Is the Calm App a Must-Have for Supporting Your Mental Health?

By David GallagherLast Updated Oct 6, 2020 6:44:55 PM ET
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These days, we could all use a little more calm. But this type of calm is more than just the feeling of serenity we’re trying to achieve in this (metaphorically) stormy world. Calm is also a widely successful meditation app that’s helping millions of people relax, focus and sleep. It has been dubbed "the world’s happiest app" by the Center for Humane Technology. With the current chaos sweeping the globe, it’s no wonder there have been over 50 million downloads and counting.

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Not only has Calm become a household name for those looking to learn the art of meditation, but it’s also seeking to help people tackle workplace burnout — the app has recently launched a new initiative to become part of corporate employee benefits packages. It even has its own series, A World of Calm, on HBO Max. But is the app really that beneficial to a person’s mental health, or is it all a clever business model in an unhealthy world?

What Makes the Calm App a Must-Have?

The Calm app aims to help users learn how to meditate and master the art of mindfulness — the ability to focus on, acknowledge and accept your current feelings instead of worrying about the future or past. Through various audio programs, classes and visuals within the app, you can learn how to de-stress and sleep better. Calm offers guided visualization exercises you can use to meditate or wind down from a stressful situation, and it also displays nature scenes to help you relax if you prefer visual cues. In addition, you can listen to stories, playlists and other relaxing sounds on the app to help you sleep, read, study or work.

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With Calm, you can take a mindful meditation class with a world-renowned expert, learn gentle stress-busting stretches and set yourself up for a good night’s sleep with peaceful bedtime tales. If you’re having trouble falling asleep or staying asleep, this app might be your ticket to a better snooze. There’s also a Calm Kids application that offers soothing sounds, music and stories to help little ones drift off to sleep faster. Finally, Calm claims to boost confidence and self-esteem by helping you release limiting beliefs you may hold about yourself via guided programs that teach you techniques for challenging your thoughts and enhancing your self-acceptance.

Is There Science Backing Calm?

It’s nice to know that the Calm app has so many tools aiming to help people achieve a life of less stress, better sleep and more self-worth. But what goes into creating those tools, and how do we know they work? The company has a dedicated science team — aptly named Calm Science — that performs research on and with the app and has published several studies about the program’s efficacy. According to the app’s website, the team "works closely with a group of distinguished academic researchers and clinicians who guide and review [the team’s] efforts to ensure...offerings are scientifically sound and effective."

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Calm’s Scientific Advisory Board includes members with PhDs in a wide range of disciplines, such as psychology, nursing, biobehavioral sciences and psychiatry. All of the members have experience working in clinical and university settings, and most have also studied or worked in the field of neuroscience in some capacity. Their experience and specialization have equipped them to better conduct research and evaluate scientific literature, with the end goal of determining what’s most helpful (and scientifically sound) to add to the app. The Scientific Advisory Board’s members also work with other researchers and with healthcare providers to build partnerships.

Calm has hired professionals to ensure its offerings are valid and backed by research, which gives some reassurance that following the programs on the app really can help reduce stress. But what about independent verification? While the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley notes that most research so far has centered on Headspace, a Calm competitor, "studies are indeed pointing to potential benefits for our stress, emotions and relationships" when it comes to mindfulness apps. It’s well-known that mindfulness-based interventions are valid and can benefit everything from sleep to immune health, but the jury’s still out on just how helpful digital programs can be. UC Berkeley sums it up nicely: Study findings thus far "may not be as conclusive as app marketers would have you believe — but they do suggest you should at least consider trying one [of these apps]."

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How Is Calm Different From the Competition?

While there are plenty of mental health, meditation and sleep apps on the market, Calm has a deeper set of offerings. Not only can you track your sleep, fitness stats and time spent meditating or listening to soothing audio, but you can also track your feelings. The app has a built-in mood tracker, along with reminders you can set so you record your information consistently and discover trends in your state of mind. It’s easy to get caught up in the stressors of daily life; this is especially true given the current climate of the world. The Calm app’s wheel of feelings in the mood tracker can help you identify and keep tabs on your emotions. Later, you can look back on your experiences and potentially reflect on what made you feel the way you did.

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Despite the competition from apps such as Headspace and Stop, Breathe & Think, Calm has consistently remained at the top. The main differentiator between it and other apps is that Calm offers fewer formal meditations and more options for other ways to learn. You won’t have as structured an experience and can pick and choose what you think will suit you best for a given situation or feeling. This can be less intimidating for beginners but also more freeing for experienced meditators. You’ll also see some extra perks that other apps typically don’t include, such as guided sleep remedies, ambient music and celebrity narrators. Actress Laura Dern and singer-songwriter Kelly Rowland, among many others, have joined Calm as celebrity narrators.

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The sleep stories for children are also particularly popular. Every parent has struggled through the battle of the bedtime story at least once — while you’re barely awake yourself, your little one is asking for one more story. The sleep stories on Calm are narrated by soothing voices and aim to help you or your child drift off to sleep without thinking too much about it.

The cost is another factor to consider — and a differentiator — when you’re evaluating these apps. In terms of competition, the two most popular players in the meditation and mental health arenas are Calm and Headspace. According to The Wall Street Journal, these two apps account for 85% of the $1.2 billion wellness and meditation app market. Price-wise, Calm offers a free seven-day trial and a premium-access subscription that costs around $70 annually. You can also pay a one-time fee of about $400 for unlimited lifetime access. Headspace gives you a free 14-day trial and an option to pay about $13 a month or $70 a year for a subscription. In addition to all the features it offers, Calm’s lifetime subscription may be appealing if you decide you love the app and plan to use it on a very long-term basis.

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The True Cost of Stress in Trying Times

It’s no secret that the more you’re stressed out, the higher your risk can get of developing health issues. From insomnia to anxiety to depression, stress can lead to both mental and physical conditions. When you’re anxious and mentally overloaded, you may find yourself overeating or having trouble sleeping, and developing various health conditions can raise your overall need to receive (and pay for) healthcare.

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The effects of stress can be expensive and wreak havoc on your mind, body and wallet. While there’s no substitute for help from a trained medical professional, the stress-relieving media in the Calm app could help keep your anxiety levels lower than they would be otherwise.

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Stress can also cost you time. If you’re feeling burnt out or mentally and physically exhausted, you may start staying home from work or missing out on life. Burnout is real, and it could cost you relationships with your employer, your friends, your family and yourself in the long run. But even more than that, it can keep you from enjoying life — and getting the most happiness from your days is important, especially as we attempt to navigate the shifting "new normal" in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.

Doing what you can to limit stress, particularly in the trying times we’re living in, can save you from financial and emotional anguish, and even taking a small step by downloading the app could inspire you to adopt a long-term wellness routine or seek a higher level of help if you need it. If nothing else, downloading the app and seeing how much you get out of Calm during the free trial is a worthwhile investment of your time.

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Making the Most of Employee Benefits

Spikes in turnover due to an over-stressed workforce can cost employers millions in recruiting new employees, hiring temporary workers, re-hiring new trainees and making unused vacation payouts. The folks at Calm are hoping to help combat these issues — and help both employees and employers — through the Calm for Business venture.

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According to the American Institute of Stress, some of the main causes of stress in the workplace include juggling work-life balance (according to 20% of respondents), having a high workload (46% of respondents), dealing with people (28% of respondents) and worrying about job security (6% of respondents). When employees are overworked, tired and too stressed, they may be more prone to burn out — to develop that state of exhaustion that arises from enduring high levels of work-related stress for long periods. Instead of taking some time for self-care, burnt-out employees keep working until they become too exhausted to function, and they may even quit altogether.

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This is exactly what Calm for Business is trying to tackle. One of the app company’s newest endeavors involves providing free access to the Calm app to employees. A business owner or corporation can bundle Calm for Business in its benefits package and give employees free access to the stress-busting app and its myriad features. By giving employees easy access to its library of de-stressors, it’s Calm’s goal to decrease workplace burnout. A recent study published by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health reports that 40% of respondents feel their jobs are extremely stressful, with 25% saying that their jobs are the number-one sources of stress in their lives. From these numbers, it’s easy to see how workers could benefit from even a small effort to reduce stress, particularly that surrounding their employment.

Ultimately, it’s up to you to decide whether to use the Calm app yourself or, if you’re involved with a company, provide Calm to employees. But one thing is for sure: The app is a welcome stress reliever in this unprecedented year, whether you test it out for a little bit or it becomes an integral part of your day-to-day living — and hopefully thriving.

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