Coronavirus-related stress and anxiety is real—and if you're looking for ways to help you stay calm during the pandemic, meditation apps could help. But with so many meditation and relaxation apps out there, finding one that works for you can take some time. Depending on what you're looking to do, there are sessions to help you relax, calm anxiety, sleep better, stay focused and so on. While the only way to really discover what you like best is to try it for yourself, we enlisted a high school senior in New York City—a show producer's daughter named Claire—to test five top meditation apps. We asked her to share how each one helped her manage stress during the shelter-in-place order. Check out what she has to say about Headspace, Calm and more meditation apps below.
As a senior in high school, I've got a lot on my mind right now. Between school wrapping up, preparing for college, and, of course, everything going on in the world right now with COVID-19, it’s easy to start feeling overwhelmed by things. My goal for one week was to try out a series of five meditation apps and describe my experience with each one of them. I hoped to find exercises, meditation series, and techniques to look to whenever I felt stressed, or just needed a moment to relax and take a breather.
First impression: When I first opened Headspace, I found it very easy to navigate. It has a home page, a search feature to find new types of meditation, a movement section for more athletic sessions, and a sleep option for sessions designed to improve sleep cycles. The app gives suggestions of possible sessions to try, but also gives the freedom to explore whatever is currently on your mind. With most of the sessions, there is a choice between having a male or female voice narrate the meditation, and in some cases even the length.
What was on my mind: On this particular day, I was set to sing in a school concert, something I was excited about but ultimately I was still very nervous. As it was my final high school performance, my nerves were through the roof. While singing is something I love, it also causes a lot of [feelings of] anxiety for me, something I have been working hard to overcome. I wanted to take some pressure off of this performance and off of myself, so I could really just enjoy the moment and look back on it fondly.
Session I tried: Just before the concert began, I decided to take a moment and try the first of Headspace’s "Managing Anxiety" series. The first thing I noticed was the session’s viewpoint on anxiety as a whole: not getting rid of it, but rather learning to process it. A lot of the session was focused on breath and noting how it felt. I was given the option to count my breaths in intervals of 10, which I did. I found that by doing this, it helped my mind remain focused on the meditation and not drift off, and helped me even my breathing. In this session, I did a body scan, allowing me to acknowledge how I felt physically as well as mentally.
How I felt after: I came out of this 10-minute session feeling much more relaxed. I would say that during my performance I felt considerably less nervous than I usually do, and I think that doing this session just before helped with my confidence and my nerves. When I performed that day, I honestly felt more confident than I ever remember feeling before or during a show, and it made me happy to be able to have fun. Often, I find myself wishing performances away because of my nerves, but this time, I wished it lasted longer.
First impression: From the moment I logged on, I found the entire experience to be extremely personalized. I had the option to “tell” the app how I was currently feeling or to pick something I wanted to focus on, and it displayed a series of sessions based on my input. Along with that, and similarly to Headspace, it suggests a variety of potential meditations based on category, such as morning meditations, reducing stress, and happiness. Something I found extremely unique and heartwarming was the option to log something you’re grateful for every day. The layout of the app as a whole was very positive and calming, and I enjoyed exploring it while I found a session to try.
What was on my mind: As my senior year is coming to a close, I’m about to start a new internship. I’ve been looking forward to it for a while, and I want to be able to put my best foot forward when it begins, so I wanted to take this opportunity to see if there were any sessions to put me in the right mindset to do my best.
Session I tried: I chose to focus on productivity, and after looking through the recommended sessions, I chose the ten minute session on "Grounding." As the session started there was the calming sound of rushing water throughout the whole ten minutes, playing continuously under the words. That sound instantly made me feel more at ease, even before the woman running this particular session began to speak. Unlike Headspace, I was told I could choose whether to keep my eyes open or not — I chose to close them, as I feel that adds to the calming effect of my meditation experience. The majority of the session, I found, was focused on breathing: being aware of the breathing, the pattern, the way it felt, where it was felt in the body. There was emphasis in this session on allowing the mind to drift, but being aware of it and bringing thoughts back to the breath when it occurred.
How I felt after: I came out of this session feeling extremely relaxed and feeling very present. This session was a great way to clear my mind of anything that was distracting me or weighing on me, and I think that the techniques I learned from it could be very helpful. Being able to focus my mind on one specific thing will definitely make it easier for me to be productive and efficient with my internship and even in the future with college.
3. Stop, Breathe & Think
First impression: Stop, Breathe & Think initially follows a similar setup to its fellow meditation apps, having an explore page, a profile, and the ability to tell the app how you’re doing. However, for this particular app, the check in is where it differs. First, it gives you the option to pause and breathe for ten seconds before continuing. Next, it asks you to describe how you’re feeling physically, mentally, and emotionally. You aren’t required to answer all of them, and based off of what you say it will generate multiple sessions to try out. I felt that this allowed me to make sessions as personal as I wanted or as general as I wanted, depending on how I felt at that given moment.
What was on my mind: That day, I was preparing to participate in my first meeting with some of the other students and professors at my college. Before the call, I had been very nervous. I really wanted to start to form connections with the people who will be my classmates, and was both excited and anxious to truly “start” this next chapter in my life. For me, college had always seemed so far away, but realizing that I was about to meet the people I will be with for the next four years was daunting.
Session I tried: The session I chose was called “Relax, Ground & Clear.” Throughout the session, I found myself slowly immersed in what was being said — quite literally getting out of my own head. This session was heavy with visuals and being able to take oneself out of the current situation. For example, I was asked to picture myself on top of a mountain, looking out at everything. The session described seeing a clear blue sky, breathing in clean mountain air, and feeling your feet standing on solid rock. The descriptions were vivid and direct, allowing me to clearly see what I heard. The image of standing on this mountain, being able to see for miles on end, gave me a sense of peace that I hadn’t experienced yet.
How I felt after: By actively thinking about being part of this world, and applying a visual to it, this app gave me an extremely calming sense of support. It made me realize that I’m not alone in feeling this stress or anxiety, especially right now, and gave me a new wave of hope for the future. I came out of this session feeling much more peaceful and knowing that everything will end up alright.
4. Simple Habit
First impression: This by far was the most different of all of the five apps. It did not follow a traditional mediation format, and didn’t ask me to shut my eyes or sit/lie down. It provided pages for my profile, general meditation, sleep-specific sessions, and an explore page, like the others. My profile tracked the amount of time I spent on the app, the number of sessions I had tried, and marked on a calendar when I had used the app to help with consistency.
What was on my mind: With the COVID-19 pandemic, everyone’s lives have been altered somehow. For me, this has come at the end of my senior year of high school, preventing me from finishing out the year in person. Since I have gone to my school and have had some of my friends since I was four years old, this has undoubtedly been the hardest aspect for me to mentally work through. Being unable to participate in senior traditions I’ve been watching happen for years, and being separated from my friends during our final year together, has certainly affected me and my mindset as a whole, but some days it hit harder than others. The day I logged into this app, I was experiencing a low point, and was hoping I could bring my spirits up.
Session I tried: Because of the way I was feeling and what was on my mind, I chose a session that dealt with finding peace and calm during COVID-19. Rather than guide me through a series of meditations in the moment, this session instead addressed specific feelings that the COVID outbreak may invoke in people, and the sense of negativity that may have come up throughout this quarantine period. The meditation introduced the idea of breathing in calm and exhaling any unease in the body. Having this physical representation to picture, of my anxiety and sadness literally leaving me and disappearing, helped me a lot when the session had ended. Having that image of being able to remove those negative thoughts from my mind made it feel as if they had actually disappeared, and made me feel better.
How I felt after: Although the format of the particular session surprised me, this specific concept proved to be very helpful, and gave a good sense of actively doing something to combat negativity. With almost everyone feeling unsettled right now, it felt good to have a long-term option to remain present and calm throughout this period of time. Even if I am unable to log into the app and do a session, this gives me something I can do by myself to take control of how I’m feeling. During a time where so many things feel out of control, having that little bit of certainty that I have something to turn to was extremely comforting and helped me with coming to terms with what is happening in the world.
First impression: The first thing that appears when you open the app is a blue screen with the words “take a deep breath.” As it fades to an image of a mountain range, the sounds of running water began, and remained as I looked through sessions. This app has options for sleeping, general meditation, and even calming music to listen to. The sleep section specifically has sleep-oriented meditations, but also has options called “sleep stories.” It has recordings of relaxing stories to help put your mind to rest, read by guests such as Matthew McConaughey and John McEnroe. It also provides masterclasses, breathing exercises, and gives you the ability to set the scenes and sounds that play as you search the app.
What was on my mind: The night I tried this app, I had just finished the first day of my school’s final marking period, and was both physically and mentally tired. However, my mind was still racing from the day and from the thoughts of finishing the school year. I decided to try a meditation session dealing with sleep, which is a type of meditation I’m relatively new to, to see if it would help my mind settle for the night.
Session I tried: Like Aura, throughout the session I could hear various sounds from nature, such as rushing water. I chose to do a session designed to help with falling asleep, and did it before going to bed that night. Like most of the previous apps, there was an emphasis on breath, but I found that Calm handled this differently. Rather than simply focusing on the breathing, it described it as a means of relaxing the body. There was a full-body scan, in which I was asked to “breathe through” each part of my body in order to relax it. With each exhale, I also released all of the tension in a given part of my body — for example, my neck or my arm. There was equal time devoted to each part, so I was truly able to take my time and give all of my attention to what I was doing without worrying about what came next.
How I felt after: I found that this technique of relaxing each part of the body individually was extremely effective. Rather than try and relax all at once (and inevitably have some tension remain), this process allowed me to give all of my attention to truly relaxing, and made sure I didn’t rush through the exercise. It put me in a great mindset to fall asleep, and gave me a new wave of confidence for the end of my high school career.
Which meditation app is the best?
Overall, I found that there wasn’t necessarily an app that didn’t work for me. Each one had a unique and individual way of approaching meditation, and I feel that I benefited from all of them. However, the one that I came out of feeling the most relaxed and at ease was Calm. Being able to take ten minutes and focus on nothing but relaxing the body also helped put some of the thoughts that had been crowding my mind to rest. I would definitely recommend Calm, along with the other four apps I tried out! Being able to sample a variety truly helped me figure out what works best for me and my mind, and I’m so glad I had this experience. It helped me find a bit of calm in this crazy time, and I’m looking forward to continuing these sessions and broadening my personal knowledge of meditation as a whole.