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Can Your Smartphone Help You Feel Less Lonely?

by Gretchen Brown
March 5, 2019 | Health

Smartphones get a bad rap.

They’re making us scroll like zombies! We’re terrified of missing out! We’re anxious and depressed! They’ve caused a mental health crisis!

While that’s all true, a new study suggests mindfulness training — completed on a smartphone, no less — can actually help make us less lonely and more social.

What is mindfulness?

Mindfulness is a practice of both being fully aware of a present moment and fully accepting of it.

It’s trendy. There are more Americans practicing meditation and doing yoga than ever before.

Illustration of person meditating in front of large brain. Feel Less Lonely pbs rewire
Mindfulness is popular, which means it’s easy to get it wrong. The practice is more than just a buzzword.

“I think that it's really up and coming in the therapeutic world,” said Kristin Anderson, a psychotherapist at Family Services of Westchester in New York. “It can allow people to accept where they are, and also accept that feelings are a temporary thing.”

For the study, 153 “stressed” adult smartphone owners were enrolled in one of three smartphone-based training programs to deal with their stress.

One app taught participants to both monitor and concentrate on their current experiences, as well as accept those experiences.

A second app just taught people to monitor their experiences, and said nothing about accepting them.

A third app used neither mindfulness technique, instead teaching people coping skills for managing stress, such as how to look at past experiences in a different way.

Researchers found that the people who were specifically taught to not just keep track of their experiences, but also accept them, were less lonely and more social.

“If you think about it, loneliness is a subjective experience, it’s uncomfortable, there’s kind of an empty feeling that’s associated with feeling lonely. This can also cause distress,” said Emily Lindsay, a postdoctoral research scientist at University of Pittsburgh.

Lindsay led the study as a grad student at Carnegie Mellon University.

“Eventually if you allow (those feelings) to be there, they kind of peter out and diminish over time,” she said.

Loneliness, the main feeling the study targeted, is a public health issue in and of itself.

“Really across the board we know, we have pretty robust evidence that loneliness is associated with poor health and early death,” Lindsay said.

According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, 22 percent of U.S. adults report feeling lonely always or often. Young people struggle with loneliness more than any other age group.

A 2012 University of California-San Francisco study found that lonely adults were 45 percent more likely to die earlier than their non-lonely peers.

Phones have historically been a tool to help with loneliness, connecting people with distant relatives and friends across town or across the country.

Social media on our smartphones has taken this one step further. But it has also been linked to increased loneliness, suggesting that feeling constantly connected isn’t the solution.

Your smartphone is a tool

There have been studies looking at mindfulness in the past.

But one of the things that made this study unique was its use of smartphones to conduct the training and collect data, versus having everyone meet up and discuss mindfulness as a group.

“It’s hard to know from that sort of format if people are just in a group discussing mindfulness each week, if social contact is actually part of that effect, or if it’s unique to the mindfulness techniques,” Lindsay said.

While this study doesn’t prove a smartphone app is just as effective as in-person mindfulness programs, it does suggest that mindfulness apps can have a positive effect.

The app used in the study isn’t yet available for personal use. But there are a handful of meditation apps that already exist on the market.

One app, Brightmind, actually uses researcher Shinzen Young’s mindfulness approach.

There’s also apps like Headspace and Calm, which are increasingly popular for meditation and mindfulness.

These apps will guide you through meditation or breathing exercises tailored for different situations. They will read you stories or play sounds to help you relax or fall asleep.

These are apps Anderson often recommends to her clients.

“In conjunction with therapy and other medical help, I think it’s a great tool,” Anderson said.

She also recommends clients look for guided meditations on YouTube, another free option.

Anderson has begun using mindfulness techniques with her own clients as well, especially the acceptance piece.

“I think very often, what clients try to do, is they’re trying to fight whatever they’re feeling,” she said. “'I don’t want to be feeling lonely,' 'I don’t want to be feeling anxious.' Very often that actually magnifies that negative feeling.”

Accepting that you have negative feelings, and knowing they will pass is powerful.

Making mental wellness accessible

Mindfulness is popular, which means it’s easy to get it wrong. The practice is more than just a buzzword.

But its popularity also means that mindfulness and meditation is more accessible than ever.

While Headspace is a paid subscription app, it costs less than $100 a year. That’s inexpensive compared to in-person therapy, which can cost up to $250 out-of-pocket per session.

Anderson said these apps work best as part of a larger treatment plan. But they’re definitely one piece of the puzzle in a country where mental healthcare is largely unaffordable and rarely covered in full by insurers.

Do you have a favorite free mental health tool or resource? Share it with us in the comments.

Gretchen Brown
Gretchen Brown is an editor for Rewire. She’s into public media, music and really good coffee. Email her at [email protected], or follow her on Twitter @gretch_brown.
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