A genderfluid person meditatingA couple months ago, I downloaded the app Insight Timer on my phone. [1] It’s a compendium of hundreds, maybe thousands of hours of guided meditations, breathing exercises and relaxation mantras of nearly every imaginable length and style. To be honest, I haven’t used it nearly as much as I planned to. It’s met with the same fate as my FitBit and the various calorie trackers I’ve tried in the past, only to be cast aside onto a pile of forgotten promises and broken resolutions. Even so, it’s gratifying to see technology being utilized for mental health purposes. Breathing apps and their ilk, including meditation apps and mental health apps, have been on a meteoric rise over the past five years. Meditation apps, for example, are now part of a 1.2 billion dollar industry. [2] Some apps like Insight Timer focus mainly on meditation and breathing, while others like Happify promise a full cognitive behavioral therapy approach to “help you take control of your feelings and thoughts.” [3]

My question is simple: how well do these apps work? (After all, healing crystals are also a multi-dollar billion industry, despite there being little scientific evidence that crystals do anything. What does the research on breathing and mental health apps tell us?)

Well, the thing about science is that it tends to move slowly compared to the marketplace. And although there is some evidence for the effectiveness of some of these apps, they should be used with the caveat that the research is still incredibly inconclusive. One therapist, for instance, has cautioned that “while some people might benefit from trying to control or change their breath, the strategy could backfire in others, making them more worried about their breath, which could worsen their anxiety.” [4] Mindfulness, after all, is much more involved than simply trying to breathe a specific way, but an app may or may not be equipped to help you achieve full mindfulness. Self-teaching these skills without the aid of an expert, like self-medicating, carries the potential for mistakes. Case in point: I once used an app to teach myself some yoga poses, only to learn a year later from a yoga instructor that I had been doing the pose subtly but critically wrong, and slowly injuring my knees in the process.

Woman in pink meditatingAnother potential issue lies in reputability: how do you know which app to try? It can be “hard to know if the apps that you get back are high quality, if they work, if they’re even safe to use,” according to John Torous, a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School in Boston, Massachusetts. [5] The article I found this quote in goes on to reference a 2013 review of more than 1,500 depression-related apps in commercial app stores, with just 32 published research papers on the subject. Or look at this study of 700 mindfulness apps where only 4% provided, you know, actual mindfulness training. [6] Yikes.

As in so many cases when it comes to technology, it pays to do your research. For me, Insight Timer is one of the best-reviewed, more reputable-seeming apps that I’ve been able to find. Additionally, some apps have been scientifically tested—Headspace, for instance, was shown to decrease depression. [7] [8] Which is not to say that others aren’t valid—they simply haven been proven to work yet. Here are some tips for how to decide which apps to use:

  • Do your research.
  • Talk to professionals and experts in your life.
  • Don’t become married to one app—give a couple of them a try, find what works for you.
  • Don’t take too seriously any app’s claim to be “the #1 best choice,” nor its use of scientific jargon to sell its product to you.
  • By all means, embrace technology’s accessibility, affordability, and convenience! But don’t rely on it solely to fix your problems. If you’re struggling with depression or anxiety, I recommend that you still find a licensed professional who can help.



[1] https://insighttimer.com/

[2] https://www.wsj.com/articles/headspace-vs-calm-the-meditation-battle-thats-anything-but-zen-11544889606

[3] https://www.happify.com/

[4] https://www.mic.com/p/do-breathing-apps-work-psychologists-explain-the-drug-free-anxiety-tool-19279557

[5] https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/mental-health-there-s-an-app-for-that/

[6] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4705029/

[7] https://www.headspace.com/

[8] https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/mindfulness-apps-how-well-do-they-work-2018110615306

Share this Article