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Mindfulness Apps Aim To Help People Disconnect From Stress

She's not tuning in, she's tuning inward — letting go of stress, or at least trying to, with a mindfulness app on her phone.
Photo Illustration by Carolyn Rogers
She's not tuning in, she's tuning inward — letting go of stress, or at least trying to, with a mindfulness app on her phone.

From fires and hurricanes, to confrontational politics — with all that's been going on, it's no wonder the American Psychological Association found an increase in Americans' stress levels over the last year.

Our constant checking of smartphones — with the bombardment of news and social media — can amp up our anxiety. So, why not use your device to help you disconnect?

Mindfulness apps, such as Simply Being, are an increasingly popular way to help manage stress. Using this app, you can tap into a soundtrack of soothing sounds to help clear your mind. (Cue babbling brook, singing birds, meditation gongs!)

The idea behind mindfulness is simple to explain, but hard to execute. The goal is to focus on the present moment, and to let go of regrets of the past or worries about the future. And some researchers say apps can be a useful tool to assist this practice.

"I think they can be helpful," says Dr. Stuart Eisendrath, a psychiatrist at the University of California, San Francisco who researches Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy.

"There are a variety of apps out there," Eisendrath says. "Some of them are just simple meditation timers" to help users stay focused for a specific period of time. The UCSF Student Health and Counseling Center lists several of these apps, including Zazen and I-Qi, on its Mindfulness Meditation website.

Some of the documented benefits of mindfulness meditation, according the UCSF site, can include better management of chronic pain, an increase in self-awareness, improved digestion and higher immune function.

But here's the rub: There's no evidence that just using a mindfulness app will bring these benefits.

"Everybody wants a quick fix, they want to know the shortest, fastest root to be mindful," says Steven Hickman, a psychologist and founder of the UC San Diego Center for Mindfulness. He says just using an app for a few minutes, a few times a week is likely not enough.

"It really does take ongoing practice — just like exercise," Hickman says.

Therapists say people should be skeptical if they download an app that makes specific health claims, and shouldn't use them as a replacement for therapy.

"Few of these apps are empirically validated," says Jason Parcover, who directs the counseling center at Loyola University Maryland. And they can't yet be tailored to a user's specific needs.

A recent perspective piece published in the British Medical Journal points to the need for more rigorous review of apps. The authors say people who use apps should know if there's evidence to back up claims made by the app developers. Consumers, they say, need to be taught "to look for signals of quality before downloading."

The U.K.'s National Health Service is in the process of evaluating apps that might help manage or even improve health. So far, the listed apps include Chill Panda, which gives users simple breathing techniques and light exercises to "take your mind off worries," according to its developers. Another one, Stress & Anxiety Companion, is billed as a way to help people handle stress and anxiety on the go.

When it comes to building a mindfulness meditation practice, "there's no substitute for a live connection with a teacher — and encouragement from a group or class," Hickman says. But for people who have already taken a class or been introduced to the basics, he says, "apps are a terrific support to the process."

Parcover agrees that apps can be an effective "nudge" — a reminder to keep it up daily, or a few times a week.

"One of the struggles is having the discipline to build meditation into your lifestyle," he says. "I know these apps are popular with students."

Given the bombardment of the digital world, Parcover says, and all the daily stresses, many students recognize the value of "finding the time to be present in the here and now."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Allison Aubrey is a correspondent for NPR News, where her stories can be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She's also a contributor to the PBS NewsHour and is one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.