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15 best mindfulness apps to help you keep calm during a crisis

Lydia Willgress
·19-min read
<p>Paying more attention to the present moment, and to thoughts and feelings, helps to improve mental wellbeing</p> (The Independent)

Paying more attention to the present moment, and to thoughts and feelings, helps to improve mental wellbeing

(The Independent)

Over the past couple of years, mindfulness has exploded in popularity. In fact, it has arguably never been more important than in the middle of a global pandemic. According to the NHS website, paying more attention to the present moment, and to thoughts and feelings, can help to improve mental wellbeing and enables people to enjoy life and understand themselves better.

During the first surge of coronavirus last March, mindfulness apps had unsurprisingly seen a huge surge in demand, with downloads up to 25 per cent higher in the early weeks, according to mobile insights and analytics platform App Annie. Thanks to the boom, there are now dozens of apps on the market to help you start – or continue – your path to mindfulness.

The vast majority of these apps are free (at least at first) and offer short, guided meditations so it doesn’t matter if you’re a beginner or a pro. But there are also plenty of extras to look out for – from nostalgia-inducing bedtime stories, to calming background noises and high-quality graphics and videos to help you learn about the theory behind the trend.

When searching to find the right app, it’s worth thinking about what you need as well as what you like. If you can’t stand the facilitator's voice, for instance, then you’re going to find it hard to relax.

If you want motivational messages sent through when you know you’re going to be stressed, there’s an app that will do that.

There are also audio-focused apps and mindfulness journals if you’d prefer to track how you’re feeling by answering daily questions, rather than sitting through guided meditation.

To help you find the perfect one, we've tested products from across the market. We’ve rounded up the best – from those designed for “fidgety sceptics” to those that offer customised the meditations depending on how you’re feeling – so you know what to expect, whether you’re a total novice or a seasoned expert.

You can trust our independent reviews. We may earn commission from some of the retailers, but we never allow this to influence selections, which are formed from real-world testing and expert advice. This revenue helps to fund journalism across The Independent.

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Calm

Download for iOS

Download for Android

Open the Calm app and you’ll immediately be greeted with the gentle sound of the outdoors. It varies from person to person, but we loved this touch and found it helped us on the path to relaxation (you can change it to rolling waves, pouring rain, crackling firewood or crickets).

We loved Calm when we tested it previously, particularly its guided Daily Calm sessions, which helped us unwind and refocus our attention. But the app has bolstered its already-great offering this year, with the addition of a new daily meditation series called the Daily Trip. Narrated by Canadian author and meditation teacher Jeff Warren, the Daily Trip offers a more adventurous – and enjoyable – practice. We found we learned more in these daily sessions than any of the others we tested.

If you fancy something a little different, you can also pick from exclusive music tracks engineered to help you focus, relax or sleep, including remixes from stars Sam Smith and Ellie Goulding. There are also several new celebrity-narrated “sleep stories”, with calming tales from the likes of former One Direction star Harry Styles, and actors Idris Elba, Cillian Murphy and Chiké Okonkwo. We got a childish pleasure out of these and found they helped us unwind in the evenings, bringing back the nostalgia of being read a bedtime story.

The latest version of the app includes a new gratitude check-in feature, which we used to remind ourselves of the things we’re grateful for each day. With plenty of content and at just £28.99 for a subscription that lasts the whole year (there’s no monthly offer but that equates to just under £2.50 a month), we also think this app is great value.

Buy now £28.99

Anxiety Solution: Calmer You

Download for iOS

The Anxiety Solution app is the perfect tonic if you’re looking to relieve stress or improve your mood. It’s like having a personal champion in your smartphone; someone who is looking out for you, provides reminders to take moments away from the stresses of daily life and who enables you to find what works best for you.

The app includes over 70 sessions – including mindfulness, breathing tools, sleep stories and fitness routines – and is great for beginners who want a bit more support at the start of their meditation journey. We loved the interactive practices, which included high-quality graphics, for example showing how our heart rate varied as we changed our breathing. Our favourite was the 12-minute rebalance with mindfulness, which included a full body scan and an interactive graphic so we could identify exactly how we felt in different parts of our body.

More than that, though, the app includes a 28-session course, which helps to explain and reduce anxiety. This course can be worked through one session at a time, using techniques such as cognitive behaviour therapy to help you tackle your worries. We found working through the course and filling in the daily gratitude journal really helpful, particularly during the third national coronavirus lockdown. A big thumbs up from us.

Buy now £5.99

Portal – Escape into Nature

Download for iOS

Do you ever find yourself sitting on the train home after a stressful day at work wishing you were actually in Hawaii listening to the waves crash against the beach? Or curled up next to a log fire in Switzerland? Well, this app can help with that. Portal is a mindfulness app with a difference. Instead of guided meditations, the app transports users around the world, helping them chill out with the assistance of some of nature’s most relaxing sounds. We loved the concept and found it not only helped us relax, but also sent us to sleep when the dreaded insomnia kicked in.

From summer thunderstorms to the rustle of palm tree leaves, there’s a sound to suit everyone – plus you can mix Portal’s audio with other apps to add a little extra ambience to your audiobooks or podcasts. There is also a “relax” function that includes breathing exercises, and a “focus” section, which we found helped us to write the one thing we wanted to concentrate on, boosting our productivity.

Since we last tested the app, users can now be transported to the Scottish highlands and Slovenian alps. We’d recommend those looking for something a little different give this app a go – you’re bound to feel on top of the world in no time.

Buy now £29.99

Headspace

Download for iOS

Download for Android

Headspace was one of the first meditation apps and remains one of the best-known on the market. Following its launch in 2010, it has accrued more than 65 million members across 190 countries – and it’s not hard to see why. The app is a great choice if you want to learn the essentials of meditation and mindfulness, with hundreds of guided meditations on subjects including stress and focus, and whimsical animations to help you find your feet.

The sessions are free of jargon and easy to follow, focusing on breathing and scanning through the body to check in on how you feel. There are also bite-sized “mini-meditations”, which are between two and three minutes, to help keep you in the present moment, and bedtime stories and soundscapes to help you drift off to sleep.

The app has undergone a series of developments recently, and now offers a sleek and modern approach to meditation. We were particularly impressed with its “SOS” sessions, which have been designed to help users who wake up in the night and may struggle to get back to sleep (we’ve found ourselves turning to these ahead of several particularly stressful days at work). There are also workouts led by Olympians and daily meditations on a new topic every day.

Headspace offers a comprehensive toolkit whether you are an experienced meditator or a beginner looking for a supportive environment at the start of their journey.

Buy now £9.99

Balance

Download for IOS

If you’ve never tried meditating before and you want to give it a go in a no-fuss way, then Balance should be top of your list. The app is one of the best at taking users through the basics, using simple language and techniques to help you focus on your breathing and improve your visualisation and awareness.

Although there is an opportunity to subscribe and get access to more content, Balance offers all users a 10-day personalised foundation plan based on your goals – whether that's reducing stress or improving your evening meditation – for free. Our plan ran through nine skills, from breath focus and breath control to body scan and spotlighting, a technique where you focus all of your attention on a single thing. We loved the short, guided meditations (our favourite facilitator was Ofosu) and found that our focus improved dramatically thanks to the simple explanations.

We also meditated more frequently with this app, as we could tailor sessions to as little as three minutes, helping us to find moments of peace throughout the day. You don’t just have to follow the plan either. The app includes morning meditations, nature sounds and free sessions, including one to help with gratitude. If you’re looking for something a little jazzier, we tried the app’s “energise” session where we learned about “breath of fire” (which turned out to be a lot less dangerous than it sounded). All in all, this is a great app for beginners or those short of time.

Buy now £67.99

Simple Habit

Download for iOS

Download for Android

This app offers stress relief for busy people. It was set up by Yunha Kim, who recognised that many of us do not have time (or at least *think* we don’t have time) to squeeze yet another thing onto our to-do list. To help combat this, the app offers audio meditations as short as five minutes, with good-quality guided meditations that really do help to reduce stress and calm the mind.

The meditations themselves are well paced and offer good guidance. We found there was a little more space towards the end of each recording, which helped us really relax without the need for continual instruction. We were also impressed by the variety on the app. Users are asked to choose topics that interest them when they open it for the first time and there really is something for everyone – from meditations that will help you find your feet after a breakup, to post-argument relaxation, stress-free commutes and pre-date mindfulness to help you get into the zone.

The app itself is clean and modern, with a simple feed and easy-to-use interface. Lots of the content is free to use if you don’t want to pay for the optional subscription, which is a little on the steep side.

Buy now £87.99

Openfit – Fitness & Nutrition

Download for iOS

Download for Android

If you’re a big fan of a more holistic approach and want a single platform that works both your body and mind, then look no further. Openfit is an all-in-one digital platform and app that combines fitness, meditation, nutrition and wellbeing. We loved being able to go from a sweaty barre class to a sound meditation session in a matter of seconds, finding the latter helped us relax our body and calm our mind.

In total, there are 13 different sound meditation sessions to choose from; these range from 10 minutes to 45 minutes, making it easy to tailor your practice to your day. Our favourite was Daily Alignment, which we completed in the morning before work in order to improve our focus and reduce stress.

Unlike almost all of the other apps we tested, Openfit provides high-quality “as live” videos for each session, so you can see the facilitator. It is a nice touch, particularly given many people will be missing the joy of group classes thanks to the coronavirus pandemic.

While the brand says no meditation experience is required, we think you’d get the most out of this programme if you have already bought into meditation and are familiar with some of the techniques, including chanting “om”. Openfit is a little more expensive than the other apps we tested, but given the range and volume of content we definitely think it’s worth it.

Buy now £37.99

MyLife Meditation

Download for iOS

Download for Android

MyLife Mediation (which used to be Stop, Breathe & Think) asks you to “check in” before meditating. Using a choice of adjectives to describe how you’re feeling, both physically and mentally, we found this was a great way to get into the right mindset after a busy day in the office or on your feet. The app then uses this information to recommend short, guided meditations, from five-minute “joy” sessions, to longer practices that help you deal with anxiety, to those that help you to relax, ground and clear your head.

You get a free foundational plan, with more than 400 others available if you upgrade to premium. We found this app to have all the standard features, allowing you to set reminders and track your progress. There’s a separate app for kids, while a handy “how to” guide on meditation is available if you need a little more guidance.

Buy now £9.99

Ten Percent Happier Meditation

Download for iOS

Download for Android

This app bills itself as “mediation for fidgety sceptics”. “Most of the meditation apps out there have a very traditional tone – very soft and gooey and loving,” co-founder Dan Harris previously told TechCrunch. “But we’re much more in the no-b******* category.”

Harris, a television news anchor with the self-confessed “attention span of a three-year-old retriever”, started meditating after he had a nationally televised panic attack. For the most part, Harris has achieved what he wanted to; we liked the app’s relaxed nature, from the simple interface to the short video lessons, which teach users more about mindfulness.

The guided meditations are very much “no frills”, which we found incredibly refreshing. As well as being asked how often you’ve meditated before, why you want to meditate (do you want to be happier or is it to reduce stress?) and how you've been feeling lately, you can also set reminders to ensure you never miss a session.

Pay the subscription and you'll get more than 500 guided meditations (including sessions such as “tooth brushing” and “in the shower”), as well as several packages centred on performance, relationships or – what everyone needs – how to be 10 per cent nicer. This app is great if you are keen to feel the benefits of mindfulness without wanting it to take over your daily routine – or if you’re a straight talker who prefers no fuss.

Buy now £12.99

Insight Timer

Download for iOS

Download for Android

Insight Timer is more of a social network for meditators. As well as a world map showing you how many people are meditating at any one time, it allows you to see who is nearby and to invite friends to join in with you. There are also community groups where you are encouraged to join meet-ups throughout the UK, or discuss anything from poetry to Hinduism.

As for the content, Insight Timer says it’s the world's most popular meditation timer, with a free library of guided meditations at 30,000 and counting. These range from beginners’s flows to sessions focused on self-love, better relationships and conquering addictions.

The customisable timer feature is perfect for short meditations when on the go and you can even choose whether you want ambient background sounds or ending bells. This is a great app with lots of content – but it can be daunting for a beginner. We recommend sticking with it, though, if you’re willing to put the time in to find out what really works for you. If you need even more content, premium gets you extra courses and offline listening.

Buy now £55.99

Aura: Meditation and Mindfulness

Download for iOS

Download for Android

Aura calls itself the “Spotify of mindfulness” due to the frankly astonishing depth and range of its content. When you first log into the app, users are asked to choose two or more topics from a long list including calming anxiety, increasing happiness, improving focus and dealing with anger.

Once in, you get access to the “world’s largest premium library” of meditation tracks, life coaching, stories, nature sounds and music. The app is fairly easy to navigate, although the amount of content perhaps ends up being its Achilles’ heel. There is so much to choose from, we found it hard to know where to start.

We liked the shorter three-minute guided meditations, which we used to help frame our day positively, and the fact the app uses AI to build an understanding of your preferences, so over time it becomes more personal and tailored to your needs. A premium subscription allows you access to all of the content, as well as full mood tracking and offline use.

Buy now £11.99

Beachbody on Demand

Download for iOS

Download for Android

Beachbody on Demand is probably better known as a health and fitness app – but the brand’s 21-day unstress programme is good if you’re looking for a one-stop shop for mind and body.

Created with Unplug CEO and founder, Suze Yalof Schwartz, this programme offers oodles of positive energy and a simple approach to the practice. We loved Schwartz’s easy-going nature and found she was a natural communicator who immediately puts you at ease ("if you can breathe, you can meditate").

The programme – which includes a high-quality “as live” video for each session so you really feel in the room – progresses from being present and calm, to being able to set intentions before your day. The introduction in particular felt quite commercial, with the brand mentioned a number of times – but we found we settled into the programme well despite this. This is a great option for beginners who like to work out at home too.

Buy now £39.00

Buddhify

Download for iOS

Download for Android

Buddhify says that it is “designed to fit into a busy modern lifestyle”. It’s certainly unique in its design, with a daily wheel divided into segments, from waking up to going to bed.

The colourful disc is designed to help you find relevant mindfulness and meditation exercises depending on the time of day, with plenty of short, spoken sessions for use on the go. We loved the “work break” exercises, which help you relax at the office, while the “travelling” segment was perfect for the dreaded commute.

Sessions range from four minutes to around half an hour, and there are also guided exercises if you can’t sleep or if you’re feeling particularly stressed. We liked the idea, but found that many of the other apps also had the variety we needed to fit them into our busy lives. This is also one of the only apps that makes you pay upfront – so if you’d rather try before you buy, then you might want to go for something else.

Buy now £4.99

Reflectly – Journal & AI Diary

Download for iOS

Download for Android

Reflectly describes itself as a journal for happiness. More specifically, it claims it will enable users to “deal with negative thoughts and make positivity louder” as it teaches them about the science of wellbeing. It does this by asking easy-to-answer questions, enabling better reflection on the ups and downs of each day.

The idea is a good one. There are many people who would benefit from mindfulness but who do not necessarily want to follow guided meditations, or who can’t quite get on board with the over-the-top mantras that some apps on the market promote. This handy journal app allowed us to instead track our thoughts and feelings by asking questions like how our day was, why it was good (for example, because of food or work), and how we felt. Our answers were then saved as “stories”, which made up the wider “journal”.

We found that even after a couple of entries, it helped us gain perspective, and also increased our gratitude for some of the little things in life. At times, however, the app felt a little childish. The language is extremely simple (think “Nice to meet you! What do your friends call you?” and “super awesome”), while we found the options for the questions – some of which are answered via a sliding scale – slightly restrictive. If you’re after something a little different though, this app could be a good starting point for your mindfulness journey.

Buy now £41.99

Smiling Mind

Download for iOS

Download for Android

If you’re obsessed with data and don’t want to spend ages scanning through hundreds of programmes to find what you need, then this app is a great choice. From the moment you open Smiling Mind, you start inputting information to ensure you get a customised list of guided meditations.

From asking you how much experience you’ve had before, to identifying what you’re interested in – from mindfulness in sport to improving performance and sleep (who isn’t interested in that?) – we liked the customisable element and found it saved time.

Like some of the other apps, we also liked being able to check-in and out before and after meditations to track our progress. The guided sessions are easy to follow and offer a good balance between silence and narration (we particularly liked the Australian twang). Our favourite was the “body scan”, which encourages listeners to identify how parts of the body are feeling.

It may not be as slick as some of the other apps on the market, but we loved it all the same. Even better, Smiling Mind is completely free, as it was set up by an Australian not-for-profit organisation that wants to make mindfulness “an accessible tool for all”.

Buy now

The verdict: Mindfulness apps

If you are looking for the right mindfulness app, it’s reassuring to know that there are plenty of great options out there. Calm was our favourite due to its variety – from the calming bedtime stories, to the easy-to-follow meditations.

Headspace and Balance were close runners-up and great options for beginners. We also loved Beachbody’s 21-day programme and positive vibes. As most of the apps are free to download, make sure you try before you buy and find one that makes your daily routine easier, not harder.