It may be presumptuous to state this but I will take a chance: I’m likely not the only one out there these days feeling the pull of anxiety. And thus I was motivated to take a personal journey to find relief from stress and anxiety by using technology, taking all of you along with me, as well as getting a little help from some friends.
Some may find this idea counterintuitive — after all, some of our anxiety is exacerbated by things like the internet, looking at Twitter, the news, or high-stress video games. But technology is what we make of it, and how we use it, and there are plenty of clever tools out there that can actually help find calm frayed nerves.
First, I got some recommendations from friends for what they do to help alleviate stress and anxiety, before doing my own exploration using a few of the more highly rated apps.
In my quest for new forms of relaxation, ASMR was recommended by my friend William, a professor in Game Education at Abertay University. ASMR stands for “Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response,” which refers to the sensation people get when they watch stimulating videos or hear sounds that cause what some refer to as “brain tingles” that run through the back of someone’s head and spine (or “head orgasms” as this Guardian piece put it). Some find the feeling more deeply relaxing, and can even cause them to fall asleep.[–Read more on VOX]
When I’d asked William how ASMR works, he wrote back:
“It’s a whole community. A cross between new age/ambient aesthetics, speculative neuroscience, and an attempt to restore slower modes of attention. A lot of the ASMR artists work with triggers: special sounds meant to produce ‘tingles’ (experiences in the scalp, back, or other parts of the body), although a lot of ASMR listeners/viewers use the videos and recordings to relax or sleep. One of the most interesting to me is a man who works under the name ‘Ephemeral Rift,’ who has created a cast of ASMR characters drawn from Lovecraft and other sources.”
“It brings me back to the feeling I used to get as a child when listening to my grandfather or other people who were teaching me something,” William continued. “I would listen to their stories or explanations, when delivered with a certain quiet, gentle gravity, and go into an almost trance-like state of attentive fascination. The best ASMR work evokes those childhood experiences in me.”
To test ASMR I first tried YouTube videos, as William felt these present a more authentic approach than content found in the ASMR apps, and after trying the latter I tend to agree. There are thousands of these videos, but I liked a few that were recommended by Hello Giggles, “11 ASMR Videos That Will Make Sure You Have the Best Sleep Ever.” (The one below is really just audio, but there’s a picture of a cat, which gave it bonus points in my book, and it was fairly sleep-inducing.)
Next, I tried the Tingles and Silk apps, and to a newbie like me some of this felt like an oddly more erotic version of the meditation apps I’ll talk more about below, in which you can be guided by soothing voices basically whispering sweet nothings to you: Male and (mostly) female voices speaking in low, whispered tones to put you in a relaxed state. (One video on Tingles app features a young woman literally shushing you to sleep; I felt like I was trying to nod off in a library, but hey, maybe that’s your sleep jam.)
There’s more to it than this, too, of course. The Tingles app includes clips of nature sounds and other soothing sounds, but it’s the music and voice clips that are the go-to here, with many “artists” given prominent treatment as if recording stars within the ASMR community. And these ASMR apps allow you to continue listening while outside the app.
I’m going to level with you: I found many of the “soothing” videos on the ASMR apps more silly than relaxing, but your mileage will definitely vary, it can be an acquired taste, and I know many people who find it works very well for them. I do appreciate the concept. And a certain child-like feeling is partly the point, as William pointed out. Give it a try and see what you think.
Games, Podcasts, Machines and Other Ideas
When I polled friends to see what they do to help alleviate stress, not surprisingly the ideas varied wildly and people were gung-ho to share. These are but just a few of the ideas.
“I’ve been listening to podcasts as if the world is coming to a rapid end (not totally convinced otherwise, by the way),” my cousin Judi wrote. “And not just political topics: meditation, history, true crime, and fiction. One of my current faves is ‘The Science of Happiness‘ from Greater Good in Action.”
Brady in San Francisco also uses podcasts to chill out to, in a unique way: “For sleep now I use podcasts in my 2nd & 3rd languages. (The 3rd I barely speak.) I find that in English my brain can check out for a few seconds to freak out and then I can catch up. Not so in French or Italian. Also [I use] audiobooks, [which are] not exactly apps although I do have an app for public domain audiobooks in French read by randos.”
[Note: LibriVox is one such app that I recommend.]
Richard had a surprising suggestion for something that works to calm him down: the video game NBA2K. “Nothing like powering down a monster dunk on Marcin Gortat or Boogie Cousins that makes it all go away.” I asked him, incredulously, “Doesn’t that amp you up more?” “It’s the calm after the amp,” he explained. “The amp is running to the rim, jumping up and flushing it down…the hang on the rim is the slow release of all tension, anger, frustration…then to calmly and mildly jog back down court, take a breath and get set to play defense again is quite soothing and peaceful.”
[It is kind of hypnotic.]
I sometimes get anxious when I fly and found that playing a repetitive game on my iPad, one that is just distracting enough without itself being overly tense, really helps. This includes games as diverse as Words With Friends (against the computer if no internet connection), Civilization, Plants vs Zombies, and a soothingly designed, trippy little puzzle game called Kenshō (see below):
Deborah, a children’s book writer, shares that same anxiety and told me she has her own favorite puzzle game:
“I play Maleficent Free Fall on my iPad. When I have to fly, I buy enough lives to get me through any sitting-on-the-runway type delays because those kick off my anxiety big time. I suppose it actually is like meditation in a way: gives me something to focus on.”
Other suggestions include: pinning away on Pinterest, doing a budget (“because it gives me a sense of control,” my friend Aneesa wrote), the FM3 Buddha Machine (see below), and… Lexapro.
Meditation Apps 🎧
Now back to my quest for apps, in which I turned away from ASMR and toward ol’ fashioned meditation.
Breethe is a lovely idea (not to be confused with the breathing and meditation reminder app Breathe, also a lovely idea), a personal meditation app that’s mostly well executed, but the best aspects of it require a subscription, which might well be worth it even if those costs can start anxiety up again. But this was the first one I tried and it was fairly effective for me, with guided meditations from teachers and expert meditators. Breethe seems very professionally thought out but it was the next one that put me in a better…headspace.
Headspace is another deceptively simple and effective guided relaxation app that can help calm you down and even sleep better. You tell the app when you most want to meditate and what you need it for (say, “managing anxiety” and “after brushing your teeth at night”) What Headspace does differently is keep it simple, with a gentle humor, and yet with quite a few options. And there’s science behind it!
This is another one where, well, you get what you pay for, if you want to unlock all the features (you can try the basics for free), but if anxiety and sleep are issues for you, it’s also kind of worth it. There are daily meditations here and mini-meditations, drifty sleep sounds, mindfulness animations, ways to track progress within Apple Health if you use that app on the iPhone. The mini-meditations (to “breathe,” “unwind” or “restore”) include a quite soothing British voice who will ease you into a good place. (This is Andy Puddicome, as it turns out, a meditation and mindfulness expert.)
[From Headspace app]
A new addition to the app is an “in the city” section where you can take a walk in your busy urban environment while remaining both connected to the world around you yet calm (if you live in my city you’d know that was no easy task and this seems an oxymoron, but it kind of works). Again, Puddicome’s gentle voice helps, though I’d recommend not using completely noise-proof headphones lest you get so relaxed walking around you don’t hear traffic coming.
Pacifica and Other Apps
Another useful app put together by professionals who seem to know what they’re doing, Pacifica for Stress & Anxiety includes CBT (Cognitive-behavioral therapy) options, and “mindfulness.” Their thoughtful approach takes you down guided paths and uses its gentle AI to check in with you, too. I liked the feel of this one.
A couple of other meditation apps that friends recommended were Insight Timer (“lots of variety for guided meditations“) and Zen.
I once owned a Brookstone “nature sounds” clock that considered things like foghorns, loons and thunderstorms “relaxing,” but hey, to each their own. To be fair it also had waves and streams and the usual calming nature sounds.
Sometimes you don’t need people guiding you through relaxation techniques as much as you need nature doing it for you. Natural noise can do the trick when you’re trying to drown out the outside world. Even better if you splurge on good noise-reducing headphones rather than standard uncomfortable ear-buds, though admittedly it’s a bit hard to sleep in bed with big ol’ Boses clamped on your head.
I recently used a sounds app that included the sounds of cats purring to help me relax on a flight. As a cat owner I can attest to the real thing, purring being effective not only in helping my cat chill out but also in making me sleepy, too. And even on a loud airplane, again with good headphones, the repetitive purrrrrrrrr sound put me in a better place, at least briefly.
[If you’re really having sleep issues, here is nine straight hours of cats purring:]
There are quite a few nature sounds apps for both iPhone and Android mobile devices, too many to list here. Most of them are similar, just groupings of various relaxing sounds, from rolling waves and bristling trees to babbling brooks. The one I used was MyNoise, an app for both iPhone and Android. The Relax Melodies: Sleep Sounds app for iOS and the Meditation Melodies and Sounds (Android) were both recommended by friends.
For those looking for a more interpersonal, human connection–but still remote and using technology–the 7 Cups site and app is a guided therapy program and chat site that allows users to get support from other real-life(!) people as well as licensed therapists (that part will cost money). I did a trial run of this to help talk out some anxiety issues and found it helpful, but it can get pricey (just as real-life in-person therapy can be costly, but also often worth it when needed).
Ultimately, you have to find the thing that works for you, that quiets your mind for at least awhile, before the real world seeps back in again.
What about you? What are your own tips and tricks for relieving anxiety?