Several months ago, I was talking with one of my friends’ moms. We’d chatted months earlier about mindfulness, and after doing some research on her own, she was on board. She was ready to start practicing! But she acknowledged that the whole concept seemed a bit overwhelming. She acknowledged that she had no idea where or how to start with mindfulness.
Turns out, my friends’ mom isn’t alone. The interest in mindfulness seems higher than ever, yet the confusion about how and where to start abounds. But confusion be gone! Because like nearly everything else in 2020, there’s an app for that!
Mindfulness apps are becoming more popular, gaining traction with a wider audience than ever before. Apps like Calm, Headspace, and Insight Timer, encourage daily meditation and mindfulness practice, straight from your smartphone. But all these apps beg the question, “Do you really need a mindfulness app?”
So if you’ve thought about getting started with mindfulness but aren’t sure whether these apps are worth the hype, then you’re in the right spot. In this brand-new video, I’m breaking down what you need to know about mindfulness apps. What they are, what they do, and who they’re for. And of course, I’m answering the big question, “Do you really need a mindfulness app?”
If you’re a regular on Dr. Allison Answers, then you’re well aware of my obsession with mindfulness. As a reminder, mindfulness is about focusing your attention on the present moment, with an open and non-judgmental attitude. Mindfulness is about bringing all your attention and all your awareness to the here and now. So whether you’re eating, walking, breathing, or sitting, you can make anything mindful just by bringing your attention to what you’re doing.
Mindfulness is a muscle. Meaning, the more you work it out, the stronger it gets. So while mindfulness is relatively simple, it isn’t always easy. You’re a human, with a brain. And your brain loves to wander off, get distracted, and move in a million different directions. (PS: Curious why you can’t clear your mind? Learn why here.) Mindfulness takes effort and intention. It takes regular practice. Which begs the question, “So, why do it?”
Thankfully, research leaves us questioning very little here. Because the research is ridiculously clear. Mindfulness has all sorts of incredible benefits. Reduced stress, anxiety, and depression. Increased optimism, kindness, and compassion. Increased ability to focus, pay attention, and regulate emotion. It’s the real deal. And with all of these amazing benefits, it’s not surprising that we’ve seen an explosion in technology, aimed at making mindfulness more accessible. A quick search for “mindfulness app” and you’ll see no shortage of options. But several apps have risen to the top in popularity, including Headspace, Calm, and Insight Timer.
So what do these apps do, exactly? While it varies a bit from app the app, most mindfulness apps include an impressive array of meditations, organized by topic. Topics such as anxiety, gratitude, stress, relationships, and compassion are common, though there are also more specific topics, including forgiveness, panic, flight anxiety, and stress at work. Sleep is a significant focus of many mindfulness apps, with meditations and sleep stories designed to help you fall asleep faster. Instructional guides and masterclasses abound, offering what feels like a mix between a podcast and a coaching session. In addition, several of the apps also have special offerings for kids, making mindfulness more accessible for the younger crowd.
Like most apps, your progress and engagement are heavily tracked. Most mindfulness apps show the amount of time you’ve spent meditating, the tracks you’ve completed, and how many days in a row you’ve practiced mindfulness. You might see streaks, receive badges, and get push notifications, all encouraging regular and daily practice. And most apps have both free and paid content, with the widest access accompanying a subscription. But again, all of these apps and all of these features, beg the question, “Do you really need a mindfulness app? Do they really work?” And the answer is, well…it depends.
Many of the apps make big claims about their benefits and how they can help you. And it’s important to distinguish between the specific app and practicing mindfulness. Because the benefits of practicing mindfulness are well documented. But the needing of an app to help you get them? Less researched. That said, some of early research is encouraging, showing that users of mindfulness apps show reduced mind wandering, increased positive affect and kindness. The research also shows decreased depression and reduced aggression, after just a few weeks of mindfulness training with an app.
These findings are encouraging, and I’m hopeful that as mindfulness apps continue to grow in popularity, that the research will too. I’m hopeful we’ll learn more about which apps are best, what features are most helpful, and how we can use apps to maximize the benefits. But back to the question at hand, “Do you need a mindfulness app?” At this point, an analogy is helpful.
Imagine that you decide to take on some new fitness goals. After reading up on the benefits of strength training, you decide to give it a go and join your local gym. But once you get there, you have no idea where to start or what machines to use. So you’ve got two options. One, you wander around the gym, figuring machines out and experimenting with exercises as you go. Or two, you work with a personal trainer for a few sessions, learning the machines, how to use them, and what muscle groups they target. The first is more of a “go it alone” method, while the second elicits instruction and support. Both can work. Both can be successful. But most people will do better with the second option, working with a coach to learn, practice, and grow.
The use of a coach or a teacher can be wildly helpful. It’s why many of us took piano lessons or used Rosetta stone. It’s why we take group fitness classes or use cookbooks. Because having a coach to teach, guide, and support you as you learn? It’s super helpful. But is it necessary? No. Could you figure things out on your own, without a coach? Most likely. But does having a coach or a teacher make things a heck of a lot easier? You betcha.
So while you don’t need a mindfulness app, it makes the learning process a heck of a lot easier. It helps you know what to focus on, what to pay attention to, and how to redirect your attention when you get distracted. It answers questions, addresses roadblocks, and tracks progress. Mindfulness apps are an awesome tool to help you get started, stay consistent, and grow roots in your practice. I think they’re best for beginners and those at an intermediate level. Then, as your practice advances, you can use the app less, relying on the roots you’ve grown and the skills you’ve developed!
PS: Want to start practicing mindfulness but don’t want to use an app? Here are a few simple ways to get started:
10 Ways to Practice Mindfulness in Minute or Less
5 Tips for Mindful Eating + Why It’s Important
How to Breathe Mindfully