With collective anxiety levels running high during the coronavirus pandemic, you might be thinking of giving a mindfulness or meditation app a go. But which one should you choose?
If it does feel like the right time for you to give it a try, there are plenty of options to choose from on the app stores. So many, in fact, that trying to figure out which one to go for might well run counter to a quest for relaxation.
They’ve all got a few things in common, such as standard categories of guided meditations and sleep assistance, plus help for beginners. At the moment, most of them have specific sections to help with coronavirus anxiety.
They vary more in price, design and their available extra features. Most have a free version and a subscription option, and they vary in terms of what is offered at each level.
It’s also important that you personally find the app easy to use and that it has enough content for you to return to, and this could take some trial and error.
We’ve rounded up the main meditation and calming apps with a guide to their features and prices to help you choose what might be right for you.
For more on what COVID-19 means for your rights, travel, health and lifestyle, read the latest coronavirus news and advice from Which?
What are the benefits of mindfulness and meditation?
Mindfulness is the practice of bringing yourself into the present moment, noticing any thoughts or feelings that arise, but not getting caught up in them. Meditation is one of the main ways you can practice being mindful. This often involves focusing on your breath and other physical sensations, and bringing yourself back to the present moment whenever your mind wanders.
Mental health charity Mind, says: ‘Studies show that practising mindfulness can help to manage depression, some anxiety problems and feelings of stress.’
The theory is that practising mindfulness through things such as meditation can help you notice the signs of stress and anxiety in day-to-day life, and help you disentangle yourself from those patterns of thought.
Research is ongoing into the efficacy of mindfulness and meditation apps, but regular practice is likely to be important in reaping any benefits. The daily reminders and guided daily courses that most of these apps provide could help with that.
Headspace is one of the most popular and longest-running meditation apps. It’s very accessible for beginners, but there are also some advanced ‘pro’ courses and a range of mindfulness exercises to suit different needs and approaches.
Headspace has meditation sessions and multiple session courses for a range of different purposes. These are clearly and simply organised into categories including anxiety, stress, productivity and sleep.You can browse different meditations based on what you’re after.
There’s also featured meditation each day and you can choose how long you want it to go for.
It’s one of the apps with the slickest and most aesthetically pleasing interface, and is really easy to use.
- COVID-19 support During the time of the coronavirus pandemic, Headspace has a new section called ‘weathering the storm’, which is a collection of meditations, sleep assistance and fitness sessions intended to help people cope with anxiety around the current situation. There is also an ‘Everybody Headspace’ feature, which lets you stream a meditation session in real time. Headspace says it hopes this ‘builds a sense of community’ in these unprecedented times.
- Sleep assistance There is a sleep section for sleepcasts (stories that are slightly different each time you listen), sleep radio, guided meditation for waking up in the night and soothing soundscapes such as ‘ocean at dusk’ or ‘jungle canopy’.
- Mindful fitness It also has a ‘move’ section for mindful exercise sessions, including running and mobility, and stretching sessions.
- Animated videos Taking advantage of its distinctive illustration and design, Headspace also has short animated video meditations that you can watch.
How much is it?
At the moment, the coronavirus-focused ‘weathering the storm’ section is free for everyone.
There is also a 10-part Basics meditation course, three sessions of the featured daily meditation and a meditation for falling back to sleep for free.
A subscription, which gives you full access to the app, is £9.99 a month (with a one-week free trial) or £44.99 for a year (with a two-week free trial).
There is also a family plan available, which offers six accounts for £74.99 a year.
Calm is another of the most popular meditation apps. It has an expansive library of guided meditations that you can filter by category, plus meditation courses that go for multiple days, sleep stories and soundscapes.
According to Calm, its most popular feature is ‘The Daily Calm’, a new 10-minute meditation each day (available to subscribers). When you open the app, it greets you with a soothing rain soundscape, although you can turn this off if it doesn’t bring you peace.
The app is easy to navigate, but with so much content it isn’t quite as neatly organised as some of the other apps – although this is a minor aesthetic issue.
- COVID-19 support There isn’t anything specific on the phone app, but the Calm website has some free meditations, plus The Daily Calm live stream each day across Facebook, Instagram and YouTube.
- Sleep assistance Calm has a library of more than 100 sleep stories, with a few famous narrators thrown into the mix, including Stephen Fry, Matthew McConaughey and David Walliams.
- Music library There is also a large library of music, ranging from ambient nature sounds to classical and contemporary music for sleep or concentration.
- Mood tracker This is a simple feature where you can log how you’re feeling each day via a selection of 12 emojis and add a note.
- Guided stretches If sitting still is a challenge for your meditations, there’s a section guiding you through meditation with movement and stretches.
How much is it?
You can get a free seven-day trial and have to pay for a subscription after that.
There isn’t much for free after the trial period, apart from a seven-day course on how to meditate and an introduction to the mental fitness course narrated by LeBron James.
Subscriptions are £13.49 for a month, or £35.99 for a year and – if you’re sure you’ll stick it out for at least 10 years to see the value – you can pay £399.99 for lifetime access.
Insight Timer is an app with an expansive range of free guided meditations, plus a solo meditation timer (from which it gets its name). When you open the app it greets you with a world map with dots representing how many people are currently using the app to meditate, which is quite a nice touch.
The app organises its large breadth of content fairly intuitively so you can explore or find what you want, but it’s not as attractively designed as some others.
The app’s biggest ‘selling’ point is its expansive library. It has 45,000 free guided meditations (but some handy functionality is reserved for paid members – see below). You can filter by desired benefit, length and type of practice, or just dive into the entire mammoth list.
If the scale of the library sounds somewhat intimidating, the app has put together some beginner meditation kits, which you can also sort by topic.
- COVID-19 support There are some specific coronavirus-centred meditations, including tools to overcome stress generated by the current crisis and for coping with uncertainty during COVID-19. Insight Timer has also released a collection of more than 10,000 playlists for free during the pandemic.
- Meditation timer One of the main features on the app’s home screen is a simple timer, where you set how long you want to meditate for and select the ambient sound you would like to hear throughout. This isn’t guided, so is probably one for more experienced meditators.
- Sleep support Insight Timer has sleep music, soundscapes and sleep stories.
- Music There is a large collection of tracks and playlists, which range from ambient to classical and other options that you might swerve if you’re a newbie, such as Shamanic drumming.
- Courses A paid-for subscription gives access to 400 meditation courses. These are guided mindfulness coaching courses that range in length from about seven days to 30 days, on topics from building confidence to overcoming worry about climate change.
How much is it?
Insight Timer boasts a huge library of free guided meditations, but you have to pay to be able to fast forward or rewind any of them in the app. You also have to pay if you want to be able to close the app and start a track from the same point when you return. This may or may not be much of an issue, depending on whether you’re committing to settling in for the full session or would prefer to dip in and out.
This paid-for functionality also goes for the sleep tracks and the music library, where it’s probably a little more annoying if you’re on the free version.
You can sign up to a free week of the Member Plus paid subscription and it’s £55.99 per year thereafter. There’s no monthly payment option, which might be limiting for some.
With Member Plus, you get the meditation courses as well as more functionality with the in-app player, and it lets you download the guided meditations and tracks to play offline.
Simple Habit bills itself as a ‘five-minute meditation app for busy people’. When you first open it up, you can set a time for a daily reminder to meditate.
Like other meditation apps, you can search the library of guided meditation tracks through standard categories. There is a basics category for beginners, and when you sign up to the app it gives you a five-minute starter meditation right away.
- COVID-19 support A collection of practices specifically for easing coronavirus anxiety is collated on the home screen of the app, with guided practices ranging from five minutes for ‘working mindfully at home’ to 20 minutes for ‘settling into a soothing nap’.
- On-the-go meditation The most prominent feature on the home screen of the app is an ‘on-the-go’ button, where you choose how much time you have (five, 10, or 20 minutes) and what situation you’re in (at work, waking up, falling asleep). This could be quite a simple and accessible way to jump into meditation without scrolling through reams of options.
- Mindful fitness For those who get fidgety when meditating, or just want to combine healthy practices, there are some movement-focused sessions, including for yoga and running.
- Sleep assistance Like the other apps, there’s a whole section of sleep tracks with soundscapes, music, sleep meditations and bedtime stories.
- Music Simple Habit has a music library with tracks, playlist and music courses, which are a bit more involved, such as a 30-day mantra challenge.
How much is it?
It’s free to download and there is a limited amount of free content – Simple Habit says it amounts to 12 hours. You can get a seven-day free trial to a premium membership.
A premium subscription gives you access to more meditation practices (more than 2,000), but it’s not immediately clear when using the app as a beginner what the advantage of paying would be.
It costs £14.49 a month or £87.99 a year.
Buddhify aims for simplicity and when you open up the app there’s a colour from which you choose what you’re doing or how you’re feeling, and it gives you a guided meditation to suit.
The categories include things such as ‘can’t sleep’, ‘meditation 101’ and specific emotions such as stress. There’s also a specific beginner category to get you started.
Meditations range from four minutes to 30 minutes.
Interestingly, there are some meditations that are designed to be done with others, such as a friend or partner, which could be something new to do together in lockdown.
- COVID-19 support There doesn’t seem to be any specific coronavirus-related content, but meditation in itself is arguably relevant enough.
- Customisable options You are able to edit what you see on the home screen colour wheel, so you can collect the types of meditation you’re likely to want most often.
- Solo timer For more experienced meditators, there’s a solo timer for unguided meditation.
How much is it?
Buddhify costs £4.99 as a one-off download cost; there isn’t anything you get for free.
Breethe, like Calm, greets you with soothing ambient sound when you open the app. When you first use it, you can choose your top goals, such as ‘deal with insomnia’, ‘deal with illness’, ‘learn to meditate’ or simply ‘relax’. These display on the home page of the app.
Breethe is very simply organised and easy to navigate – there’s a tab named ‘Day & Night’, which lets you choose out of five categories for the situation you find yourself in – from starting your day, to commuting, focusing at work, taking a break or going to sleep. In this way, it seems to be geared towards busy working people.
The entire library, on another tab, is categorised concisely into ‘meditation’ (which has a ‘learn to meditate’ option), ‘sleep,’ ‘music & sounds’ and ‘well-being’.
- COVID-19 support A curated selection of meditations for ‘inner wellness during coronavirus’ is displayed prominently on the home screen under your top goals – mostly short, guided meditations under 15 minutes. These are all free.
- Daily meditation Each day there’s a 10-minute guided meditation called the ‘Daily Breether’, the name of which might slightly ruin your zen if you’re a stickler for spelling.
- Sleep assistance Like other apps, there are bedtime stories, sleep playlists and specific sleep meditations to help you drift off.
- Music Breethe also has a music library of soundscapes, tracks and playlists, which are simply organised into genre and type of sound.
How much is it?
The app is free to download and you get access to some content across all the categories for free.
A paid-for subscription gives access to more content if you think you’re going to use the app a lot and want more variety – you can see when using the free version that some tracks are locked for subscribers.
You can sign up for a free 14-day trial, then subscriptions are £12.49 a month, £87.99 a year or £149.99 for lifetime.
How to choose a meditation app
Headspace and Calm are the biggest players in the market and are designed well to make starting out with meditation less intimidating. Insight Timer has the largest library of free meditations, although that variety might be less useful for complete beginners.
Buddhify is the cheapest, as it’s a one-off fee rather than a subscription, but you have to pay up front before trying it out. Simple Habit and Breethe are the most expensive by far for a yearly subscription, but their monthly subscription costs are more in line with apps such as Calm and Headspace.
Mindfulness meditation won’t be everyone’s cup of tea, and it might take some playing around with different formats to find out what works for you. Every app above has a free trial period (apart from Buddhify, but you can get this for £5), so take advantage of this to see what works for you. Just don’t forget to cancel before the trial period is up as they will automatically renew.