What does science say about mindfulness apps?

Research began in earnest only about four years ago, and studies are indeed pointing to potential benefits for our stress, emotions, and relationships. The findings may not be as conclusive as app marketers would have you believe—but they do suggest you should at least consider trying one.

Much of the research so far involves the popular mindfulness app Headspace, which has attracted 20 million users across 190 countries since its launch in 2012. The app’s meditations are voiced by Headspace founder and former Buddhist monk Andy Puddicombe, starting with simple breathing and body scan practices.

In one 2018 study, researchers tested Headspace with 70 adults. All the participants started by answering surveys about their positive and negative feelings, their stress, and their irritability in the past week. Then, over the course of a month, half the group completed ten introductory sessions on Headspace, while the other half listened to excerpts from Puddicombe’s audiobook about mindfulness and meditation without any guided practice.

Afterward, the meditation group was faring much better. According to a second round of surveys, they felt (on balance) more positive emotions and less burdened by external demands, responsibilities, and pressure than the audiobook listeners. These changes happened after just 100 minutes of practice.

“This is great news for people that are curious about mindfulness but are worried about having to invest hours and hours of time before seeing any benefits,” says lead author Marcos Economides, who (along with his coauthors) was employed by Headspace at the time of the study. “Such early benefits could provide motivation for casual users to develop a more long-term mindfulness practice.”

Stress is also biological, leaving an imprint on our bodies that can lead to health problems later in life. Could mindfulness apps affect stress at this level, too, not just in our minds?

In another recent study, researchers tested this question while also trying to figure out which aspects of mindfulness education are most crucial. They recruited 153 adults to practice for 20 minutes a day, splitting them up into three groups. One group practiced the mindfulness skill of monitoring, which involves detecting and distinguishing between different sensations in your body. A second group learned monitoring and acceptance, the ability to stay relaxed, welcome thoughts and feelings in your mind, and gently acknowledge them. A third group learned coping skills, like seeing the positive in negative situations and analyzing personal problems.

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