“Mindfulness” is one of those terms – like “light exercise” or “gratitude journal” – that you get used to hearing often when you go public with your mental illness. To be honest, I’ve historically been pretty dependent upon prescription medications for relief, and while that might not be ideal, I’m less than enthusiastic about most other methods…particularly those that present themselves as items to add to my to-do list. Last week, though, I found myself with suddenly skyrocketing anxiety and looking for self-help options that wouldn’t involve an extra trip to the psychiatrist. That’s when I figured it was probably about time I tried something new.
Enter Aura, a highly-rated mindfulness app that offers once-daily, three-minute sessions of guided meditation, calming sounds, mood tracking, and even a super simple gratitude e-journal. It’s free if you don’t mind foregoing premium features like longer, on-demand meditation sessions and lifetime “full” mood tracking (whatever that means), which was fine with me.
I downloaded the app with a mostly reasonable amount of skepticism. Meditation, as far as I knew, involved sitting perfectly still with your eyes closed in a quiet room, which is how I start most naps. I did not need an app for that. Still, after a quick self-evaluation, the welcome screen promised relief from stress, anxiety, and depression, so it seemed like it was worth a shot.
(Don’t mind the occasional out-of-order timestamps on my iPhone screenshots…I had to go back and capture some things after they first popped up.)
I jumped right into my first meditation session: “4-Part Breathing & Thoughts Come & Go.” Without easy access to a quiet room, I stayed at my desk with my headphones in and closed my eyes when prompted. This was the hardest part, because I was convinced that in those three minutes a coworker was bound to start talking to me and crash the non-party in my head. That never actually happened, but I kept opening my eyes to check anyway. Self-imposed distractions aside, I found this first session pretty relaxing. A nondescript female voice faded in over a piano intro, telling me when to inhale and exhale. Once a minute or so had gone by, she added other instructions, like to acknowledge any thoughts that popped up and let them come and go. It was over before I knew it, and when the “How are you feeling?” screen appeared, I recorded an honest, straight-faced “Neutral,” which I guess is better than I felt before…or at least not any worse. Then I apparently leveled up(!!), so that’s nice. I still don’t know what the levels mean in terms of my overall experience with Aura.
Over the next few days, I stuck with a daily meditation at 11:00am, which is usually a stressful time for me because I’m both hungry and realizing that the morning is almost over and I still have a lot to do. I remained pretty neutral about my three-minute sessions, especially when I realized that a) the paid version has cooler features, like unlimited customized sessions; and b) that I absolutely couldn’t afford it. Not a huge deal, because the free version of the app is fine, but you have to wonder how much better it could be for $12 per month.
I was, however, pleasantly surprised by how much I liked the option to save a note about what you’re grateful for that day. Even on Tuesday, when I was not loving work, it was helpful to remind myself that things weren’t so bad after all and I still had reasons to feel fortunate.
For me, the best thing about Aura is this thing called a “Mindful Break,” which is three deep breaths guided by a growing and shrinking circle on the screen, but no mystery woman telling you what to do. It wasn’t until I was focused solely on taking deep breaths that I realized how incredibly shallow my natural breaths are, especially when I’m anxious or otherwise “busy” coping with daily stress/the weight of my own existence. Even on days when I’ve skipped my 11:00 meditation (oops), I’ve found myself stopping to take slow, deep breaths when my chest starts to feel tight and I’m getting dizzy from not letting in enough air. Prime times for this include when I’m about to go into a meeting, when I get in my car to drive, when I enter a room full of people, and sometimes when I’m about to get on particular horses. The effects sometimes last and sometimes don’t, but it’s a good way to at least lessen the discomfort that a big wave of anxiety brings and to conclude that I’m not actually in immediate danger, even when my body seems to think otherwise.
I should note that I also appreciate the selection of calming sounds that the free version of Aura includes, even though that feature hasn’t become a part of my daily life – probably because I’m pretty content with the white noise of the traffic outside my office.
So, has Aura reached the status of instant favorite and changed my life for the better? Not quite. But it has made me more open to trying things that don’t come from a pharmacist, and I’m happy to report that I actually am capable of closing my eyes and shutting out the world for a few minutes without falling asleep immediately. Not bad for a free download!