My month with Headspace: Martha Neary

Martha Neary is the Project Coordinator of PsyberGuide. She is based at Northwestern University as a member of Northwestern’s Center for Behavioral Intervention Technologies. She has a strong interest and background in child mental health. Her research interests also include reducing healthcare disparities among minority populations and integrating technology into mental health interventions.

I am not a meditator. I would like to be. I like the idea of meditation, but have little personal experience of regular meditation. My parents, however, are avid meditators; my mother meditates at least 30 minutes nearly every day, so I have decided that this makes me Zen by association (it definitely doesn’t). My month with Headspace was the first time I meditated consistently. Through this practice, I meditated for 4 hours over 30 sessions. There were a lot of things I liked about the app, and some things I didn’t.

From an aesthetic point of view, I love how the app looks. It has nice colors and animations, it was fun to use and easy to navigate through. I liked the voice on the meditation tracks (Andy Puddicombe, Headspace co-founder). I found it soothing, more casual and informal than other guided meditations I’ve heard, and unlike Stephen, I enjoyed the British accent (this may, however, be because I’m Irish, and reluctantly admit that the British accent made me feel at least a little closer to home).

As a beginner meditator, I appreciated how the app eased me into meditating. The first 10 sessions were 3, 5, or 10 minutes. Longer meditations, even 15 or 20 minutes, have seemed somewhat intimidating in the past, so these were a more manageable starting point. After the first sessions, the meditations did get longer (10-20 minutes). But by the time this happened, my Headspace honeymoon period had fizzled. I found the longer meditations repetitive. I couldn’t push myself through the 3 beginner packs the app recommends starting with, so I completed 2 basic packs and moved onto the Happiness pack.

In my limited meditation experience, I always felt that I was doing meditation ‘wrong’ by being distracted by other thoughts. Headspace assured me that was ok (and even normal)! One of the core mantras of the app is that it’s not possible for us to block all thoughts. Instead when our minds wander, we can gently bring them back to focus. This is illustrated by a clever exercise (accompanied by the cute animation below); “Imagine yourself sitting by a busy highway. Cars continue to pass by. You can choose to sit there and notice the cars without focusing on any of them, or you can follow a car down the road.” This non-judgmental approach was perfect for a beginner meditator (and self-confessed perfectionist) like me.

Admittedly, I enjoyed being a little part of the Headspace craze. I discovered that many of my friends were also using the app, which was motivating.  The Headspace ‘buddy’ network is not necessarily something I tapped into though; I didn’t discover this feature until near the end of my month, which brings me to what I didn’t like about the app. After a month of using Headspace, I still don’t think I have explored all of the features. The quantity of content is extremely impressive: there are packs for health, happiness, work and performance, sport, as well as single meditations for rough days, anxious moments, travel. However, at times I felt overwhelmed by so much content.  I avoided exploring new tracks as I didn’t want to sift through the options, and didn’t have enough information to choose the most relevant one.  Maybe that’s because I wasn’t being as savvy a user as I should have been, and it’s certainly a good complaint to have, but I would have liked a more guidance to work through the app and discover the features most relevant for me. In an ideal world, this app would ask me ‘How are you feeling today?’ and based on my response, guide me to the appropriate tracks.

Being a very evidence-focused person, I would have also liked some feature to track my progress. After a month of meditating, do I actually feel calmer, less stressed, happier? It’s hard to tell. My final qualm with the app is that I think it’s expensive. After the 10-day free trial, subscription is $12.95 per month or $95.88 per year (USD). I’m a huge advocate for investing in your mental health, I’m just not convinced that this is a worthwhile investment for me personally. I take time to destress and take care of my mental health by taking walks, spending time outside, or reading. I find these more enjoyable, more effective, and they’re free. Maybe Headspace is just not for me, or maybe I just didn’t reap all of the potential benefits due to issues around navigation and content overload.

Meditation is a very personal thing. This is a great app, it’s beautifully designed and has an abundance of content, but I struggled to turn my daily meditations into a routine. Once the novelty of the first 10 days of meditating wore off, I found the meditations repetitive and struggled to complete them. I don’t know that any other app would have led to a different outcome. There is a myriad of meditation apps out there which I’m interested to explore (many reviewed on PsyberGuide, like Calm, Potential Project, Smiling Mind, to name a few). I’m not yet convinced that Headspace is the best one, although it is the best marketed and widely used. Sure, it was nice to take 10 minutes each day to sit quietly, without my phone or computer or other distractions, and that’s something I’ll try continue to do. I just don’t know if I necessarily need Headspace, or a paid monthly subscription, to do that.

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