phone really can help you get some peace if you use the right apps and strategies.

Your phone is probably one of the biggest stressors in your life. It’s constantly buzzing with email alerts, text messages, news updates, sports scores, and tweets. Sure, you can turn those off, but then that means you probably just check it more often to see if you “missed anything.”

A recent study from the University of Illinois found a likely link between smartphone use, stress, and overall life satisfaction. There’s other evidence that meditation and mindfulness have positive benefits, even some physical changes to the brain. The makers of the Headspace app have a clever animation that explains some of this:

Everyone’s experience is going to be different, but there’s considerable consensus that the American tendency toward long hours, short vacations, unending obligations, always being available via your phone aren’t great for the mind or body.

I came across some apps that promised a respite, and decided to take them for a spin to see if there was something to this whole idea that an app could help you meditate your way to inner peace.

In general, I liked what I experienced, though deciding to close your eyes and let your phone guide you to a land of enlightenment is going to be a very personal choice. If you’re up for the journey, I found these to be the top three app to turn your phone into a personal Buddha.

Headspace: the best all around for meditation and clarity

If you just want to know which one is the overall best, then go for Headspace. It assumes (correctly so in my case) that you have no knowledge of how to mediate. When you fire up a session a smooth, British voice guides you through the motions: relax your head, clear your mind, your body is feeling lighter, and lots and lots of positive reinforcement. If a dark cloud follows you the way it does me, it’s quite the culture shock.

headspace screen

Listen to the smooth voice of a trained meditation expert walk you through all the ways to clear your head.

I’m not the meditative type, and at first it was definitely a little weird. But over time, Headspace nudges you in the right direction with animated videos and gamification by keeping track of your stats. You can even buddy up with others for some social meditation scorekeeping, but I thought that went against the grain of the whole point of solitude.

At some point, the idea is, like most services out there, to move you to a subscription model.

headspace app

Headspace can track your stats and even get social, though some of it seems to defeat the purpose of focusing on solitude.

Headspace subscriptions involve specific meditation sessions that focus on creativity, focus, happiness, and a lot of other areas. The cost is $13 if you subscribe one month at a time, or $8 if you agree to a one-year subscription. The good news is the trial sessions is enough to give you an idea if this is something you want to jump on or not.

I’m not yet convinced that focused calming can improve a specific life skill, but Headspace did convince me that slowing down from time to time was worth it, and it might do the same for you.

Going for days of Calm

Another good option is Calm. Like Headspace, it takes you through a introductory period, speaking to you softly and helping you approach inner peace with just 10 minutes a day of focused meditation.

I liked the different backgrounds, like an ocean, forest, and beach. That’s definitely a refresher from checking your Gmail or frantically swiping on the screen while playing Cross Road Disney.

If you already know what you’re doing, you can just use the app as a meditation timer, which will bring you back to consciousness after a specified period of time.

calm deep breaths

Calm has many different areas of focus to help you be, well, calm.

It may seem like a small thing, but I found the Android Wear app to be really beneficial. Nothing shakes you out of your calm like having to come to and find where you set your phone down once the session is over. Instead I could just swipe on my watch to end the meditation period or see how much longer I had until I returned to the world of stress and anxiety.

calm android wear

You can launch or pause a meditation session from your Android Wear watch.

I also liked how Calm was instructive in comparison to the other two apps, as there was less dialogue and more options to just listen to the rain fall or the ocean waves crash on the beach. Though the introductory sessions did have plenty of the usual mantra about how we’re overstressed, have too much to do, etc.

I also liked how you can elevate or decrease the noise of the background sound, so I could focus on that instead of the ongoing instructions.

calm interface

The Calm interface is very soothing, at least before you close your eyes to meditate.

To get the full package of the various guided programs and meditative sessions, Calm will cost you $3.33 per month if you do a yearly subscription, or $10 per month if you want to just try it out for a month or two. Or you can go for the ultimate package, and get a lifetime subscription for $300.

Stop, Breathe, & Think: Meditate

Yes, that’s the name of the app, in fact, and I liked the simplicity and good design of this one. Like the others, you go through 10-minute meditation sessions. (What’s up with this ten minute thing? Clearly it’s the magic number in the world of meditation.)

stop breathe think

Stop, Breathe, and Think offers many different themes for focused meditation.

I did find the voice in Stop, Breathe, & Think: Meditate to be a little robotic. OK, so not everyone can hire a great voiceover artist, but there should have been some more inflection to make the whole session feel more natural.

But the big differentiator was all the focused sessions on items like falling asleep or mindful breathing. They coach you through these specific areas of focus—though I find just about any of them would be decent enough for helping you go down for the night.

breathe think

There are plenty of good tutorials and background material to introduce you to this world of mindfulness.

There’s plenty of good background material and specialization, though I feel like sometimes all you need is some time to be quiet and think instead of always being soothed with the sounds of nature or talked through a life skill. However, I did appreciate that instead of a subscription model you can just buy a particular package, which is $2 each.

The service also works in a dedicated web app, so you can try it out now if in the browser if you’d rather.

So is this worth it?

Deciding to fork over money for a subscription unfortunately isn’t a rare decision these days. The good news is all of these apps give you ample time to test out their take on meditation to see if it’s worth it.

If nothing else, my mindset shifted from thinking this was pretty weird, to instead that maybe there’s a lot more to this whole mindfulness thing. I can’t promise that I’ll start faithfully meditating 10 minutes a day, but I do believe there’s value in unplugging and giving your mind some space, even as much as I love technology tools. So I recommend you give at least one of these apps a try, as you might be surprised that your phone may actually be a tool to help you relax.

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Derek Walter

Good Gear Guide
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