November 26, 2022

When your thoughts feel like a tornado, it’s hard to do stuff like plan healthy meals, or schedule gym time.

Never mind falling asleep at a decent hour the night before so you have the energy to actually DO these things.

Seems like an unlikely hero—but your phone might help.

Specifically, via stress management apps.

Stress management apps promise to help you manage your thoughts, regulate your emotions, and ease tension and restlessness from your body.

And in turn, better recovery from stress “fills up your tank,” making it easier for you to eat mindfully, find time to exercise, and feel like you have the capacity to take on new challenges.

In the following article, we’ll discuss how apps for stress management and anxiety might help you do that. You’ll discover:

What stress apps are, and how they work
Who’s most likely to benefit from these apps
Which stress management apps are the best

If you want to better manage your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors so you can create or sustain your health and fitness habits, keep reading.

First, what are stress management apps?

Stress management apps are programs on your phone that offer tools like guided meditation, guided breathwork, and mood tracking. These tools aim to reduce anxiety and stress, and improve mindfulness and wellbeing.

The cool thing is, apps for anxiety and stress can help you find relief in the moment, but also ongoing.

That’s because stress management is a skill.

So, the more you practice regulating your emotions—like calming yourself down with controlled breathing after a heated conversation with your boss—the more it begins to feel natural, and even automatic.

Because your phone is nearly always with you, stress apps can help you practice the skill of stress management wherever and whenever you need it.

Okay, but do apps for anxiety actually work?

The short answer: Yes. (For most people.)

A 2020 study in the International Journal of Technology Assessment in Health Care reported that apps using behavior-change strategies (such as CBT), significantly helped with depression, anxiety, and stress.1

And, a 2021 meta-analysis in the Journal of Affective Disorders found that mindfulness apps in particular show promise in helping reduce perceived stress, anxiety, depression, and improve psychological well-being.2

However, there’s nothing special about using these tools through your phone.

Apps just help make these therapies more convenient, accessible, and user-friendly. (Often, they’re more affordable than traditional therapy, too.)

Marla Deibler, PsyD, clinical psychologist and founder of The Center for Emotional Health of Greater Philadelphia, suggests that while apps can be part of your mental health toolkit, effective stress management should include a wide range of strategies.

Other strategies might include connecting to loved ones, getting out in nature, or talking to a mental health professional, such as a therapist, stress coach, or social worker.

Precision Nutrition Master Health Coach Kate Solovieva, MA, who holds her masters in Social and Personality Psychology, points out that for some, their phone is a source of stress. For these people, non-digital strategies, like the ones mentioned above, might be more effective.

Techniques that help with stress management

Stress and anxiety apps tend to focus on one or several of the most effective techniques for stress management and anxiety relief.

Here’s an overview of these approaches:

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

CBT is one of the most effective and well-researched treatments for many mood issues, including anxiety and depression—but also plain old daily stress.3

“We all have moments where we unintentionally increase or maintain our own stress by thinking unhelpful thoughts. These thoughts are often unrealistic, inaccurate, or, to some extent, unreasonable,” Dr. Deibler says.

CBT helps you identify and rewrite these patterns of thinking, so you can feel better, and change your behavior in positive ways.

For example, you might have a thought like, “I don’t have time to work out today, but if I skip, all my progress will be lost.”

Under normal circumstances, this thought may cause you to feel defeated, and may even tempt you to give up your training goals altogether.

Using CBT, you learn to challenge this thought, realizing that it’s overly catastrophic. (Skipping one workout will not somehow turn all your hard-earned muscle to mush.)

While CBT is most effective when done with a clinician, most people can learn basic skills to help themselves have more awareness of their thought errors, and learn to respond to these thoughts more productively.

Mindfulness and acceptance

Research shows mindfulness can be highly effective in helping reduce the physiological stress response in people with generalized anxiety disorder.4

Mindfulness can help you observe uncomfortable emotions with healthy detachment—kind of like watching a wave in the ocean swell, and then ride out.

Anxiety may feel bad, but it isn’t inherently harmful—and it does pass, says Dr. Deibler. Learning to observe your experiences—even the unwanted ones—without judgment or resistance, can help you feel less overwhelmed, and move on faster.

Meditation

Mindfulness meditation is the style of meditation most commonly found on stress apps.

This type of meditation usually involves sitting somewhere with your eyes closed, and simply observing your thoughts and feelings—your bodily sensations, sounds in your environment, or the chatter in your brain.

Whatever you notice, the idea is to try not to control it, judge it, or get overly identified with or emotionally wrapped up in it. (Yes, this is hard!)

This practice can help you to become more present—instead of overanalyzing the past or projecting into the future—as well as detach from stressful thoughts.

Not surprisingly, research shows that this type of meditation is effective at reducing anxiety.5 6

Breathwork

Taking deep, slow breaths helps lower your heart rate and blood pressure. This has a calming effect on your body, which can in turn cue your brain to calm down too, explains California-based Nathan Brandon, Psy.D., who specializes in online therapy.

Studies show breathwork—especially when the exhale is even with or longer than the inhale—is an effective intervention for reducing stress, increasing mindfulness, and reducing anxiety.7

(There are some great apps that can help you use your breath as a tool for stress management, but if you want a quick primer, we have a free guide too.)

Relaxation techniques

There are many activities that relax the body and mind—and different apps that cater to each. A few popular techniques:

Yoga (whether it’s fast-paced and sweaty, or slow and stretching-focused)
Tai Chi (an ancient self-defense technique that’s practiced as a gentle flow of standing postures)
Progressive muscle relaxation (a practice of tensing different muscle groups one-by-one, then releasing them)

“These activities work by focusing your attention on something other than your stressors and by helping your physical body to relax,” says Dr. Brandon.

Identifying triggers

“Figuring out the things that trigger your stress and learning how to deal with them in a healthy way can make a big difference in your overall stress levels,” Dr. Brandon says.

Both he and Coach Solovieva suggest identifying what causes your anxiety to flare up. Triggers can include people, places, or things—for example, alcohol, caffeine, too many hours at the office, poor sleep, or even certain relationships.

Once you identify the things that make your mood or behaviors go south, you have more control over them: you can figure out how to minimize your exposure to triggers, or just alter your perspective on them

Apps that track your mood or habits can illustrate these patterns more clearly.

What are the best stress management apps?

According to all three of our experts—and established research1—the most effective apps for anxiety or stress are ones that are based on evidence-based techniques, like those above.

However, if your stress or mood issues are persistent and/or severe, talk to your doctor or book an appointment with a licensed mental health professional.

With that in mind, here are seven of our top choices:

Headspace

Free 7-day trial, then $13/mo; iOS and Android

All of our experts recommended the leading meditation app, and it’s one of the few wellness and stress management apps with significant clinical research to support it.8

Headspace takes the practice of mindfulness meditation and makes it easy-peasy for beginners.

First, you complete a 10-day introductory course that holds your hand through how to meditate with videos and informative animations.

Then, you can access a huge library of guided meditations and exercises, with experts ranging from Buddhist monks to Olympic trainers.

The app leverages all sorts of meditation techniques, including visualizations, resting awareness, body scanning, and compassion, so it’s a great way to explore niches that might work well for you.

Waking Up

Free 7-day trial, then $14.99/mo; iOS and Android

Created by neuroscientist Sam Harris, Waking Up teaches you not only the basics of how to meditate, but also includes resources like mini-courses and podcast-style interviews on spiritual theories, philosophy, and psychology.

With the Waking Up app, you can do the daily 10-minute guided meditation, but you can also do shorter or longer specialized meditations, or listen to thought-provoking conversations on Stoicism, spiritual philosophy, sleep improvement, and even productivity—all from world-renowned teachers and scholars.

Liberate

Free 7-day trial, then $10/mo; iOS and Android

This meditation app is designed to be a helpful and safe space specifically for the Black community.

It features over 260 meditations plus additional talks from BIPOC teachers, covering general mindfulness as well as topics specific to microaggressions, internalized racism, ancestral healing, forgiveness, and more.

The meditations range from 5 to 25 minutes.

InsightTimer

Free; iOS and Android

InsightTimer gives you access to more than 90,000 meditations for free, including ambient sounds to help calm your mind and guided sessions from meditation teachers, psychologists, and celebrities like Russel Brand, Gisele Bündchen, and Elizabeth Gilbert.

Its thorough library can feel a bit overwhelming for beginners, but it categorizes its meditations, so you can easily find something to help you calm anxiety in the moment, focus on self-love or compassion, or fall asleep faster.

It also offers all styles of meditation, including Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) therapy, and breathing meditations.

Breathe+

Free for basic features; iOS and Android

Controlling your breath helps regulate your central nervous system, which is the on/off switch for anxiety. But simply sitting still and breathing can be surprisingly difficult.

Breathe+ uses a simple design to help you zero in on controlling your breath. You just input how long you want to practice breathwork for and how many counts you want for your inhale, hold, exhale, and hold. Hit start, and the app screen shows calming waves to mimic the rise, fall, and pauses of your breath.

We love the accessibility and simplicity of this visual-oriented app for in-the-moment calming, but if you prefer talk-guided breathwork, check out Othership or Breathwrk.

Tangerine

Free; iOS and Android

This habit- and mood-tracking app helps you stay accountable for the practices you know keep your anxiety levels down.

Displayed like a calendar, Tangerine allows you to input any habit, along with what time of day and how many times per week you like to complete it.

Each day, you check off the habits you completed, rate your mood on a simple smiley face scale, and add a few journal notes about what made your day good or bad.

It’s helpful on its own for accountability with healthy habits, but for an extra $5 per month, you can access insights and stats to see how your routine affected your mood, and to see trends.

Sanvello

$9/mo, iOS and Android

Sanvello combines many of the aforementioned science-backed therapies into one app. It:

Tracks your mood, exercise, and sleep every day
Offers expert-designed guided journeys based on things like mindfulness and CBT
Has a library of tools to help with specific, anxiety-inducing situations like public speaking or morning dread

Then, it offers a report to show correlations between your daily mood ratings and the activities you did—or didn’t—do.

Build yourself up, bit by bit.

While doing five minutes of box breathing will definitely help calm you down in the moment, substantial changes to your baseline levels of stress will only happen when you practice these tools regularly (likely daily).

Additionally, because apps are designed to be universally helpful—a kind of “one size fits all” approach—they work best for minor stress and anxiety.

However, many people benefit from deeper and more individualized support—particularly from another human. That’s why we created PN Level 1 Sleep, Stress Management, and Recovery Certification. It gives you the tools, know-how, and skills needed to help yourself (and others) cope better with life’s many stressors, improve mental and emotional well-being, and gain the capacity to make meaningful health and fitness changes

But apps are a great, accessible place to start.

Even if you only have one minute a day, build in your stress management reps, just like you might build in reps at the squat rack.

Every time you practice being mindful, regulating your breathing, or moving your body in a way that relieves tension, you get stronger and more skilled at that practice.

Over time, you become more effective at managing stress. One day, you might even call yourself a mental health athlete.

References

Click here to view the information sources referenced in this article.

Khademian, Fatemeh, Azam Aslani, and Peivand Bastani. 2020. “The Effects of Mobile Apps on Stress, Anxiety, and Depression: Overview of Systematic Reviews.” International Journal of Technology Assessment in Health Care 37 (December): e4.
Gál, Éva, Simona Ștefan, and Ioana A. Cristea. 2021. “The Efficacy of Mindfulness Meditation Apps in Enhancing Users’ Well-Being and Mental Health Related Outcomes: A Meta-Analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials.” Journal of Affective Disorders 279 (January): 131–42.
What is Cognitive Behavioral Therapy? (2017, July). American Psychological Association.
Hoge, Elizabeth A., Eric Bui, Sophie A. Palitz, Noah R. Schwarz, Maryann E. Owens, Jennifer M. Johnston, Mark H. Pollack, and Naomi M. Simon. 2018. “The Effect of Mindfulness Meditation Training on Biological Acute Stress Responses in Generalized Anxiety Disorder.” Psychiatry Research 262 (April): 328–32.
Lemay, Virginia, John Hoolahan, and Ashley Buchanan. 2019. “Impact of a Yoga and Meditation Intervention on Students’ Stress and Anxiety Levels.” American Journal of Pharmaceutical Education 83 (5): 7001.
Xiao Chaoqun, Mou Chunwei, and Zhou Xia. 2019. “Effect of mindfulness meditation training on anxiety, depression and sleep quality in perimenopausal women.” Nan fang yi ke da xue xue bao = Journal of Southern Medical University 39 (8): 998–1002.
Wang, Shu-Chen, Wen-Yu Hu, Lloyd Lalande, Jung-Chen Chang, Shao-Yu Tsai, Shu-Chuan Chang, and Tzung-Kuen Wen. 2022. “Evaluation of Guided Respiration Mindfulness Therapy (GRMT) for Reducing Stress in Nurses.” Journal of Holistic Nursing: Official Journal of the American Holistic Nurses’ Association, May, 8980101221094973.
Lau, Nancy, Alison O’Daffer, Susannah Colt, Joyce P. Yi-Frazier, Tonya M. Palermo, Elizabeth McCauley, and Abby R. Rosenberg. 2020. “Android and iPhone Mobile Apps for Psychosocial Wellness and Stress Management: Systematic Search in App Stores and Literature Review.” JMIR mHealth and uHealth 8 (5): e17798.

If you’re a health and fitness pro…

Learning how to help clients manage stress and optimize sleep can massively change your clients’ results.

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The brand-new PN Level 1 Sleep, Stress Management, and Recovery Coaching Certification will show you how.