There is a real wealth at the moment of smartphone apps aiding people with practising relaxation and de-stressing techniques. I confess that, when I have searched for these on online stores, I have at times felt almost “overwhelmed” by the number of apps available on the topic, with many of these offering great functionalities and extensive lists of options and modalities to suit different needs and preferences.
A couple of issues have however caught my attention, and also of other colleagues’ working within neuro-rehabilitation:
1- Although it is brilliant that apps are becoming increasingly richer and sophisticated tools, this also means that they can become trickier to navigate. For people with intellectual and/or cognitive difficulties, some apps may result quite challenging to use due to the large amount of written text to process and wide range of options to choose from. These can become barriers in some cases, preventing some individuals from being able to access the app as desired, or leading them to give up using them quite early on after download, due to the level of complexity and effort required.
2- Many of the most popular apps require users to register or subscribe in exchange of payment. Some apps will still offer some functionalities for free, but the majority of contents will only be available following payment. Fees be relatively expensive and not everyone may be able to afford them.
Based on these considerations, I have been on the hunt in the last few months for apps that may be more easily accessible for people who may struggle with information processing and other aspects of cognition. I have also looked for apps that are completely free, so that users may not become inadvertently or unwillingly tied up to unnecessary payments. Here are some recommendations of apps based on my experience and suggestions by other very kind colleagues who have visited the blog and knew that I was looking for these types of apps.
This app has been developed by Deep Relax, an organisation that provides meditation and relaxation resources for free. The app offers guided relaxation or meditation tracks, of different length and complexity. It also gives access to “soundscapes”, music tracks that can facilitate meditation and sleep, also varying in duration.
The inclusion of “soundscapes” is a particular strength of this app in my view- this seems a great resource for people with communication difficulties or more severe cognitive impairments, who may it difficult to follow guided verbal scripts. In the rehab unit where I work, we facilitate weekly “relaxation groups”, learning and practising a range of mindfulness and relaxation techniques. Patients attending these often report large benefits from simply being able to “switch off” in a peaceful environment, listening to soothing music. There is, indeed, a growing evidence base supporting the beneficial effects of listening to music on quality of life and psychological well-being in brain-injured individuals (Baylan et al., 2016). I have previously used some of the audio-guides as well soundscapes from this app in the group sessions, with consistent positive feedback from the participants.
Of note, Deep Meditation also allows its users to set up “reminders” for relaxation sessions, either daily or at set times during the week. It can help to track people’s “progress” by recording how often they have used the app, and provides with a meditation journal where it is possible to record one’s experiences, thoughts and feelings when or after practising the scripts.
One disadvantage of this app is that (in my view), in some of the tracks, the pace at which the speaker is reciting the script is slightly too fast – this can make some of the practises harder to connect with and hinder the relaxation experience. This however does not seem to be the case for all tracks. I always make sure, before recommending any specific track or using this in the session, that I have listened to this in advance, to clarify whether this is going to be appropriate or not.
Virtual Hope Box
I thank Dr Andrew Bateman for this recommendation. According to its description, Virtual Hope Box has been designed by patients in collaboration with health providers, based on the principles of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. It is divided into four sections:
– “Distract Me”: supports users in engaging in positive distraction; for example they can play games such as Sudoku or other puzzles through the app
– “Inspire Me”: includes a selection of motivational quotes, to inspire and motivate users through challenging situations or moments of distress
– “Relax Me”: range of simple guided relaxation audio guides (including progressive muscle relaxation and visual imagery)
– “Coping Tools”: users are supported in developing and identifying coping strategies and solutions, and planning positive activities (some patients may need support from a healthcare professional or family member in using this section, as they may struggle to generate ideas independently without a pre-existing repertoire)
The app also contains a “Support Contacts” section, where users can list a number of individuals to be contacted in case of an emergency. It also allows users to upload and store multimedia such as for example pictures of friends or inspiring music tracks which can support them during emotionally challenging times.
Although I have never used this app with any of my patients as of yet, it seems to have great potential, predominantly due to the simple design and the large variety of useful tools and resources that it offers, all contained within the same app.
Non-profit app developed by a group of psychologists and educators in Australia, where it is very popular. It contains a range of dedicated “meditation programmes” designed for a range of different user categories and contexts – including specific ones for school classrooms and also whole families. For people new to meditation, there are specific beginner programmes. The programmes are divided further depending on their theme or purpose (e.g. to help with sleep, anxiety etc) and all contain a number of tracks of different length, that can be selected freely (you do not have to follow the order suggested by the app programme if you do not wish to). Another great feature of this app is that many of the tracks have been translated in a number of languages, also available for free.
Let’s meditate: Guided Meditation
Very straightforward app, where users can access a list of different meditations, with details provided about length, gender of the speaker and meditation content (e.g. body scan, gratitude meditation). All the users have to do is to click on the “download” button and let the script start.
The range of tracks available is, for now, quite limited; however the app is completely free of ads, there is no need to sign up, and tracks can be downloaded easily on the users’ phones, so that they can be listened to “offline”. This can be particularly convenient for inpatients, who may sometimes only have limited or fluctuating access to the internet.
This app has become very popular in the last year and I believe it is one of the most downloaded free meditation apps out there. It offers a very extensive, free library (40,000+!) of relaxation and mindfulness tracks, divided depending based on type (e.g. with or without background music), theme and length. It is a great resource, but it is worth bearing in mind that, because of its wide range of functionalities and options, the app can result at least somewhat challenging to navigate for people with communication and cognitive impairment, meaning that support may be required.
Have you used any of these apps, do you have any feedback on them or recommendations for any other ones not mentioned here? It would be great to hear others’ opinions on anything that they have found helpful, to continue expanding and refining on the list.