Mindfulness meditation apps claim to relieve anxiety and stress, but are they worth a try?


If the pandemic has pushed you to breaking point, you are not alone.

To deal with it, you may have considered using – or have already used – mindfulness meditation to infuse some peace into your day-to-day life.

Mindfulness is “learning to be present in order to be in the moment,” says Dr Addie Wootten, clinical psychologist and CEO of the nonprofit Smiling Mind app.

She says mindfulness is “being open, being curious,… being able to sit down with difficulty, being kind to ourselves”.

“Meditation, from my perspective, is a way to cultivate this sense of mindfulness, to strengthen our ability to pay more attention,” says Dr. Wotten.

But not everyone can go to a meditation class, especially right now, so guided meditation apps have become big business.

The most popular, Calm, has been downloaded over 100 million times and is valued at over $ 2 billion.

Yet, as accessible as they seem, applications are not without their problems.

Paul Barclay of ABC RN’s Big Ideas spoke with a panel of experts to discuss the effectiveness of mindfulness meditation applications – and whether the pros outweigh the cons.

Do apps make meditation easier?

Dr Elise Bialylew, who trained in psychiatry before founding the Mindful in May website, says much of the advertising for mindfulness meditation is misleading.

“The way he is promoted is to come and take some space, calm down,” says Dr Bialylew.

But, she says, the practice of meditation is “not an easy path” and often opens up very uncomfortable feelings.

“Pema Chödrön, the American Buddhist has the term ‘resilience to discomfort’… the ability to stay in the here and now with what might not feel right,” she said.

“A lot of people will come and then they sit for the first couple of minutes and it’s horrible, and their minds go crazy, and they might conclude, ‘I’m suck in this… it’s not for me.’ “

A woman in a blue fitness outfit is sitting cross-legged on a beach with palms folded and eyes closed.
The popular image of mindfulness meditation does not always reflect reality.(Pexels: Olia Danilevich)

Dr Bialylew says the best apps will tell people that this doesn’t mean they fail, but that “it’s part of it – our minds are crazy.”

She says the industry needs a PR overhaul, but worries that “it just wouldn’t sell if you put up signs saying, ‘Come here and you’re gonna be in the hustle and bustle and the boredom, but it’s for a good cause. “”

Bhante Sujato, Theravada Buddhist monk and co-founder of Buddhist website SuttaCentral, agrees that meditation is poorly sold.

He says typing “mindfulness meditation” into Google Images brings up photos of “pretty blonde white women sitting on top of the mountains in perfect lotus pose.”

But he disagrees with Dr Bialylew when she says talking about the difficulties of meditation would make it difficult to sell.

“The Buddha was like ‘there is suffering’ and everything, and he reasonably succeeded,” Sujato says.

Could apps make meditation more effective?

While high-resolution brain imaging has revealed that certain mindfulness meditation regimes can beneficially reshape the brain, the science is still in its infancy.

Psychologist Dr Nicholas Van Dam, director of the Center for Contemplative Studies at the University of Melbourne, said testing the effectiveness of mindfulness meditation has proven difficult.

Unlike the pill test, where participants in a clinical trial take either a drug or a placebo, meditation introduces many other variables.

A person who meditates can also monitor their breathing, think positive thoughts, and withdraw from digital distractions or the demands of work or parenting.

“The tricky part in designing these studies,” says Dr. Van Dam, “is how do you control all the other things you do when you meditate?”

Dr Van Dam says that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to scientifically assess mindfulness meditation – it’s just difficult, and many previous studies haven’t been done well.

But Sujato says using mindfulness meditation only for what is scientifically proven limits its potential.

Seeing meditation simply as a tool to reduce stress, he says, predetermines the outcome.

“Whereas, in the context of a spiritual journey, it is much more open,” he says.

“It’s a lot more like: How can I find freedom? How to become a better person? How to grow and realize my potential?

“These are qualities that are much broader, much more difficult to define and, of course, qualities that are even more difficult to measure in the laboratory.”

Sujato says his concern is not that mindfulness meditation be co-opted – in fact, he says Buddhists copied the concept of mindfulness from Jains and Hindus.

“Everyone borrows from everyone,” he says. “If there is anything in Buddhism that is useful to people, it is good.”

His concern is that he be co-opted to satisfy only what can be scientifically proven.

“The idea that mindfulness is defined by a desire for well-being, a desire for stress relief, a desire for ease, etc., is really a modern innovation,” he says.

“If you would go to the Buddha and say, ‘Look, I’m going to die, I feel sick, I’m really stressed out,’ the Buddha would say, ‘Yeah, that’s how life is, suck it up. “

“He wouldn’t say, ‘Have this conscious application and make it go away.'”

Can apps help you deal with distraction?

Dr Bialylew says that a potential downfall of meditation apps is that they’re on your phone, with all the distractions waiting there.

“You do your meditation on your phone and then it’s very easy to fall on Facebook and start scrolling,” she says.

But, she says, you can also attend a meditation session in person and then pick up your phone as soon as you walk in the door.

“We are creatures who have these devices on us all the time,” she says.

Dr Bialylew says meditation apps can help people develop a solid mindfulness practice and train their minds to be more focused and aware.

That, she says, may in turn allow people to “catch up when they fall into the digital wormhole.”

“If you have a solid mindfulness practice… you can actually become much more adept at setting boundaries for yourself in your relationship with technology. “

Dr Van Dam agrees, saying that well-designed apps aim to help you better deal with the distractions around you.

“The purpose of these practices is not to be present, focused, attentive and calm in a calm and peaceful environment,” he explains.

On the contrary, he says, the goal is to be able to use the skills you learn through meditation in your everyday life.

“If you don’t do that, then what’s the point, right?”

Paul Barclay spoke with Dr Addie Wootten, Dr Elise Bialylew, Bhante Sujato and Dr Nicholas Van Dam at an online event presented by the Center for Contemplative Studies at the University of Melbourne. Learn more about the discussion on ABC RN’s Big Ideas podcast.

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