In the long, long list of Truly Annoying Comments, asking someone, “Have you tried meditation apps for anxiety?” is near the top, next to entries like “You look tired,” and adults who shoehorn their SAT scores into casual conversations.
We tend to be skeptical about tips like “I hear mindfulness helps!” because they are often delivered in a tone of condescension, or packaged as a woo-woo lifestyle trend, or given by someone who doesn’t understand that anxiety can be a debilitating form of suffering and not just a few moments of unease. To skeptics, listing the benefits of meditation as a way to reduce stress can seem like a vague, un-science-y way to respond to the real, pressing human issue of anxiety. But serious, rigorous research backs up the belief that meditation can powerfully alleviate anxiety.
A 2014 systemic review from Johns Hopkins analyzed 47 clinical trials that had looked at the effectiveness of meditation for “stress-related outcomes” (i.e., anxiety, depression, etc.). They found “moderate evidence” of improved anxiety, depression, and pain. According to the National Institute of Health, “There’s evidence that [meditation] may reduce blood pressure as well as symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome and flare-ups in people who have had ulcerative colitis. It may ease symptoms of anxiety and depression, and may help people with insomnia.” One important caveat: “Don’t use meditation to replace conventional care or as a reason to postpone seeing a health care provider about a medical problem,” the NIH warns. Much like essential oils for anxiety, meditation is great—but it’s not the same as going to a doctor or therapist.
Maybe you’ve noticed that your chest is tight lately, or your heart rate is high. Maybe your thoughts are racing as you try to fall asleep, you’re waking up with a feeling of dread, you’re spending your days fixating on worst-case scenarios. You deserve relief from the physical and mental symptoms of anxiety. The coronavirus pandemic gave many people their first taste of clinical anxiety. And for longtime anxiety sufferers, living through a prolonged national emergency didn’t exactly help. If you think you need help, you should talk to a doctor or therapist, but real barriers may stand in the way of easily accessing those necessary services. Trying free meditation apps is a decent and ridiculously easy way to start learning how to reduce anxiety. You don’t need to do more than five minutes a day. Some experts even recommend starting with one minute a day. Sex meditation is even a thing. (Seriously, look into “orgasmic meditation” and thank us later.)
So in this age of increased anxiety, come all ye eye-rollers, fidgeters, and people convinced every second of every day must be devoted to productivity at all costs. Lizzo is doing it. Therapists are doing it. You can do it too. Let’s get calm with the best meditation apps for anxiety.
Oak is an excellent opportunity to start meditating without handing over your credit card information to the bleak unknown of an Apple form. With watercolor-ish design and a simple interface, the app shares some of the qualities of a good addictive cell phone game. You can earn badges by doing meditations and receive daily inspirational quotes. The free meditation app comes with simple breathing exercises, sleep sounds, and meditations for sleep. Basic daily meditations that function, pleasantly, like a Sweetgreen—you customize your meditation by topic (mindful or loving kindness), time (5 to 30 minutes), speaker (male or female), and background sound (cave water! fireplace! wood sauna!).
Cost: Free, with a paid option to take an in-app course.
If you’re not familiar with breath work, think of it as the anti-meditator’s meditation technique. “Breath work is an active meditation that helps reframe the nervous system’s response to trauma and triggers,” Jasmine Marie, founder and CEO of Black Girls Breathing, previously told Glamour. If you struggle with vague meditation edicts to “empty your mind” or “observe your thoughts,” breath work can help you find focus through breathing exercises that help regulate the nervous system. Breathwrk offers a library of tried and tested breathing exercises (used by Olympic athletes, yoga masters, and Navy SEALS) that range in length from one minute to 20 minutes right at your fingertips. You can choose from guided classes targeted to better sleep, boosting energy, and reducing anxiety.
Cost: Free with the option for in-app purchases
Think of Shine as a fitness app for your mental health. With the free version of the app, you can access daily meditations and a handy gratitude journal. Upgrade to the paid version ($64.99 per year) and unlock a library of self-care courses that allow you to do a deep dive on topics like managing stress or setting boundaries, members-only events, personalized meditations, and one-on-one support through the Shine community.
Cost: Free with the option to upgrade for $64.99 per year
Project Healthy Minds is a nonprofit that aims to guide and offer resources to people struggling with mental health challenges. The meditation app is completely free. The theory behind the app is that practitioners should walk a “clear path” that travels from the foundations of meditation to greater awareness, then to connection, i.e., gratitude and compassion, then to insight, which is thoughts and beliefs, and finally to purpose, in pursuit of a healthy mind. The app is fairly simple and pleasant to navigate, with an unguided practice timer and plenty of brief practice options, as specific as “Embracing Holiday Expectations” and “Facing Financial Stress.”
If you’re still at the “What is meditation?” stage, Headspace is the daddy/zaddy of apps. It’s easy to navigate and comprehensive, great for beginners thanks to a program that welcomes you to meditation instead of just throwing you into the deep end. Headspace also has workouts and has even put out specific meditations for living during the pandemic.
Glamour contributing editor Mattie Kahn is a believer. “Headspace has these nighttime meditations designed to help listeners relax, and they have never failed me,” she says. “I’ve either been listening to that or just replicating the deep-breathing technique Headspace recommends before bed, and it has been one truly dependable thing in this scary time.” A delightful bonus: Headspace’s guided meditations are narrated by a man with a soothing British accent.
Cost: $12.99/month or $69.99/year.
Minority women disproportionately experience mental health issues. Systemic racism, microaggressions, and a health care system that consistently and fatally fails Black women creates an ecosystem of stressors that can have serious mental health effects (and to top it all off, Black women are half as likely as white women to get treatment).
Liberate is a meditation app designed specifically for people of color. It includes carefully curated meditations on concepts like microaggressions and ancestral healing as well as talks about self-love designed for a population that endures racism and discrimination. “The app design is minimal and easy to navigate,” says Lauren Brown, senior visuals editor at Glamour. “They have 20-to30-minute sessions for beginners, like me. I’ve used it a few times and found it helpful.” Teachers include people like Dr. Candice Nicole Hargons, a professor at the University of Kentucky whose work focuses on racial trauma.
Cost: $9.99/month or $71.99/year, with a fund for financial assistance.
Calm is the number two best-reviewed app in the entire health and fitness category in the iPhone app store. A subscription includes a seemingly endless number of meditations, “sleep stories” (bedtime stories for grown-ups), and nature sounds. “My anxiety often hits at night, and the sleep stories are reliably relaxing,” says Glamour contributor Macaela MacKenzie.
Calm has even been the subject of a clinical study of college students who used the app over eight weeks—the study found that perceived stress was lower in the group that used Calm than the group that did not.
The graphics on Calm are different than the cartoon illustrations on Headspace—more realistic and, depending on your taste, more soothing. The calming meditations are offered in various speakers voices, including from some especially vocally gifted celebrities.
Cost: $69.99/year or $399 for life. The basic version also has some free content.
Insight Timer bills itself as “the largest meditation community on earth,” and claims that tens of millions of people use it daily—that giant group includes Glamour editors, who have found it immediately usable and enriching. Part of that success is likely because of its robust free version, which has 35,000 meditations. The premium version includes full meditation classes.
The app offers simple silent meditations, a variety of teachers, and a function that allows you to search meditations by duration. The design is a little WordPress-y, but it’s user-friendly and offers a huge diversity of meditations, even in the free version.
Cost: $9.99/month or $59.99/year (that’s $4.99/month). Or the free version has plenty.
Maybe you’re looking for less structure in your meditation app—less addition to your daily to-do list, more on-demand mental break. Breethe offers just that with a cache of soothing content to fit your mood. Choose from hypnotherapy sessions, soothing stories, nature sounds, calming music, or extremely specific guided meditations like “My Boss is a Jerk,” “My Family Drives Me Nuts,” and “Tax Season—Adulting Is Hard.” According to the app, users reported reducing their anxiety by 70 percent. Aesthetically, the app feels like a stock image library of nature scenes (in a good way) so that tapping into a session feels a bit like escaping into a soothing screensaver. Ahhh.
Cost: Free with the option for in-app upgrades
Breathe+ helps you get deeper into breath work with a unique technique designed to help you literally visualize each breath. Guided sessions range in length from one minute to one hour, allowing you to adjust your breath cycle (think: inhaling and exhaling for one second each vs. dragging out those inhales and exhales for 30 seconds) or add breath holds for a full mind-body experience. Track your usage and add your breathing data to your smart phone’s health app.
Cost: Free with the option for in-app upgrades
As the name would imply, Meditation Studio aims to give you the experience of a meditation class on-the-go. With guided sessions created by 80-plus meditation experts you can choose an experience targeted to whatever you’re feeling in the moment. Need to gear up for a big day at work? Boost your creativity? Come down from a particularly stressful day? Meditation Studio’s classes have you covered. If you’re not in the mood for so much structure, the app also offers unguided mediation sessions set to soothing music to give you the space to do your own thing.
Cost: Free with the option for in-app upgrades
This straightforwardly named, charmingly illustrated app offers courses on the benefits of mindfulness with a series of different voices that can be personalized with background sounds and various durations. The free version comes with live sessions that take the viewer to a YouTube video within the app as well as multiple full-length courses and plenty of ambient tracks and sleep sounds .
Cost: $8.99/month or $49.99/year with a decent amount of content in the free version.
Whereas many of these other apps use primary colors or dull blues, Tide features quite a lovely, soothing, dare we say Glossier-esque design. It also features plenty of good meditations, including in the free version. The meditations run along slightly unusual themes (“basking,” “emptiness,” “headache”), but the app’s distinguishing feature is sounds. Luxurious sounds (with a much less computer-generated quality than those on other apps), like “ocean” and “storm,” can be layered over meditations or breathing activities. Or you can pay for more couture “sound scenes,” like the sound of paint being spread on a canvas (seriously, it’s nice), a dishwasher (surprisingly great), and wild gibbons (not sure this is necessary).
Cost: $11.99/month, $59.99/year (that’s $4.99/month), or $399/lifetime. There is a decent amount of content in the free version.
The premise of Simple Habit is that just five minutes of meditation should be enough to help you feel better. A diverse group of teachers lead micro meditations on this aesthetically inviting app, which recommends themed sessions based on goals you input, or allows you to choose. The app works fairly hard to sell you on it, insisting that it is “forming a personalized plan.”
Cost: $11.99/month or $89.99/year, or $299/life, with some free options.
Buddhify, a membership-based program, operates on user-friendly graphics and a straightforward, colorful design. Among the regular soothing offerings, membership includes what the app makers describe as a “karaoke-style feature,” which allows users to lead others in guided meditations by reading along with prompts on the app.
Buddhify is navigated by using a strangely lovely colorful wheel, which guides users to a number of readings, courses, and longer meditations.
Cost: $4.99 to access the app.
Not to be confused with the abovementioned app called simply Mindfulness, this app looks a little bit corporate, but it’s steady and direct. Its goal is to get you into a true daily habit of meditation by creating very simple, very personalized plan with reminders. In every meditation session, you can opt to add background sounds, like rain or beach sounds.
The shortest meditations are under three minutes long; the longest are over 30. The vast majority of the themed meditations (in categories like body, emotion, and relationships) are available only in the premium version, but the free app has a nice function that allows users to essentially design their own meditation, picking the duration, the background noises, and whether it is silent or guided.
Cost: $9.99/month, $59.99/year.
Smiling Mind is a little different—it’s not a glossy start-up or the genius work of a college-aged coder. It’s an app made by an Australian nonprofit, developed by psychologists and teachers with kids, teens, and families in mind. It asks users to note how they’re feeling (happy? content? alert?) and offers intro courses, family courses, classroom courses, and sleep programs. As you go along, the app explains why everything is being done, without being condescending.
This app accompanies the number one New York Times best-selling book of the same name by Dan Harris. That book’s full title is 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works—A True Story.
The app is just as comprehensive and just as wordy. Harris aims his app at “fidgety skeptics,” and the app is a series of video courses—not just audio, like most apps—each led by a different teacher. The app keeps track of your mindfulness practice with a fitness-tracker-style statistics page.
Aura, with a shimmery, flowing interface, asks users to share information to personalize their experience, then offers daily meditation sessions led by one of a number of experts, based on that day’s emotion. The app also includes a number of soundscapes, coaching, and antianxiety exercises as short as 30 seconds long.
Cost: $59.99/year (that’s $4.99/month).
Unplug offers an array of YouTube-like videos, featuring guided meditations, mindfulness talks, hypnosis, and sound baths, filmed in a Wilshire Boulevard meditation studio. The videos are strangely corporate-feeling—shot in a stark white background and shared on a platform that feels like a slightly less cluttered Facebook newsfeed. But the types of meditation are winningly specific. A recent scroll showed meditations themed to “Fear of Going Back to the Office” and “Meditation for Grief.”
Cost: Unplug is $12.99/month or $69.99/year, with a seven-day free trial.
The time has very much come to discuss Centr, Chris Hemsworth’s wellness app. The app is divided into three areas: Train, which offers virtual workouts, Eat, which is a series of meal plans, and Live, which is mostly guided meditations. Not only is this app fronted by Thor, but it was recently acquired by a private equity company cofounded by Mark Bezos, that is, Jeff’s younger brother. You would be hard-pressed to find a meditation app connected to two people with such famous brothers, but frankly, any connection between meditation for relaxation and meal plans—not to mention meal plans overseen by Chris Hemsworth—gives us pause.
Cost: Centr is $10/month if you pay annually, $20/month if you pay quarterly, or $29.99 monthly. The app also offers a seven-day free trial.
Okay, it’s not a guided meditation app…it’s so much more. Multiple Glamour staffers insist that the app Design Home—an interior decoration mobile game—has the calming powers of walking while being gentle showered in CBD drops. “Long before COVID-19, I’ve used Design Home to help curb anxiety,” says Glamour deputy editor Anna Moeslein. “The premise is simple: Furnish beautiful homes with delightfully bland furniture, then vote on others’ designs to win prizes. The highest stakes are whether or not your new glass West Elm coffee table would look best in your Denver townhouse or Palm Springs ranch home.” If Tibetan singing bowls and ocean sounds don’t float your boat, Design Home just might be the best meditation app for you. (It’ll at least give you a covered garage in which to store your fictional boat.)
Jenny Singer is a staff writer for Glamour. You can follow her on Twitter.
The post The 21 Best Meditation Apps for Anxiety, Depression, and Worry appeared first on Glamour.