Global pandemic: check. Economic recession: check. People constantly saying we’re living in strange and unprecedented times: check.
2020 was – not to put too fine a point on it – pretty crap. The negative impact on our mental health is yet to be fully understood, but it’s not too much of a stretch to assume most of our stress and anxiety levels are at an all-time high. With so much going on it’s often hard to stay focused. Research from the University of Oxford shows sleep quality and our general moods are also, understandably, suffering.
Thankfully, meditation and mindfulness can help. If you’ve no idea where to start (or are cynical of whether you really want to), don’t worry, you’re not alone. For something that's supposed to be relaxing, getting started with meditation and mindfulness can be a stressful affair!
Don't let apprehension, cynicism or lack of knowledge hold you back. First, there are loads of great apps to help you get started. Second, studies show meditation and mindfulness have a wide range of benefits including reducing stress, and improving sleep quality and your ability to focus. It can even alleviate chronic pain (such as headaches), and help with other health issues such as bad blood pressure. However you look at it, the pros of giving mindfulness and meditation a go outweigh any perceived cons.
There are numerous mindfulness and meditation apps to choose from. So, rather than have something else to stress over, let us recommend the best ones to help you deal with 2021 and beyond. All of them are available on iOS and Android and are all free to download. Some have paid features, which we outline for you.
Mindfulness: Finding Peace Free to download, £4.99 to unlock full course
Originally developed for a research programme at Oxford University, this is a companion app to the best-selling book Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World by Prof. Mark Williams and Dr. Danny Penman. Designed to help you to meditate anywhere, this eight-week course of Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) costs just £4.99.
MBCT has been clinically proven to be at least as effective as drugs for depression and is recommended by the UK's National Institute of Clinical Excellence (NICE), which approves treatments to be available on the NHS. But you don’t need to suffer depression to benefit from the app. It’s easy to use and the course structure ensured we stuck with it. Plus, even though it's less than a fiver, the fact we paid for it probably added a little extra motivation!
As well as the meditations there are things to do each week that help you take a fresh perspective on the world. It’s not the most beautifully designed app, but ultimately – and this is subjective – the main thing we love about it is the dulcet tones of Prof. Mark Williams, whose voice is not only relaxing, but also incredibly reassuring and grounded sounding.
Super simple and completely free (there aren't even any annoying ads, at least on the iOS version we tested), Just Breathe offers three meditations: 2mins, 8mins, and 20mins. At first, the teacher guiding the meditations sounded a little cheesy to our cynical, British ears, but after finishing the 20-minute practice we felt so relaxed and calm we felt guilty for being so quick to judge.
Once you feel confident meditating without guidance you can just use the app as a fancy timer – complete with gentle finger cymbal dings to start and finish – or you can have the relaxing* music by itself without the teacher. There is no option, however, to listen to a guided meditation without any music. Whether that’s an issue depends on how relaxing you find the music to be (see below). On iOS, the app also syncs with Apple Health so you can track your practices.
*How relaxing you find the music is totally subjective. It’s got a bit too much of a ‘yoga teacher who’s just come back from discovering themselves in India’ vibe for our liking...
Honor Yourself by Diddy
‘By getting into bed, you sent the signal that it was time to rest. And by being here right now, resting, sinking into your breath, you’re honoring that signal.’ These are the words hip-hop mogul and entrepreneur Diddy utters at the start of this guided sleep meditation. At that point, to say we were skeptical is putting it lightly. But what followed confounded all our expectations of what a guided meditation would be like from a man who can’t even seem to decide on his own name.
A sleep meditation created in collaboration with Audible and Thrive Global, we can’t tell you what words Diddy ends the meditation with as we’ve never been awake to hear them. As previously mentioned, the voice of the person leading a meditation can make or break the experience. In this case, Diddy’s deep, supremely confident and reassuring tone works so perfectly we’d go as far as to say rapping was just him finding his feet and that in this he may well have found his true calling.
You’ll need an Audible account to listen, but the meditation is free and well worth a try even if you don't have issues falling asleep. It really is that good!
Thrive: Mental Wellbeing
Thrive guides you through a variety of evidence-based techniques such as breathing exercises, meditation and deep muscle relaxation. Originally only available through organisations such as the NHS, health insurers and charities, the app was opened up to everyone during the first Covid lockdown. You will need to request an access code to use it, but all you need to do is enter your email here.
The Goals and Mood meter helps you set your own schedule of meditative exercises depending on your specific needs.A practical, tailored approach to what can often be overwhelming issues to tackle, it also has a full cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) course consisting of 25 modules, which provides a clear structure. The whole package feels very professional and, more importantly, is an effective, scientifically-grounded tool for addressing common issues such as stress and anxiety.
With 60,000 guided meditations and 400 courses covering everything from basic mindfulness techniques to advanced Buddhist practices, Insight Timer is the world’s largest free meditation library. Its ‘Learn How to Meditate In Seven days’ course is a fantastic introduction to meditation. Also, each session is only 12 minutes long so totally possible to incorporate into even the busiest of schedules.
Insight Timer also allows you to comment on its meditations. Its active community are great at answering questions and recommending courses they have found effective. It’s one of those apps that’s packed with such great content it makes you wonder what other amazing apps are out there you’re missing out on!
Our only issue is there is a ‘Members Plus’ logo on some premium content, but not others, so it’s not always clear what is free and what’s only available for paid subscribers (an annual sub will set you back £55.99). But there's so much quality free content - including live events hosted by performance experts such as Wim Hof, the odd celeb such as Gisele Bündchen and Russell Brand, even the OG of chill himself, the Dalai Lama, makes an appearance - that it really is a minor complaint, but something we felt worth flagging.