The effectiveness of online-based mindfulness apps
Mindfulness, the term used to define the practice of keeping one’s consciousness focused in the present, has been increasing in popularity in the West since Jon Kabat-Zinn, a student of Zen Buddhism, founded the Center for Mindfulness in Massachusetts, USA, in the 1970s. The introduction of mindfulness-based treatments in clinical environments, for conditions such as Major Depressive Disorder, and the founding of positive psychology in 2000, popularised the concept of mindfulness and meditation to help with day to day anxieties. Although mindfulness has been a staple of Buddhist tradition for centuries, mindfulness-based therapeutic programs have only recently been embraced by schools, prisons and hospitals. But how does being aware of the present affect our mental health? If we look at Jon Kabat-Zinn’s definition, ‘nonjudgmental attention to experiences in the present moment’, we can find the primary factors that mindfulness introduce into our life once we start practicing it: a non-judgmental attitude, observation, and acting with awareness of mind and body, as opposed to being absent minded. Being aware of our own emotions is necessary to understand and regulate them, therefore being aware of our own bodies and emotional state is an important aspect of leading a healthy life.
Face-to-face meditation training can provide a more in depth understanding of mindfulness and how it affects our life. When Thich Nhat Hanh, a Zen Buddhist monk, taught meditation to non-vietmamese, he would tell his students that meditating one hour a day wasn’t enough- he emphasized the need to include mindfulness in every action and breath. In his book ‘The Miracle of Mindfulness’, he claims that the practice of mindfulness requires an individual to dedicate every hour of every day to it. With the globalisation of technology, there has been an increase in Internet-based training, which may have a number of advantages over face-to-face training, such as accessibility, especially when it comes to money and/or time and availability, as there are no waiting lists or restrictions due to location and environment. Although there are clear advantages to the use of online-based mindfulness, less is known about the effects of the app-based practices themselves. Can mindfulness apps help individuals in the same way face-to-face training can? If mindfulness isn’t merely meditation and breathing exercises, how do we know that mindfulness apps provide us with the techniques necessary to benefit us?
There are a large range of mindfulness and meditation apps for smartphones, with varying prices and number of downloads, that have become more available as the number of individuals using smartphones increases every year. At the top of the list is ‘Headspace: Meditation & Sleep’, the editor’s choice, with over 10M downloads. Headspace provides guided meditations, recorded by Andy Puddicombe, its creator and former Buddhist monk. Most research studies about mindfulness apps involve Headspace. In a study conducted in 2018 it was found that participants that had completed a 10-day program reported lower levels of stress and irritability, and an increase in mood. This is consistent with the growing number of studies that have found an increase in affect and several aspects of well-being after participating in app-based mindfulness exercises. A meta-analysis conducted in 2016 found that the effects of online-based mindfulness programs on a variety of aspects, such as anxiety, stress and depression, were significant. The article discusses the importance of the duration of the mindfulness training as a factor in the effectiveness of online and app-based meditation, with interventions as long as 12 weeks being more effective with regard to reducing stress, compared to those that lasted 2 to 8 sessions.
While stress can have some beneficial outcomes, such as motivation, chronic or persistent stress is known to cause both physical and psychological harm. 79% of adults have experienced work-related stress in 2020, which has risen in comparison to 59% in 2018. If this stress is not dealt with, it can develop into headaches, increased risk of cardiovascular diseases, and depression or anxiety disorders. Stress has also been found to change individuals choices in food, from healthy low fat foods to less healthy options.
I decided to do my own research and downloaded three mindfulness apps. Over 250 apps appeared when I searched for ‘mindfulness’ in the PlayStore. These apps ranged in price and ratings. For my own personal experiment I decided to try out Headspace, Calm and Clementine. These three apps provide a variety of meditation sessions with different goals, different voiceovers and approaches to mindfulness and how it should be integrated into our life. At first, the main difference is the aesthetic of each individual app, Headspace uses more simple graphics and Calm, founded by Alex Tew and Michael Acton Smith, has a wide range of images and ambiance sounds for their sessions. Clementine, created by Kim Palmer, has less graphics and is very simple to navigate. Their content did not vary as much, although they did differ in how they motivated and guided me through meditation. From personal experience, I came to the conclusion that Clementine was the best one to use as a beginner.
Clementine’s approach is hypnosis-based, their sessions are focused on making changes to your thought process. For my test practise I chose the “de-stress” pack, which contains seven sessions (the duration varying from 4 to 17 minutes). Contrary to Headspace and Calm, Clementine is more guided, with constant reminders about your body and tips on how to use meditation to have awareness of your own emotions and environment. This makes it easier for beginners to keep track of their thoughts and bring themselves back to the present moment. Clementine also provides situational sessions, for example short sessions to follow while on break or before going to sleep. I believe that this helps follow the idea that meditating should be applied to all aspects in life. The National Health Service (NHS) recommends the introduction of mindfulness into our lives in a regular way, as it can help with noticing stress and helping us to deal with it better.
Clementine’s approach to mental and physical health shares FitQuid’s goals of forming a healthier community. With past research results claiming that digital meditation tools are effective, FitQuid will look to motivate its users to embrace app-based mindfulness to achieve their mental health goals.