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Experimenting With Antianxiety Apps: A Journey Into the Digital New Age

Alyssa Bereznak
National Correspondent, Technology
Yahoo Tech

Continuing with my series of columns on feigned self-improvement, I bring you a dispatch from the flute-filled world of antianxiety apps. Namaste.

iPh-Ooooom (Photo: Thinkstock).

If you need any proof that humans are bound to their phones in unhealthy ways, take the mobile age phenomenon of phantom buzzing syndrome — a relatively new mental sensation through which you think your phone is vibrating, but it’s not. The nation’s smartphone-wielding population has become so obsessed with maintaining mobile communication that we think of our phones like newborns: We can’t help but imagine that they need us when we’re not around.

How can we combat this thoroughly modern techno-affliction? Obviously the best solution is to, you know, not spend so much time on your phone. But for the small moments during the day, when you can’t just abandon it, there’s a growing canon of antianxiety apps that can help you with your crippling stress. Using meditation exercises, soothing imagery, peaceful sounds, and note-taking, these tools aim to relax the mind, even your breathing, and make space for more calm thought. 

As a longtime sufferer of phantom vibration, I dove into this new-age genre. My experience and highly precise ratings below.

App: Calm for Android and iOS (free).

The gist: Calm promises to ease your mind through a number of timed, voice-narrated audio/visual meditations in which you close your eyes and focus on your breathing. Its chill factor, however, is largely killed by all the choices you’re forced to make before you get your Om on. You must first select the type of session you want: Calm, Anxiety Release, Compassion, and so on. (In a serious betrayal to the Buddha, however, the majority of these options require an 83-cents-per-month subscription.).

After you’re done with that, you can select the length of your session, the scene that you want to stare at while you meditate (basic sunsets, bodies of water, rain on leaves, etc.), and finally, the noise you want to hear at the end of a session. This is when the number of choices you have starts to cause that anxious feeling you get every time you go to a make-your-own-frozen-yogurt joint. Your options include a Buddhist bell, harp, singing bowl, Tibetan chime, wind chime, or a gong. How does one weigh the benefits and downsides of a Tibetan chime versus a harp? What kind of sick Eastern-medicine Sophie’s Choice is this?! 

The bottom line: By the time I’d entered the session, I needed it just to cool down from the selection process. 

Zen rating: Three out of five harp strings.

App: Epic Zen Garden for iOS (free).

The gist: Rather than force you to take direction from a nice woman on quaaludes, Epic Zen Garden immerses you in a peaceful virtual world that’s yours to explore. As the wind gently blows and the birds chirp, you’re able to tap around the grounds of a minimalistic floating house on a cliff. By swiping the screen, you can interact with the many elements of the scene, including a koi pond, a sand garden, and a fountain inhabited by butterflies. My personal favorite is a set of branches that bloom into a cherry blossom tree with the help of your tapping — surprisingly empowering and relaxing at the same time.

The bottom line: You play God in a wonderfully yogi equivalent of Happy Gilmore’s “happy place.” It rocks.

Zen rating: Basically a horse tranquilizer.

App: Relax Melodies for iOS and Android (free).

The gist:

There may be no better way to thwart a person’s search for her inner chi than a Gilt advertisement for shoes at the bottom of her screen. The poorly designed Relax Melodies app provides all this and more, next to a base selection of relaxing sounds. You can choose to play river, ocean, wind, flute, rain, bird, piano, lounge, and “music box” sounds, individually or all at once (which sounds horrible). It’s helpful that it’s automatically programmed to play in the background after you exit the app, but too many of the tunes verge on Zen-land parody. And the music box has a creepy horror movie vibe to it. And just like Calm, this app shamelessly slings advertisements in front of you to upgrade (read: pay more) every time you open the app.

The bottom line: This cheaply made app is far too cluttered and bothersome to help lower your blood pressure. In fact, it might just enrage you.

Zen rating: Negative two Xanax 

App: Worry Watch for iOS ($1.99). 

The gist: A very logical approach to attacking problems head-on, Worry Watch asks you to document every anxious feeling that pops into your head. It requires you to write down the problem and categorize it. Then once the thing you’re worried about resolves itself, you go back into the app and rate whether the outcome of the situation was as bad as you expected. In turn, the app will then graph these outcomes. Clearly, this model is based on the theory that the extent to which we worry about things is unnecessary. But what if your problems are as bad as you thought they were? Suddenly, this app becomes a bleak graphic depiction of your depressing life. Nobody wants that. 

The bottom line: If you don’t want to be reminded of your soul-crushing financial, occupational, and familial problems in the form of pie charts, don’t use this app.

Zen rating: The equivalent of being taught harp by J.K. Simmons’s character in Whiplash

App: Centered for iOS (free).

The gist: The only app of the bunch to integrate with Apple’s body-tracking HealthKit, Centered is a no-nonsense system to track your steps and meditation sessions every week. It draws information on your steps from your phone’s exercise monitoring guts and provides voice-narrated guidance for a number of meditation exercises, ranging in length from 4 to 19 minutes (A mini meditation is 4 minutes; a “body awareness meditation” is 19 minutes). No cheesy sunset or ancient medicine man playing the flute — just two circles that slowly change color as you listen to a session. Plus, the voice that guides you keeps it pretty professional: just simple instructions. 

The bottom line: Easy to use, nice to look at, and surprisingly effective. 

Zen rating: Five out of five lavender aromatherapy candles.

In my foray into the universe of thoughtful reflection, it became clear that just as in the real world, the digital landscape of stress relief ranges from black art to clinically tested techniques. Tapping on a tree to watch blossoms flower is in no way a proven method to help mental health. But it’s nevertheless a great distraction. On the other hand, practicing meditation — specifically the kind you’re asked to perform in Centered — is a beneficial way to promote well-being, according to numerous studies by Blue Cross Blue Shield. And some homegrown ideas, like noting your overreactions, might even make things worse. The takeaway: Do what makes you feel good, not what an app says is right. 

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