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3 unexpected benefits of using mindfulness apps

While reducing your mind’s tendency to wander can be a valuable result, it’s not the only benefit you might see.

3 unexpected benefits of using mindfulness apps
[Photo: JD Mason/Unsplash]

If you’re one of the millions of people who’ve downloaded a mindfulness app like Calm or Headspace, you’re probably using it to train your brain to focus in the moment. The apps guide you through meditations, and research has shown that they actually do help you improve your attention span. Studies collected by researchers at University of California, Berkeley found that users report feeling a greater amount of positive emotions, as well as fewer burdens brought on by external demands after just 100 minutes of practice.

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While reducing your mind’s tendency to wander can be a valuable result from using a mindfulness app, it’s not the only benefit you might see. Studies have shown that users get a few unexpected bonuses, too. Here are three improvements that might have you downloading an app:

Less stress

Research from Carnegie Mellon University published in Psychoneuroendocrinology found that regular use of a mindfulness app can provide stress intervention when you’re in a pressure-filled situation. The study found evidence that smartphone meditation app usage reduces cortisol levels, as well as systolic blood pressure in response to stress. But there’s one catch: You’ve also got to practice acceptance, which is being open and accepting of the way things are.

Researchers tested 144 stressed adults using an app created by meditation teacher Shinzen Young. Some were trained to monitor the present moment with acceptance while others were trained to monitor the present moment only. After completing one 20-minute mindfulness lesson a day for two weeks, the participants were put into a stressful situation while researchers measured their cortisol levels and blood pressure. Those who had practiced the monitoring and acceptance program had reduced cortisol and systolic blood pressure reactivity.

“Not only were we able to show that acceptance is a critical part of mindfulness training, but we’ve demonstrated for the first time that a short, systematic smartphone mindfulness program helps to reduce the impact of stress on the body,” said Emily Lindsay, a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Pittsburgh who conducted the study, in a release. “We all experience stress in our lives, but this study shows that it’s possible to learn skills that improve the way our bodies respond to stress with as little as two weeks of dedicated practice.”

Better social relationships

Another CMU study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests that smartphone-based mindfulness training can alleviate the feeling of loneliness and motivate individuals to participate in more social interaction. Again, you’ve got to use them in conjunction with acceptance training. In this study, participants were trained to respond to uncomfortable experiences by saying “yes” in a gentle tone of voice, while maintaining an open mind.

“Learning to be more accepting of your experience, even when it’s difficult, can have carryover effects on your social relationships. When you are more accepting toward yourself, it opens you up to be more available to others,” said J. David Creswell, associate professor of psychology in CMU’s Dietrich College of Humanities and Social Sciences, in a release.

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After two weeks of smartphone-based mindfulness training, participants reported that they reduced daily life loneliness by 22% and increased social contact by an average of two interactions each day.

Improved memory

With so much information coming at you all day, it’s not only hard to focus; it’s difficult to retain what you learn—and a mindfulness app might be able to help. In a study conducted at the University of California, San Francisco and published in Nature, researchers tested two groups, giving one a mediation app and the other foreign language, tai chi, or a logic game app. Each group used the app for 20 minutes a day.

After six weeks, participants were given memory tests. Participants who’d used the meditation app scored higher on tests of working memory. Researchers also used an EEG and found evidence of changes in brain functions that supported memory improvement.

The benefits of mindfulness training continue to be discovered. If 20-minute sessions seem too long for you, experts say you can start small and work your way up. Mindfulness is like building a muscle; you become stronger the longer you continue to train. Whether it’s managing stress, remembering important information, or filling your social calendar, the work you put in can pay off in a variety of ways.

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