- Meditation can help with anxiety, depression, chronic pain, high blood pressure, and sleep problems.
- Sarah Fielding, who's used Headspace before, tried the Calm app, which costs $69.99 for a year.
- She enjoyed the quick sleep meditations and meditation sets, but the app has some downsides.
- See more stories on Insider's business page.
In September 2016, my mental health was incredibly poor.
Each day was a struggle filled with intrusive thoughts, panic attacks, and depressive episodes – all terms I would soon learn but weren't yet part of my lexicon. I returned to therapy after years without it determined to get better.
A month later, I would receive a diagnosis of panic disorder from a psychiatrist, replacing ongoing confusion and fear with a concrete explanation.
Even before that appointment, my new therapist and I started to work on techniques to turn the days from sluggish pain to livable and, hopefully soon, good. One of the key lifestyle suggestions she gave on the path to this was meditation.
Research has shown that meditation can help with anxiety, depression, chronic pain, high blood pressure, and sleep problems, among other conditions. Up to this point, I'd meditated maybe a handful of times, far from anything consistent.
I began using Headspace, a popular meditation app, and noticed meditating, especially regularly, made a shockingly positive difference in my wellbeing. Four and a half years later, I've used the app on and off as one of many tools for managing my mental health.
I like Headspace a lot, but recently I've been curious about other options out there.
While my mental health is far from perfect, with longer days ahead and a small window into the pandemic's end in sight, now felt like a good time to try something new.
So, for the past month, I've become a Calm user. I'd be lying if I didn't admit that the company's satisfying ads of kinetic sand being gently cut wasn't part of the reason I gravitated toward it. If you've seen them, you know exactly what I mean.
First launched in 2012, Calm now has an estimated 2 million subscribers and 4 million downloads.
The year before, cofounder Alex Tews built a website called Do Nothing For Two Minutes, in which a clock counts down in front of a beach while wave sounds play.
In 2017, Calm won Apple's "App of the Year" award. In late 2020, the company raised $75 million at a valuation of $2 billion, according to TechCrunch, in a round led by Lightspeed Venture Partners and including investors like Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff.
A free trial includes the first day of all multiday meditations, a breathing exercise, and a sleep story. It also provides a mix of background sound options.
After the free trial ends, users who don't purchase a subscription maintain access to the above and a few other free options, such as "7 Days of Calm" and more sleep stories.
It costs $69.99 for a yearly subscription.
This full-access option includes a new daily Calm meditation, over 200 sleep stories, masterclasses with mindful experts, exclusive music tracks, and many hours of various meditations.
As a new user, I received 40% off, bringing my first year to $41.99. It's not clear if this offer is always an option for first-time sign-ups.
Interestingly, if you're committed to Calm for life, the app offers a one-time life purchase at $399.99 – the financial equivalent of fewer than six years of annual payments. I wasn't ready to commit that long, but it's not a bad deal for users who love the app.
Using Calm was an adjustment but exciting to explore.
When I first started using Calm, all I could focus on was the grasshopper-like noises. Playing whenever the app was open and during meditations, they were too distracting and not at all calming.
Thankfully, after a quick Google search, I realized that I could choose a new background sound from a wide selection of options and adjust its volume in a matter of seconds. My go-to is called "Gleaming Sunshine" and it creates such a pleasant soundtrack to my meditations.
I immediately gravitated toward meditation sets, completing the '7 Days of Calming Anxiety' and '7 Days of Managing Stress.'
The former started with a meditation called "The Present," which touched on the symptoms and prevalence of anxiety. It then dove into the idea of befriending anxiety rather than running from it in fear.
Later meditations in the set included "Non-Reactivity," "Nature of Change," and "Pausing." Each one focused on different techniques to manage and live in peace with anxiety, rather than letting it control your life.
Every session lasted about 12 to 13 minutes. The beginning details each provided about the related conditions threw me initially, but, especially for anyone less familiar with them, I think it's a great addition.
I also tried a few daily Calm and single meditations such as "Openness" and "Calm Light."
The quick sleep meditations were perfect to quiet my brain before bed.
I'd never used the sleep features on Headspace but, in the spirit of having a more well-rounded experience, I dove into Calm's sleep section.
I started with the "Sleep Stories." These are soothing tales generally lasting around 30 or 40 minutes in which a public figure talks about anything from "The Wizard of Oz" to adventuring in Antarctica. While I was eager to have Harry Styles lull me to sleep, I was surprised by how unnerving I found it in actuality. As Harry softly spoke about us taking this woodsy adventure together, all I could picture was him in a sound booth reading out a script.
If you're less likely to overanalyze it, I would still recommend giving it a try. Matthew McConaughey, Idris Elba, and Mandy Moore are among the other celebrities with recordings.
Instead, I was a big fan of the five-minute sleep meditation options, such as "Deep Sleep Release," and song medleys. As I recovered from my second COVID-19 vaccine, I delighted in falling asleep midday to Kacey Musgraves' "Golden Hour" sleep remix.
There's one downside to the sleep remixes and stories.
I didn't realize until after two days of only listening to sleep stories and music that it wouldn't count toward my streak.
Calm tracks how many days in a row you meditate and displays it under the stats section of your profile alongside total sessions and minutes mediated.
Apparently, only doing outright meditations keeps your streak alive. It also means that when I look at my history, these don't appear.
It was surprising, given that the app offers so many features outside of direct meditation. Of course, the streak doesn't really matter, but there's something satisfying about seeing your progress increase every day.
Nothing was a deal breaker, but there were some cons to the app for me.
Let me start by saying I would definitely recommend Calm to my friends, especially those looking for a comprehensive selection of calming exercises extending beyond meditation.
However, there are a few aspects of Calm I didn't like.
A big one was that I struggled to find a good meditation for waking up. Many meditations offered make you feel lighter, but on mornings that I feel especially groggy, I like having the option of a short meditation designed to wake you up. I couldn't find that on Calm.
In general, I found fewer options for meditations under 10 minutes, especially in series that tend to have only one choice for length.
Then there was the voice itself. The two primary narrators are Tamara Levitt, head of mindfulness at Calm, and John Armstrong, lecturer and fellow at Stanford University. I listened to one of them for each of the seven-day meditation sets I did.
Many of the other meditations defaulted to whomever I'd selected for that more extended meditation group. However, many of the one-off options had a new narrator.
I can see many people enjoying the mix of voices, but I like having one or two voices that I associate with meditating, whereas regularly hearing new voices felt a little jarring. Maybe that's just me being less used to communicating with new people at all right now.
As a whole, I enjoyed Calm, and starting a new meditation service felt like a needed refresh.
I'm excited to continue exploring the app and hopefully find a sleep story that peacefully knocks me out.
I'm not sure yet if I'll stick with it after that or return to Headspace, but luckily I have 11 more months to decide.