Feeling stressed lately? Yea, us too. The past few years have been a lot, and we could all use some calming vibes. On that note, a meditation app like Headspace sounds like it could be pretty helpful right about now. After all, meditation is shown to help you focus on the present, reduce stress, and may even help treat a range of conditions including anxiety,depression, and chronic pain.
Curious about trying Headspace to see if meditation could be something you can get into? Then you definitely don't want to stop here. To find out if Headspace really works, we reached out to mindfulness experts Crystal Hoshaw; Eve Rosenfeld, Ph.D.; Emily Schreter, MSEd, LMHC; and Jennifer Wolkin, Ph.D., for their thoughts. Keep reading to learn more about Headspace and the potential benefits of mindfulness and meditation.
Meet the Expert
- Crystal Hoshaw is a yoga instructor and a mindfulness and self-care coach.
- Eve Rosenfeld, Ph.D., is a clinical psychology post-doctoral fellow with the VA Paolo Alto Health Center.
- Emily Schreter, MSEd, LMHC, is a licensed psychotherapist and yoga teacher
- Jennifer Wolkin, Ph.D., is a licensed psychologist and clinical neuropsychologist.
What Is Headspace?
Headspace is a meditation-focused mindfulness app. It's pretty popular, so we wouldn't be at all surprised to hear you've already tried it. Many people find meditation intimidating, so a meditation app can be a helpful way to give it a try without the potential stress of being the newbie at a formal meditation class or trying to figure out how to start meditating on your own from home.
Headspace offers hundreds of guided meditations, but that's not all. The app also offers workouts and other movement practices, playlists and focus exercises, sleep meditations, and a lot more. "Through science-backed meditation and mindfulness tools, Headspace helps you create life-changing habits to support your mental health and find a healthier, happier you," the Headspace website proclaims.
Who Should Use Headspace?
"An app like Headspace is probably good for anyone to try," Rosenfeld says. But don't download the app assuming it's going to offer a cure-all solution for anxiety, depression, or stress. "It's one set of tools that can help you to practice mindfulness, but it isn't a treatment in and of itself," Rosenfeld says.
While Headspace and other meditation apps are probably safe for most people, some experts recommend checking in with a mental health or mindfulness professional before trying to meditate, especially if you have experienced trauma in the past. This is because meditation can trigger flashbacks and generally may not feel all that great for someone with a history of trauma.
For someone who has experienced trauma, "it might feel dysregulating to feel calmer or [to be] in a situation in which they are now front and center with the content of their thoughts without guided supervision for how to deal with them," Wolkin says. "This is true for those with severe anxiety, and also anyone experiencing psychosis."
This doesn't mean meditation isn't for you if you've experienced trauma—in fact, research shows that meditation may actually be helpful for some people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). But it's a good idea to work with a mental health professional who can help you build up a tolerance for meditation, and who can help you process any feelings, sensations, and emotions that arise, Schreter says.
You Could Develop a Healthier Stress Response
"Our brain changes in response to chronic stress," Wolkin says. "For example, the amygdala, the fear center of the brain, grows and reacts even when there is no actual threat for us to heed. Consistent mindfulness practice has been shown to decrease amygdala volume and make other brain changes associated with a more regulated and less stressed brain."
You Might Feel Less Anxious
Mindfulness can help decrease anxiety by helping us learn to ruminate less on the past or the future. "Instead, we train to keep our minds in the present moment," Wolkin says.
Your Focus Might Improve
"Many people mistakenly think [meditation] is about clearing the mind, and as a result feel discouraged or unable to meditate," Schreter says. "This isn’t true—[meditation is] about noticing."
As we meditate, breath is a tool that we can use to sharpen our focus and bridge the mind-body connection, she goes on to explain. As we slow down and take time to notice the breath, our thoughts may follow in slowing down, along with other physiological markers of stress like blood pressure or heart rate.
You Might Sleep Better
If meditation helps you decrease stress and anxiety, you may find that you also have an easier time falling asleep and staying asleep.
Your Immune System Could Get a Boost
"There’s research indicating that engaging in mindfulness practice actually reduces markers of inflammation, and increases the number of CD-4 cells, the immune system’s helper cells involved in telling other cells to destroy infection," Wolkin says. But it's still unclear whether this is a direct or indirect benefit of mindfulness' ability to decrease chronic stress (which is often associated with lower immune functioning), she adds.
You Could Experience Less Chronic Pain
Practicing mindfulness allows us to tune into the sensory experience of pain and separate this from our often negative and unhelpful evaluation process, Wolkin tells Byrdie. "If we can learn to detach the sensory experience from our judgments of our pain, subjective pain scores actually decrease," she says.
Your Body Awareness Could Improve
Through slowing down, meditation can allow us to be more aware of our bodies. "Body awareness is increased when we slow down, and this helps prevent injury and [allows us to] notice early signs of problem areas—often due to physical misalignments," Schreter says.
What to Expect When Using Headspace
Headspace is extremely simple to use and can be a great introduction to meditation, experts say. After opening the app, you can select from four key areas: Meditate, Sleep, Move, and Focus. Within, you'll find guided meditations and other mindfulness tools, playlists that help you focus, and even movement exercises. You can also track your progress and set goals, which can be very helpful for accountability and motivation, our experts say.
One huge perk of Headspace is that if you take your phone everywhere (that's most of us, right?), you're also taking Headspace everywhere. So Headspace's mindfulness exercises are pretty much available to you at any time.
The Headspace app costs $13 a month or $70 for the year. It's occasionally cheaper—for example, a Cyber Monday sale lowered the price to $5 for a month or $35 for the year, so keep an eye out for sales.
Headspace vs. Other Meditation Apps
Among a flooded market of mindfulness and meditation apps, Headspace is highly rated and is the most highly downloaded app of its kind in the Apple App Store. It also has some of the strongest research support for improving well-being and compassion, Rosenfeld tells Byrdie. She adds that it's one of the better apps out there for mindfulness, but points out that there are plenty of alternatives if Headspace isn't your style.
The Final Takeaway
Headspace is a great option for beginners, given the abundance of introductory meditations available. There's also a social feature that allows you to connect with friends. One potential downside is the price—Headspace is one of the more expensive meditation apps.
"Ultimately, most meditation apps accomplish more or less the same thing," Hoshaw says. "It comes down to personal preference which one is right for any one person."
National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health. Meditation: In Depth. Updated April, 2016.
- British Journal of General Practice. Meditation as medication: are attitudes changing?. 2013
Brain, Behavior, and Immunity. A comparison of mindfulness-based stress reduction and an active control in modulation of neurogenic inflammation. 01/2013