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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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About SharpBrains

As seen in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, BBC News, CNN, Reuters,  SharpBrains is an independent market research firm tracking how brain science can improve our health and our lives.

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