The truth about mindfulness apps

Since our phones got smarter, they've gone from being straightforward communication tools to becoming tech-driven assistants that us with just about everything from banking to watching over our homes. There are apps that monitor our vital signs, apps that help us exercise, and in the time that it's taken mindfulness to become a buzzword, apps that help us relax, recenter, and refocus.

Psychologists say that mindfulness, like meditation, can be a vital tool for our mental health. "Mindfulness really means paying attention on purpose," psychologist Jeffrey Santee explains (via Chicago Tribune). "It's being in the present moment so that you're aware of what's going on in your own mind, and stepping back enough to be an observer of it. That way, you're not too attached to whatever particular thoughts or feelings are passing through." But can mindfulness apps help us achieve the same results? 

Mindfulness apps are limited in what they can do

While mindfulness is something everyone can use, those of us that need it most spend our days feeling stressed and feeling like we are being pulled in different directions... which means we're not going to have much time to slow down, never mind drop everything and relax. That's why mindfulness apps can be a godsend; they deliver on guided meditation, breathing techniques, and force us to sit still in 10- to 15-minute chunks to the sound of a narrator, music, or sounds of nature. 

But while researchers at the University of Lancaster say the apps were useful in introducing the concept of mindfulness, they were only rated by users for their usability and interface which, really, has nothing to do with mindfulness, and that more studies are needed to see whether the apps are actually as advertised. Harvard also points out that while the apps work on guided breathing, which is a form of relaxation training, guided breathing is also different from mindfulness training.

Mindfulness apps still play a role

"Mindfulness also allows us to become more aware of the stream of thoughts and feelings that we experience, and to see how we can become entangled in that stream in ways that are not helpful," Professor Mark Williams, former director of the Oxford Mindfulness Centre says (via National Health Services). "Gradually, we can train ourselves to notice when our thoughts are taking over and realize that thoughts are simply 'mental events' that do not have to control us. Most of us have issues that we find hard to let go and mindfulness can help us deal with them more productively. We can ask: 'Is trying to solve this by brooding about it helpful, or am I just getting caught up in my thoughts? Awareness of this kind also helps us notice signs of stress or anxiety earlier and helps us deal with them better." 

So while apps can help introduce people to the concept of mindfulness, it can only help and support the start of good mindfulness practices. As with other apps that involve activity like yoga and exercise, help and support is only part of the equation. The more you practice mindfulness, the better you get at it.