Even before the novel coronavirus pandemic hit, stress was a part of everyday life for most of us. In fact, according to a 2019 poll by Gallup, Americans reported feeling stress, anger and worry at the highest levels in a decade.
With that in mind, it seems there's never been a better time to start learning ways to cope with and manage the stress that plagues us on a day-to-day basis.
One of the healthiest and most effective strategies is meditation. It's one of the oldest documented practices, dating back thousands of years, and for good reason.
One March 2014 review published in JAMA Internal Medicine shows how meditation can be used to reduce psychological stress as well as chronic conditions that come along with it, including anxiety, heart disease and back pain.
Meditation also helps improve our self-awareness and ability to regulate our own emotions, according to one March 2015 study in Nature Reviews Neuroscience.
Thanks to advances in technology, it's easier than ever to meditate absolutely anywhere — even when you have just a few minutes to spare. Meditation apps, which you can access on your smartphone or tablet, are widely available and affordable ways to learn how to meditate on-the-go.
"Not everyone has time to attend a formal meditation class, so apps provide busy people with an opportunity to prioritize their self-care," Emily Guarnotta, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist in Merrick, New York, tells LIVESTRONG.com. "You can choose between free or paid apps that offer meditations of varying lengths and topics."
Indeed, there's no shortage of options in the meditation app space. But how to find the right one for you?
Here are some of the most popular meditation apps out there to help you re-center, de-stress and refocus your energy in a positive way.
Best for: Beginners
If you're looking for a great place to start your practice, consider Headspace, which is one of the most popular and user-friendly meditation apps out there. With more than 40 million users, Headspace introduces you to the basic practice of meditation through a 10-session course and offers additional resources that are tailored to help you manage your chief concerns (i.e. anxiety relief or help with sleeping).
Selection: Headspace offers an extensive list of meditation sessions that range anywhere between 3 and 60 minutes and cater to different moods and lifestyles.
"With little input from you, it builds personalized plans, so you can learn the essentials of meditation and build from there," says Georgette Dunn, a holistic health coach and registered international yoga teacher based in Dallas, Texas. "Beginners and more experienced practitioners will benefit from its more structured courses, which give you the experience of taking an in-person class, but one that you can do anywhere."
Price: The app offers a one-month free trial for first-time subscribers and then users can choose between paying $12.99 monthly or $95 annually.
Download it: Headspace.com
Best for: Sleep
Calm uses meditation techniques to lull you to sleep after a long day. The app includes a Sleep Stories section that features a mix of familiar and famous voices, including the likes of Matthew McConaughey, who talk you through relaxing tales woven together with music and sound effects.
"With topics ranging from calming anxiety to mindfulness at work, Calm has new meditations every day that will keep you dedicated to a healthier state of mind," Dunn says.
Selection: Along with guided meditation sessions, Calm offers more individual exercises, like a breathing visualization and guided sleep stories, as well as flexible timers and a large selection of ambient music, notes Dunn. There's even a Calm Kids section that provides guided meditation for ages 3 to 17.
Price: The app offers a limited version for free, which gives you access to certain timed meditations, as well as a free seven-day trial of its premium version, which includes original content, hours of guided meditations in all categories, sleep stories, music tracks to help you focus and even Masterclasses with world-renowned experts in the field. After the trial, the premium version costs $70 for a year subscription. Users can also purchase a "Calm for Life" subscription that gives them unlimited access without renewal costs for $400.
Download it: Calm.com
3. Insight Timer
Best for: Large selection
If you want to make sure you never get bored with your meditation app, opt for one that has an enormous library of content — we're talking tens of thousands of guided meditations on topics like stress, relationships, creativity and more.
"Many of the most experienced mindfulness teachers are on it, and it allows you the freedom to pick and choose depending on how long you have to practice and what style you'd like (e.g. body scan, loving kindness, anxiety/stress-reducing, etc)," Dunn says. "However, the most notable feature is its online meditation community, which allows you to connect with other meditators around the world."
Selection: As of 2019, Insight Timer offered more than 4,700 professional meditation instructors and musicians and some 40,000 guided meditations. With such a wide variety, you shouldn't have any trouble choosing the right ones for you targeting varying time frames — from as little as 3 minutes all the way up to 25 minutes.
Price: The basic version is free, but offers limited features. The paid version provides more in-depth meditation courses and costs $10 a month or $60 a year.
Download it: InsightTimer.com
Best for: Personalization
Think of Balance as your own personal meditation coach. It runs you through a series of questions in order to customize a plan aimed at your specific needs, such as sleep or anxiety reduction, explains Urszula Klich, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist and president of Southeast Biofeedback and the Clinical Neuroscience Association.
This meditation app is very user-friendly, breaking down meditation skills into nine categories — including breath focus, body scan, labeling, awareness and visualization — and allows you to complete levels in each area.
The app also includes a Sleep Plan that guides you through meditations geared toward helping you wind down, be it for a nap or for a full night's rest.
Selection: Balance's audio library houses thousands of files and all you have to do to access those that are fitting for you is to say what you want: i.e. "I'm feeling anxious" or "I want to focus better." Over time, the app starts to personalize meditations that are right for you. You can also choose your guided meditations based on your needs, whether that's to relax or to fall asleep.
Price: The basic version is free but offers limited features. Auto-renewing subscriptions charge $12 a month or $50 a year.
Download it: BalanceApp.com
5. Ten Percent Happier
Best for: A mood boost
If you're turning to meditation as a way to focus more on the positive aspects of life, Ten Percent Happier is a great way to start. The app incorporates motivational mantras and promotes positive self-talk as a means to establish healthy patterns around mindfulness meditations, explains Desiree Lee, certified yoga instructor and master reiki healer at New Method Wellness in San Juan Capistrano, California. If you're not sure meditation is right for you, this app is a great space to test the waters.
Selection: As a member, you have access to more than 350 guided meditations catered to your mood, mindset and experience level. The app also has a plethora of featured meditations, including a "Daily Dose" hand-picked by the editors to help get you into the zone as well as meditations that help address specific emotional challenges. There's even a personal coaching section that connects you with a trainer for 1:1 guidance.
Price: You can sign up for a one-week free trial, and after that opt for one of two subscriptions: $8 monthly or $100 annually.
Download it: TenPercent.com
Best for: Meditation skeptics
If you're a results-driven individual, who likes to see progress, the concept of meditation might seem foreign to you — after all, you can't take a picture of daily results like you'd be able to do with a fitness routine. Enter FitMind: Coined "CrossFit for the Mind," this app focuses on mental fitness and provides you with graphs and charts to visualize your mindfulness progress.
Selection: FitMind's 30-day mental fitness challenge encourages you to pick up the habit through a series of guided training. Through the process, you'll not only learn how to meditate but to better understand the science and psychology behind it so you can learn to incorporate it naturally into your daily life. New meditations and lessons are added frequently as well as recommended books and retreats.
Price: Like most apps, FitMind offers a free one-week trial, after which you can choose between two subscriptions: $12 monthly or $85 annually.
Download it: FitMind.co
Is This an Emergency?
- American Psychological Association: "2017 Stress in America survey"
- JAMA Internal Medicine: "Meditation Programs for Psychological Stress and Well-being: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis"
- Nature Reviews Neuroscience: "The neuroscience of mindfulness meditation"
- Gallup: "Gallup 2019 Global Emotions Report"