The prolonged dumpster fire of 2020 had many of us searching for ways to preserve our mental health. The data support what we’ve all expected—depression and anxiety symptoms worsened over the long period of lockdown due to COVID-19. People with existing mental health conditions were at even greater risk of this deterioration.
Seeking help from health professionals when needed is critically important. I’ve been so grateful for the continuing care of my therapist and psychiatrist via telemedicine.
There are also measures you can try at home to help yourself through difficult times.
Though not a replacement for professional care, mental health apps are increasingly being recognized for their ability to fill treatment gaps and allow people to self-manage symptoms. Studies across many apps show positive results for their use to address depression and anxiety symptoms.
At this point in my life, I figured any ammunition against the mental health beasts that were constantly threatening me would be worth a try. So, I tested three mental health apps that employed evidence-backed strategies for improving mental health: affirmations, journaling, mindfulness, and meditation.
These techniques (although not the specific apps) were also recommended by my therapist for self-care between sessions.
I’m always skeptical when trying something new, and I typically find myself to be a pretty harsh critic. However, I was pleasantly surprised to like each of the three mental health apps I tried. I wanted to share my experience with these apps, including pros and cons, so you can see if they might work for you.
I don’t receive any money from these companies. These are my honest opinions.
Tips are based on personal experience and should not be considered medical advice. Full disclaimer.
Mental Health Apps Worth Trying
There are over 10,000 mental or behavioral health apps available. The sheer volume of apps can make it hard to sort through and know which one will be a good fit. I go through periods where I’ll download a handful to try out.
Even following the “best apps” awards isn’t a sure sign that an app will suit you, and the most popular apps often come with a hefty price tag.
For example, my psychiatrist recommended a specific meditation app, but I found the narrator’s voice to be incredibly irritating. The trial and error can be time consuming.
From my latest personal experiment, here are three apps I enjoyed that each use different tactics to promote better mental health.
Jour: A Journaling App
I’ve tried journaling before using old-fashioned pen and paper. I really noticed a difference in my positive thinking, but like anything, it was hard to keep up the habit. I kept my journal on my nightstand, but some nights I’d just be too tired.
Given the practice’s usefulness, I thought trying a journaling app would be a good idea.
Jour is a newer, highly rated journaling app that offers a free 7-day trial. I started using it every day for a week. I found the best time was first thing in the morning when my toddler was occupied, and it was nice that I could do my entries from anywhere as long as I had my smartphone.
Surprisingly, the thing I ended up liking most about the app was its mood tracking feature. I hadn’t previously seen the point of keeping track of my mood, but the app lets you connect your feelings to things going on in your life and track how you’re doing over time.
Based on what you enter, it brings up different journal prompts. You can see trends over time with a click of its “insights” button.
According to Pooja Chandrashekar of Harvard University, “app-based features that enable users to self-monitor their mood by periodically reporting their thoughts, behaviors, and actions can increase emotional self-awareness,” which has been shown to reduce mental illness symptoms and improve coping skills.
I had been going through some medication changes along with plenty of life challenges (thanks pandemic), so I found having a log of how I was feeling quite useful.
According to Jour, “we have received feedback from professional therapists that they recommend Jour for their patients as a way to check-in on their well-being between sessions and have a record of how they were feeling and what happened during the week that they can discuss in their next session.”
The Jour app was very easy to use and soothing on the eyes. As far as I could tell, all of the app’s journaling is guided, meaning you are given prompts for your writing.
If you prefer free-form journaling, you probably don’t need a special app. Just open up notes on your phone or grab a blank piece of paper. I appreciated the prompts.
The only negative I saw was that at times, the number of prompts seemed limited, so you could get repeats.
The app also offers a small selection of breathing exercises. Overall, I found it thought-provoking and effective.
I wish it offered users a 2-week trial. The annual subscription of $59 was more than I like to pay for an app, but for daily use, $5 per month seemed worth it.
MyLife: A Meditation App
Formerly known as Stop, Breathe & Think, MyLife is one of the many mindfulness and meditation apps available. I’ve previously done free trials of Headspace, Calm, and Shine, for which there are many online reviews available.
If my experimentation is any indication, I recognize the benefits of meditation practice but sometimes find it hard to integrate into my life.
I wanted to try MyLife because I hadn’t heard as much about it, and none of the other apps I’d tried had jumped out as a clear favorite. You also don’t have to put in credit card information to try MyLife, which is a big bonus.
This means their trial period is indefinite.
I found the app easy to use through its simple menus. It has cute iconography but isn’t as in-your-face vibrant as apps like Headspace.
As I’ve found previously, the meditation practices were very relaxing when I actually did them. According to MyLife, “a study conducted on 10,000 of our users showed that they were 82% more likely to not be anxious after just 10 sessions with the app.”
There are around 20 meditations available as part of the free version. The MyLife app uses daily check-ins on your mood and feelings to offer you personalized suggestions for meditations.
You can also choose individual meditations as part of themed groupings or do “journeys” that take you through a progression of meditations over a series of days. These cover topics such as relationships, gratitude, and loving your body.
There are options for different voices in most of the meditations available, which I appreciated. I also liked how the app didn’t automatically bombard you with notifications; you have to go in and set reminders if you want them.
Finally, there’s a basic meditation timer with background sounds that you can use if you’re not in the mood for a guided meditation.
Overall, I was impressed by the app’s simple but functional style and am continuing to use the free version for now. Depending on how things go, I may upgrade to a paid plan ($59/year).
If you’re looking for a completely free meditation app, I recommend trying Insight Timer, though it can be a bit overwhelming to navigate due to its giant library of content.
I Am: An Affirmations App
I Am is an app that has a clear purpose and does exactly what it sets out to do. I didn’t think I needed something like this, but I’m really glad I found it.
As an anxious person, I have a lot of unwanted negative thoughts that love to rain down on me throughout the day. I Am takes up the fight in the other direction, prompting me with positive messages that change my mindset.
You select categories of affirmations you want to receive, like “self care” or “stress and anxiety,” and then customize the frequency of the affirmation notifications. It takes mere seconds to set up.
As you start to receive affirmations, you can mark some as favorites, dislike ones you don’t like, and even add your own custom affirmations. When you open the app, each affirmation is shown on a soothing background image. I took screenshots of some of my favorites to use as wallpaper.
The app had seamless integration with my Apple watch, which is what I loved the most. Just when I found my anxious thoughts spiraling out of control, I’d get an alert with a message like “I am stronger than my problems” or “anxiety will not defeat me.”
The app seemed to know just what I needed to hear.
The catalog of affirmations must be quite large because I can’t recall seeing repeats in the weeks since I’ve started using it. There were only a couple of affirmations that didn’t resonate with me out of the hundreds I received.
There is a free version and a subscription option to unlock all features. I quickly upgraded to the subscription version due to my happiness with the app. The price is currently $19 annually.
Summary: Trial of Mental Health Apps
I’d call my latest experimentation with mental health apps quite successful. I found three strong apps that each offer different feature sets.
While mental health apps aren’t the solution to all my problems, I’ve found they have a place in supplementing my medical therapy.
Even if you don’t have a diagnosed mental health condition, mental health apps may help you deal with life stressors and maintain well-being. I recommend you do your own tests to see if a mental health app might be useful for you.