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Want to feel more Calm, get some Headspace, and practice Mindfulness Daily?

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Let me ask again…want to feel more Calm, get some Head­space, and prac­tice Mind­ful­ness Dai­ly?

There are apps for that—hundreds of them, besides the three I just men­tioned.

These apps make a promise: Rather than invest­ing count­less hours and dol­lars in mind­ful­ness class­es or mind­ful­ness-based ther­a­py, we can choose to med­i­tate from the com­fort of our smart­phones. Users are flock­ing to mind­ful­ness apps in hopes of cul­ti­vat­ing kind atten­tion to their own thoughts and feel­ings, and of reap­ing the men­tal and phys­i­cal ben­e­fits that go along with mind­ful­ness.

But do they work? 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.

Digital stress reduction

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.

These new­found skills were put to the test at the end of two weeks. In an infa­mous lab­o­ra­to­ry exper­i­ment, par­tic­i­pants had to give a five-minute speech and do math out loud while trained observers gave crit­i­cal feed­back, point­ed out errors, and gen­er­al­ly exud­ed cold­ness and judg­ment. All the while, the par­tic­i­pants wore a cuff to mon­i­tor their esca­lat­ing blood pres­sure and gave peri­od­ic sali­va sam­ples that would be ana­lyzed for cor­ti­sol, a hor­mone released in response to stress.

Con­trary to the first study, par­tic­i­pants in the three groups didn’t per­ceive their stress to be different—after giv­ing a speech or doing tricky sub­trac­tion, they all felt sim­i­lar­ly anx­ious and inse­cure. But their bod­ies told anoth­er sto­ry: Here, only the group that had learned mon­i­tor­ing and accep­tance had low­er sys­tolic blood pres­sure dur­ing the task and low­er cor­ti­sol after­ward.

This study was the first to show that a brief two-week mind­ful­ness train­ing app can change a person’s bio­log­i­cal response to stress,” says lead author Emi­ly K. Lind­say, a post­doc­tor­al fel­low at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Pitts­burgh.

When we learn accep­tance, she and her col­leagues explain, we may be bet­ter able to acknowl­edge but dis­en­gage from dif­fi­cult experiences—like cringe-wor­thy judg­ment from oth­ers. This study sug­gests that the ben­e­fits of mind­ful­ness aren’t just from improved atten­tion, but from the gen­tle, nur­tur­ing atti­tude we cul­ti­vate toward our­selves.

Mindfulness apps under the microscope

Less stress isn’t the only out­come we can hope to achieve through our dig­i­tal con­tem­pla­tive prac­tice.

In 2017, researchers con­duct­ed one of the only stud­ies that com­pared a mind­ful­ness app with a tra­di­tion­al, in-per­son mind­ful­ness class. Here, nurs­es in res­i­den­cy lis­tened to Head­space med­i­ta­tions or attend­ed a class once a week for four weeks. Ulti­mate­ly, the app users improved their mind­ful­ness skills—in par­tic­u­lar, their abil­i­ty to act with aware­ness and not over­re­act to their thoughts and feel­ings. They also felt less fatigue and burnout in their care­giv­ing role, com­pared to class atten­dees.

Sev­er­al stud­ies have com­pared par­tic­i­pants who used Head­space to those who used anoth­er ben­e­fi­cial app, like the brain-train­ing app Lumos­i­ty, the orga­ni­za­tion­al app Catch Notes, or a web app with log­ic prob­lems. After train­ing for 10–20 min­utes a day for 10–30 days, Head­space users reduced their mind-wan­der­ing, boost­ed their pos­i­tive emo­tions, reduced their symp­toms of depres­sion, and became kinder and less aggres­sive com­pared to oth­er app users. In one study, though, Head­space didn’t seem to improve people’s sat­is­fac­tion with life, flour­ish­ing in life, or neg­a­tive feel­ings.

There is still a lot we don’t under­stand about how mind­ful­ness works, and how much mind­ful­ness prac­tice is need­ed for cer­tain ben­e­fits to emerge,” Econo­mides says.

Anoth­er ques­tion for future research is how long any ben­e­fits last. One of the few stud­ies with a fol­low-up did have promis­ing results: Com­pared to par­tic­i­pants on a wait­ing list, peo­ple who used the VGZ Mind­ful­ness Coach app for eight weeks—which fea­tures a vari­ety of breath­ing, body scan, visu­al­iza­tion, and mantra meditations—became more mind­ful, showed few­er symp­toms of psy­chi­atric dis­or­ders, and boost­ed their qual­i­ty of life up to four months lat­er.

Med­i­ta­tion apps aren’t just a boon for con­sumers hop­ing to learn how to be more present at an afford­able price. If effec­tive, they also have impli­ca­tions for work­places, schools, and even nations, who want to cul­ti­vate hap­pi­er and health­i­er com­mu­ni­ties. This is where research on which apps are ben­e­fi­cial, and why, is par­tic­u­lar­ly impor­tant.

It is vital that we under­stand the poten­tial ben­e­fits of engag­ing with such apps, and how these com­pare to pro­grams that are taught in-per­son, if we are to have the great­est impact on people’s well-being,” says Econo­mides.

kira_newman— Kira M. New­man is an edi­tor and web pro­duc­er at Greater Good, and the cre­ator of The Year of Hap­py, a year-long course in the sci­ence of hap­pi­ness. Based at UC-Berke­ley, Greater Good high­lights ground break­ing sci­en­tif­ic research into the roots of com­pas­sion and altru­ism. Copy­right Greater Good.

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Categories: Cognitive Neuroscience, Education & Lifelong Learning, Health & Wellness, Peak Performance, Technology

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