Lifestyle Medicine, Main blog page

Stress and Mindfulness

Review of Calm and Headspace


Stress put simply is the response from our bodies to a threatening event. The physical response triggered is called ‘flight or fight’. This involves activation of the sympathetic nervous system (compared to the parasympathetic controlling the ‘rest and digest’ state) and in turn a whole host of hormonal cascades including the release of cortisol, the ‘stress hormone’.
It stems from being evolutionary beneficial – think of being chased by a lion, you want to act before you have time to think! In the present day, some stress can still be beneficial, but usually only to get us through a short-term event whereby we return to our restful selves quickly – taking an exam, public speaking, a job interview for example. However, when stress becomes long-term and the fight and flight response is sustained this can be detrimental to both our physical and mental wellbeing.
What is mindfulness?
Mindfulness is about being present in the moment, taking in your body, mind and environment. When we acknowledge our thoughts we do so in a non judgemental manner.
There is growing evidence to support the use of mindfulness in the treatment of several mental health conditions, such as depression and anxiety, leading to some structured mindfulness therapies being recommended in NICE (National Institute of Health and Care Excellence) guidelines for health professionals.
It’s also becoming more common in everyday health and wellbeing.
Mindfulness apps are an aid to introduce you to and get into a daily routine of practicing mindfulness, often mindfulness meditation. They are growing in popularity so thought I’d review two of the most popular, Calm and Headspace, to help guide your choice if this is something that interests you!
Popularity: 5 million downloads (from Google play store), 2017 Apple App of the Year.
Price tag for subscription: £35.99/ year (sometimes can trial the subscribed platform for 7 days for free).
App features:
· Wallpapers with sounds – can easily scroll through which suits you: fjord scenes, raindrops, crackling fires, the globe.
· Daily calm – a 10-minute daily programme in mindfulness.
· Selection of narrators for guided meditation – male and female.
· Share feature – can being in a sense of community and provides an added incentive if you’re struggling to get into the habit of including some mindfulness into the day.
· Reminder – daily alarm to remind you to be mindful.
· A profile page for you to monitor your progress.
· A blog on their website.
Areas of the app
· Sleep stories – like bedtime stories for adults! To lull you into a restful sleep.
o Narrated by a variety of people including Stephen Fry.
o These don’t really send me off to sleep! I sleep well in a quiet room – this said they can relax you into a mindset that makes drifting off easy and I would love to see one done by David Attenborough!
· Meditate – guided meditation for a variety of topics, suited to both the beginner and those more advanced.
o Examples include an introductory ‘7 days of Calm’, stress management, breathe, mindful eating, sleep, mindfulness at work, anxiety, self-esteem, gratitude, emotion, relationships.
§ Can browse through all or scroll across tabs to highlight sessions for particular aims.
o Also includes an ‘emergency calm section’ – similar to the SOS area of Headspace.
o Unguided timed meditation.
o Not quite as much on mindfulness whilst exercising as Headspace – but they did include sessions aimed at helping you through World Cup penalties!
· Music – aimed at helping you relax, sleep or focus.
· Masterclass – almost like a selection of podcast series. These are lessons from experts in their field discussing a wide range of areas of mental wellbeing. For example, the most recent is titled ‘Discovering Happiness’ – I think happiness is such an important concept, so I think it’s great Calm is sharing the term and delving deeper into what it really means.
How much can you get for free (i.e. before paying for a subscription):
· A small selection of sleep stories
· Elements of some mindfulness meditation series – including the introductory 7 days of Calm, 21 days of Calm for the more advanced, and those for managing stress and anxiety.
· A lot of their music section.
· Often the first session in a programme of their masterclass series.
Popularity: 10 million downloads (from Google play store).
Price tag for subscription: more expensive than Calm at £72/year (sometimes there are offers on).
App features:
· Website with more information – a blog, science behind mindfulness, work-based subscriptions.
· Also has a daily reminder.
· My journey page – to monitor your progress.
· A buddy feature – so you can connect with a friend on the app.
Areas of the app
· Packs: similar to the meditation element of Calm, segregated under different themes
o Health – includes managing anxiety stress, sleep, coping with cancer, pain management, pregnancy.
o Brave – sadness, grief, regret, anger, change, restlessness.
o Happiness – self-esteem, relationships, patience, happiness, acceptance, appreciation, kindness, generosity.
o Work and performance – prioritisation, productivity, finding focus, creativity, balance.
o Students – leaving home, distractions.
o Sport – motivation, concentration, training, competition, communication.
· Singles:
o Guided and unguided meditation.
o Mindfulness when working out – there’s a session for running coached by Nike Running Global Head Coach Chris Bennett which is pretty cool!
o Mindfulness for travel – including commuting and vacation.
o SOS for more acute/emergency situations, for example when feeling overwhelmed.
· Minis – breathe, restore, unwind and body scan to name a few.
· A section for kids.
How much can you get for free (i.e. before paying for a subscription):
· Basics – an introduction to meditation.
· Some initial sessions on pack.
· Some singles – e.g. first run, the 1st minute of some single sessions – not all though.
· Breathe mini.
I could copy and paste a selection of research supporting the use of headspace and mindfulness, but the headspace website has a page where there is a wide variety, so you can dive into the titles that appeal more to you! A note for whenever looking into papers – always be more sceptical of research funded by those who will benefit from positive outcomes!
A bit like exercise – find out what works for you, so download the apps and have a browse! Both also have Instagram pages so you can have a look and see what style of platform suits you more. Personally, I enjoy Calm the most.
This said mindfulness meditation might not even suit you, but this doesn’t mean you can’t practice mindfulness. You can enjoy mindfulness with anything that engages you with the present, to yourself and your surroundings – yoga, Pilates, tai-chi, walking out in the fresh air enjoying the beauty of nature (and please not posting about it on Instagram – it’s ‘me time’!).
Other useful resources:
If apps area your thing and you enjoy them and find them a useful tool for a healthier lifestyle check out these NHS endorsed apps.

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