SPECIAL FROM Next Avenue
I need to relax. And so, my fellow 50-plus-ers, do you. Between our own Everest-size to-do list, phone calls from the kids asking if we can get their old trading card collections out of the attic and our parents asking us to help them download apps, we could all use a ’script for some chill pills.
Of course, you’re not surprised that there’s an app for that. Hundreds, in fact. I personally undertook the task of reviewing many of them and came up with this list of 10 free (or really cheap) apps that can help you unwind, clear your head, get your blood pressure back in the normal range and maybe, finally, get a good night’s sleep.
Apps to Manage Stress
Platform: Android, Apple iPhone and iPad (free)
Created by a team of psychologists and researchers using Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, this app helps you identify then, it's hoped, relieve some of your daily pressures. Track your moods and tension sources and learn what makes you anxious. By identifying those moments, you can better deal with stressors — or, ideally, avoid them in the first place. What impressed me about this app: the scholarship and experts behind its data.
GPS for the Soul
Platform: Apple iPhone and iPad (free)
This app, created by Arianna Huffington and Deepak Chopra, operates a bit like biofeedback. Place your fingertip over your phone camera lens, and the app’s built-in sensor will measure your heart rate and its variability. Then, factoring in your age, weight and gender, the app displays your stress level, indicated along a color spectrum that corresponds to an emotional state. It then offers you ways to help lower stress, like listening to calming music or viewing relaxing photos (or family pictures).
At the same time, a pacer will help regulate your breathing as soon as you sign into the app. Watch your screen to see a "pulse" — a slightly darkened area of the background shape like a sine curve — go up and down. Follow the curve as it rises and falls, breathing in and out. As you steady your breaths, you are already de-stressing.
Squeeze and Shake Stress Relief
Platform: iPhone ($0.99)
This virtual stress ball looks and squeaks like a rubber ducky when you squeeze the screen. Shake the phone while pressing the sides and you also get a hand massage while the phone vibrates. The faster you shake, the more vigorous the kneading. Low-tech stress balls have been around forever — some people say they work simply because you’re doing a simple repetitive movement. You may want to do your shaking and vibrating in this virtual version behind closed doors. But once you step back out, your family or co-workers may seem a lot less annoying.
Platform: Android, Apple iPhone and iPad (free)
Mental health experts maintain that diaphragmatic breathing is a cornerstone of stress relief. Breathe2Relax guides you through the process with clear videos that help you practice and master the technique. Plug in your headphones and inhale/exhale your way through a dental appointment or turbulent flight. (The app can be used in airplane mode.)
Apps to Fall and Stay Asleep
Platform: Android, Apple iPhone and iPad ($1.99)
Dr. Oz loves this app and it’s clear why. Let’s say you’re on a plane and need a power nap, but the infant two rows behind you is loudly expressing its unhappiness. What to do? Plug in your headphones and let the comforting sound of waves crashing on a beach lull you to sleep. I used to travel with a white noise machine in anticipation of “that family” near me on a flight or next to me in a hotel. Now I just stick my iPhone into a radio dock and select one of 40 relaxing sounds (more are available through an in-app purchase). You can use it with your phone alarm so it turns off by itself.
Platform: iPhone ($1.99)
Fans of this app can't say enough good things about it. To start, set your phone beside you on the mattress. The app's built-in sensor will work with the iPhone's accelerometer to monitor movement and determine which sleep phase you are in and record the levels of your sleep cycle. It then creates a graph showing the “quality” of your snooze. You can use the data to figure out, for instance, if drinking tea or soda in the evening or watching the 11 p.m. news disrupts your sleep.
You'll awake more easily when you're in light sleep (and generally feel better the rest of the day), so the app has a 30-minute window before your set alarm time, and it will wake you when you are in your lightest sleep phase. You might have half an hour less sleep than if you slept through to your alarm, but you'll wake feeling more refreshing.
Sleepbot, a similar but bare-boned free app for Android, also tracks your sleep patterns and wakes you at a “good” time.
Apps to Chill Out
Platform: Android ($.99), iPhone 4S (and above) and iPad (2 or above): free
Talk about a heavenly way to relax: new-agey music (that sounds like it was written in outer space) plus gorgeous time-lapse photography of Earth captured by NASA astronauts on the International Space Station. Touch the views to control the speed of the images. You can also use the clock and worldwide weather info capabilities to turn the app into a night-table companion. It’s a perfect way to step outside your head for a few minutes — plus, it puts your personal worries in a much vaster context.
Platform: iPhone (free)
This app teaches the Silva Method of relaxation, which involves “centering” yourself through meditation. Choose the 30-minute deep relaxation track or the 20-minute quick relaxation. Both are led by Laura, who has a lovely, soothing voice. I don’t know if this method is superior to others, but the reviews are excellent — and Laura definitely chilled me out. The app is free because (I suspect) they’re hoping to up-sell you a fee-based program. But what you can get on the free app provides a great get-away-from-it-all experience. Android has a free app called Relax With Andrew Johnson Lite. I haven’t tried it, but the description says it uses self-hypnosis.
Apps for Fun
Platform: iPhone and iPad ($1.99)
Personally, I hate aquariums. In my experience, they’re home to more dead fish than live ones. But scientific research shows that watching fish glide by can lower blood pressure, reduce heart rate and make you feel happy. That’s why so many dentist office waiting rooms have a tropical fish tank. This app uses videos of actual fish — not the more common animated ones. You can choose your favorites from 28 species and adjust foreground and background lighting. Best of all, these fish never die.
Platform: iPhone and iPad (free)
If counting sheep helps you fall asleep, this simple, mesmerizing app will get you to the kingdom of nod in no time. The sheep are cartoonish creatures who wear funny expressions, but plenty of (the many) reviewers said, “It worked for me.” There are several similar apps for Android, but the cutest one is in Italian.
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Linda Bernstein has written hundreds of articles for dozens of magazines and newspapers, writes the blog GenerationBsquared and teaches social media at the Columbia University School of Journalism.