My iPhone is My Xanax

The good, the bad, and the cheesiest apps designed to combat anxiety.

by Sarah Kasbeer
Mar 16 2017, 4:24pm

Beatrix Boros / Stocksy

Smart phones, it seems, are the new cigarettes. They're there when you're uncomfortable at a party, when you need a break from your computer screen, or just when you're plain bored. Like their cancer-causing predecessors, they fill the insatiable void of social (or anti-social) discomfort with the momentary buzz of stimulation. But unlike the smokers before us, phone-addicted dopamine fiends can't just quit—our devices are embedded into our lives. Instead, we have to find a way to use them to cope with the very anxiety that drives us there, instead of exacerbating or simply distracting from it.

I often find myself scrolling Twitter in vain, searching for some relief from my constant ruminations before heading to Facebook, then Instagram, and then back to Twitter to see if anything's changed since I last checked four minutes ago. Once my index finger lands on LinkedIn, I know I've hit rock bottom. Distraction by way of social media serves as a mere Band-Aid for my anxiety, which remains only suspended in digital space—for as long as I'm in there, anyway. All the while, time passes in the real world, and I have nothing to show for it except a severely diminished attention span.

Apps built to combat anxiety seem like an obvious way to both chase and slay this dragon. Most offer some combination of guided relaxation, meditation, breathing exercises, or cognitive behavior therapy. But once your phone is in-hand, the Pavlovian urge to close the self-help app and open a blood-pressure booster is difficult to ignore. (I've deleted Facebook from my phone as a precaution). For an ex-smoker, it would be like performing the ritualistic packing of the cigarettes by pounding the box against one hand—and then not pulling one out to have a smoke.

Not only must these apps strive to lower stress, enhance focus, and quiet endless mind chatter; they must also capture your interest long enough that you don't feel the need to reach for the touch screen. For me, this rules out any apps that merely track mood or worries over time—those just amount to another anxiety inducing item on my to-do list. After trying a few, I did find that some apps actually helped me reduce stress, sleep better, and relax. Here are five you can try for free, but if you get hooked (which is not a bad thing), you'll have to drop a few dollars. Not the worst thing in the world if it means curbing your anxiety.

The first thing Pacific asks you to do is upload a photo to your "Hope Board," which made me feel more like a mental hospital patient than a dabbler in digital self-help, but once I selected a photo of a baby elephant, I'll admit I kind of enjoyed looking at it. The app claims to help manage stress, anxiety, and depression—and the options are a little overwhelming. You can choose from a wide assortment of guided recordings for mindfulness and relaxation, follow lesson paths, or just listen to nature sounds, like waves washing against a shore, while you fall asleep on your couch.

Pacifica also offers a cognitive behavioral therapy that encourages you to examine and reframe negative thought patterns—the idea behind it being that what we worry about has less to do with the events themselves and more how we interpret them. Thoughts and feelings often follow patterns that we can learn to control once we become cognizant of them. Here's one example:

If I turn in a shitty draft of this article, my editor will think I suck.

Labeling & Judging
Fortune Telling

Tendency to think I'll be discovered as a loser.

The point is that most of the thoughts swirling around in your mind are useless iterations of thoughts you've had before. Breaking the cycle could give you some peace of mind—although it may be an ambitious goal to achieve through an app alone.

Upon opening Calm, you can select your preferred ambiance: a mountain lake with birds chirping, a crackling fireplace, a woodland rain—all gloriously unrealistic sights and sounds that will remain in the background while you relax to the recordings. The Daily Calm series uses meditation to address a particular theme, like resilience, acceptance, or gratitude.

The app allows you to toggle back and forth between breathing exercises (which you can do anytime, anyplace), guided meditation, and calming sleep stories. Although adult bedtime stories (not that kind of adult) sounded like a novel way to wind down, I found they either registered as white noise or distracted me from going to sleep all together. Especially the gimmick of having Ben Stein reading from the first chapter of Adam Smith's dull economic text, The Wealth of Nations.

Headspace offers guided meditation in just ten minutes a day with the company founder and former Buddhist monk Andy Puddicombe. The mindfulness approach focuses on being present in the moment, acknowledging one's thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations without judgment. Andy provides advice on how to fit the practice into your day (morning is best—groan) and how you can start sleeping better (keeping a tidy bedroom might help—double groan). Subscription content includes longer and more advanced sessions with that focus on specific applications, like creativity and emotional health.

Whether a specific guided meditation works for you boils down to personal taste. Do you like the voice on the recording or does it remind you of your ex (and not the good one)? When you close your eyes and retreat into the dark mind-castle of your thoughts, you have to make sure you're letting down the drawbridge for the right person. Andy and I just didn't hit it off; I found his approach a little too dogmatic, which, to be fair, is what one should expect from a mindfulness guru. I just prefer mine without any pressure—to practice everyday, sit upright, or stay awake during sessions.

Thirteen dollars per month—the cost of a well-crafted cocktail—is apparently the threshold of what people are inclined to spend per month on mental health apps. It's that sweet spot between ten and fifteen bucks that suggests a substantial amount of content (Netflix, Apple Music) without feeling like you've added an extra utility bill.

But after paying $18 to meditate a single time in-person at InScape's luxury studio in Manhattan, $12.95 a month to repurpose the recordings in the comfort of my own bed seemed like a bargain. The app's graphics are attractive, the chimes are soothing, and the feminine voice was just the right fit for my flow. I did have some trouble with streaming at first, and the customer service, delivered by email, was spotty at best.

Animal Art Zen Designs
It's probably not a coincidence that a relaxing activity from the analog world proved to be one of the most compelling ways find digital chill. Any coloring book would probably do the trick, but this one has animals from four loosely defined habitats, each with its own mood music. Unfortunately, my thumb obfuscated the pencil tip at any size, making it nearly impossible for me to color or erase within the lines. I had to work really hard on an ostrich for nearly a half hour, rubbing my thumb back and forth across the screen, which made my neck and shoulder a little tense. Overall, it was less relaxing than the others, but definitely more relaxing than ripping off my own cuticles until they bleed.