Mindfulness apps are not new but they gained a lot more prominence during the pandemic. With people battling extreme stress and anxiety on a daily basis, they turned to these apps for respite, even if for a few minutes between work from home or at bedtime.
Herein lies the paradox: To calm your mind and achieve mindfulness, you are expected to log in to an app on a device — your smartphone — which itself is known to add to one’s stress levels.
The problem has concerned researchers in the past who tried to analyse the impact of such apps. In a 2019 paper published in JMIR mHealth and uHealth, researchers studied the efficacy of an app called Calm on stressed college students and found it to have a positive impact in terms of stress reduction and improvement in mindfulness. It read, “…it appears that the degree of improvement in response to a smartphone-based mindfulness app may be similar to programs that require in-person attendance with even greater opportunity for convenient compliance and continued use.”
Another popular app to have been experimentally studied is Headspace, which, according to Harvard Health Publishing, showed “decreased depression and increased positive emotions after use for 10 days”.
Is it a good idea to use mindfulness apps?
As per research conducted by Headspace, their app recorded a 14 per cent reduction in burnout after as little as four sessions among healthcare professionals and a 12 per cent reduction in stress for medical students after 30 days. Louise Troen, VP, International Marketing, tells indianexpress.com, “We also have conducted scientific research that has proven that Headspace reduces negative emotions (which often lead to increased stress) by 28 per cent, and those who meditated consistently for 10 days felt 16 per cent happier at the end. Meditating for as little as one minute per day can actively change the way you feel, sleep, and manage life long term.”
However, won’t it add to one’s screen time? Troen says what they advocate is “effective and mindful screen time”, which means we are focussed on an experience that makes us feel better rather than triggering negative thoughts. It keeps us from mindless scrolling and allows us to feel a sense of calm. “When you’re emotionally connected with one of our meditations, you’re encouraged to put your phone down, close your eyes, and listen – so we see ourselves as very distinct from the typical sensory stimulation that you’d get from other social media or content-driven apps,” she adds.
Lately, therapists have also been recommending mindfulness apps to patients. Natasha Srivastava, 28, tells indianexpress.com, “I have been using one every day for four years now to sleep, on my therapist’s advice. It has worked well for me. I find it easier to relax and pay attention to a singular thought which allows me to further focus.”
Highlighting the usefulness of using mindfulness apps, Dr Krithishree S S, consultant – psychiatry, KMC Hospital, Mangaluru, tells the outlet, “Research has shown that apart from reducing stress, scientifically designed mindfulness apps are also known to improve relationships, increase working capability and also help to introspecting and acknowledging one’s emotions. Sometimes for patients presenting with isolated issues of difficulty to focus or managing their emotions, I have suggested taking help of such apps.”
Rise in users amid pandemic
Given the benefits, the apps naturally witnessed a surge in users amid the pandemic. Headspace, for instance, saw a “consequential rise” in members “since the beginning of the pandemic, and specifically in India within the last few months”. Another well-being app Reach also recorded “significant uptake”, adding that the trend continues.
Perhaps what makes these apps work is the convenience of mindfulness practice they offer–you can log in at your desired time, you can choose the duration be it 5 or 10 mins, and there is an inbuilt pre-recorded voice guiding you through the entire meditative process.
Learning meditation or mindfulness from a skilled teacher is one of the best ways but given how we are bogged down by our tight schedules, dedicating a fixed time of the week for such retreats can be difficult. “Our daily lives offer us multiple opportunities to practice mindfulness and meditation. The time spent cooking, a short evening walk, the ten-minute break between meetings are few of the many daily opportunities available to us to practice meditation. Meditation apps can provide you curated guided sessions that you can use during such time. They help you learn at your own pace and at times most convenient for you,” says Sameer Sinha, Sales Leader – Reach, India.
“I could tweak sessions to suit my needs,” says 30-year-old Shilpa (name changed), who briefly used an app last year after her therapist recommended it, “I would usually log in after hitting the bed. While I could not continue the sessions, those few minutes when you are focussed on your breathing really has a calming effect on the mind.”
Do mindfulness apps work for everybody?
It depends on how well the user is able to maintain continuity, perceive information and actually apply it in real life, says Dr Sandeep Vohra, senior consultant, mental health & psychiatry, Indraprastha Apollo Hospitals, New Delhi. “It might work for some, but it’s not a solid foolproof solution.”
Yoga expert Grandmaster Akshar advises that apps that offer meditative practices should be used on a trial basis at first. “I would recommend that in case people wish to use an app to aid them in meditation, they do so on a trial basis to test the compatibility of their unique sense with the app’s features. Surely a seasoned and experienced teacher is an irreplaceable aspect but one must definitely incorporate meditation into their everyday lives by any means.”
Mindfulness apps, however, are not the solution to people suffering from severe mental health issues. “Patients should rely on opinion from mental health professionals. In patients coming with serious distress and psychological disabilities, asking them to push their limits as expected by these apps is difficult for them. So it’s not commonly suggested for clinically ill individuals,” Dr Krithishree emphasises.