Smartphones can be a gateway to stress and anxiety, but these apps can help you unwind
The iPhone is an amazing innovation, but it comes at a price: your work is always with you, and your phone may incessantly bug you with notifications. You may feel you never get a moment’s peace to relax and take your mind off of things.
This roundup is all about apps that give you a little space. They’re designed to help you find inner calm, or do so as a side benefit. They also don’t load you down with subscriptions and lengthy processes to learn. Instead, they’re immediate and easy to slot into your day.
So download this selection to make spare moments more pleasurable and soothing, knock back stress, and leave you better able to cope with the real world once it again descends.
Breathing and meditation
Five great apps for when you need to take a breather, or fancy getting your mindfulness on.
Free • v1.1 • 95.6 MB • By ReachOut Australia
Slowing and regulating breathing can be key to reducing stress and anxiety. However, some apps overcomplicate things, or are prescriptive, with rigid breathing cycles you can’t adjust. ReachOut Breathe hits a sweet spot, with a friendly, usable interface, and configuration options to fine-tune everything to your needs.
You can choose how long an exercise lasts, and define times for breathing in, holding, breathing out, and holding again. The default interaction requires you press the screen as you breathe in and release when you breathe out, which helps you focus. If you’re not keen, turn on vibrations in the settings to avoid this interaction.
In all, this is a no-brainer freebie when you need an iPhone app to help you relax.
Breathe+ Simple Breath Trainer
Free or $2/£2 • v1.3.4 •68.2 MB • By Dynamic App Design LLC
This app’s in a similar space to ReachOut Breathe, but includes usage tracking. Again, you can define breath cycle settings and your session length. A visualization that resembles abstract waves guides your timing, and you can add phone vibrations and/or audio cues as well.
Although the interface is resolutely minimal during exercises, tapping the display temporarily shows how far into a session you are, and how many cycles you’ve completed. And when you’re done, you can track your history – assuming you pay the one-off IAP. But even if you stick with the free version, Breathe+ does the job, and is a useful alternative if ReachOut doesn’t click.
$2/£1.49 • v1.4 • 77.2 MB • By PauseAble
Pause’s developers claim it’s “based on the ancient principles of Tai Chi and mindfulness practice”, and it’s ultimately a simple app about helping you relax and focus through slow, continuous movements.
It starts off like an interactive lava lamp, having you use a finger to track a blob around the screen. Said blob slowly fills the display, at which point you’re invited to close your eyes, but continue moving your finger.
The ambient sounds are lovely, and you can adjust the duration of the experience. As for the science, that’s up for debate; but even if it’s a placebo, Pause really does help you unwind.
Oak – Meditation & Breathing
Free • v1.3.0 • 112.2 MB • By Courtney Circle
Most meditation apps come saddled with massive subscription fees. Oak is different, inviting you in for a free bout of meditation, breathing or wisdom.
All three sections are a bit light on content: Wisdom has just five videos; Breathe has three exercises and lacks the flexibility of the breathing apps mentioned elsewhere; and Meditate has you select from mindful or unguided meditations of various lengths, backed – as relevant – with a commentary or audio track.
This could have all felt like My First Meditation App, but Oak’s simplicity and elegance are a winning combination. It’s easy to get into and beautifully designed; also, the sapling on the entry screen grows as you use the app, providing an incentive to return.
Free • v3.2.2 • 49.3 MB • By Smiling Mind
Should you feel you’ve exhausted Oak, or just want something more, Smiling Mind is an excellent option. Again, the app is entirely free, but Smiling Mind has a range of programs, designed with different kinds of users in mind, including children, teenagers, adults, sportspeople, and those in the workplace.
The interface could at times be a bit clearer – despite all the tasteful gradients, actually finding your way around takes a while. But once you’re in the zone, you’ll find the meditations effective and easy to follow, and the app logs your activity in a built-in dashboard, and lets you flag favorite sessions so you can try them again later.
Relaxing with sound
If all you need to relax is some ambient audio, this selection of apps will be music to your ears, so to speak.
$1/£1 • v4.3.1 • 95.7 MB • By Franz Bruckhoff
Unwanted noise can be a source of stress. Windy is designed to help you sleep, relax, focus, or meditate by masking what’s going on around you.
The app tells a story across several scenes of parallax paintings; but the sounds are the important bit – high-quality winds recorded in 3D audio, to which you can mix in rain, river and animal noises. Through speakers, it’s pleasant, but use headphones and Windy is transformative, immersing you in its tranquil environment.
If you like it, check out the rest of the suite: Away, Rainy, Sunny, and Flowing. They’re all beautifully crafted, and have timers to bring you back to the real world if you doze off during a calming break.
Free + IAP • v2.0.10 • 66.8 MB • By inookta studio inc.
With TaoMix 2, you create ambient soundscapes. Each begins as a blank canvas, on to which you drop noises depicted as vibrant neon discs. These can be dragged around, tapped to change their color, and dragged to adjust their size.
When playback begins, a white disc meanders around. This can be redirected by your finger, which changes the mix in real-time. The end result is an endlessly evolving mix of relaxing noises. The only snag is that, in the free version, said noises are limited – although you can record your own. However, inexpensive IAP unlocks over 150 additional sounds, offering plenty of scope for your creations.
Free or $3/£3 • v2.4.5 • 106.2 MB • By Dynamic App Design LLC
Like TaoMix 2, White Noise+ offers an intriguingly modern take on ambient soundscapes. Using a minimal, sleek interface that feels right at home on iPhone, you drag noises to a grid. Those towards the top are played louder, and those towards the right are more complex in nature.
Pleasingly, the mixes you create can be saved, and the app even comes with some built-in – for inspiration, or if you’re feeling a bit lazy. Built-in timers and alarms complete an excellent app. Again, the only downside is the paucity of noises in the free version – but then it’s only $3/£3 to unlock all 80 distinct sounds, which seems like a bargain.
$4/£4 • v3.0.2 • 18.7 MB • By Opal Limited
Making music can be great for unwinding, but learning an instrument isn’t easy. Bloom sidesteps such concerns by giving you an interface that’s a cinch to play, and generative ambient music that can never be “wrong.”
Developed by ambient music pioneer Brian Eno and musician/software designer Peter Chilvers, the app merges music and art. Every tap plays a note while a circle grows from beneath your finger, slowly fading away. Eventually, your output loops, and Bloom will take over entirely when left idle.
You can adjust ‘mood’ and delay, and there’s a sleep timer too, but really Bloom’s about letting you create and enjoy endless, unique, relaxing audio.
Brian Eno : Reflection
$31/£30 • v1.3 • 173.1 MB • By Opal Limited
Yes, we know. We’re recommending an app that costs 30 bucks, which in itself might cause a bit of stress. But this second entry from Eno/Chilvers effectively is the embodiment of Brian Eno inside your iPhone.
What you get is his 2017 album Reflection, performed in a manner that endlessly changes over time, and even subtly at different times of day. Eno describes it like a river – always the same, yet always different. This is augmented with a slowly shifting digital painting.
At the price, it’s quite a punt. But if you enjoy ambient audio, this app will fast become a favorite – a regular companion to relax alongside whether it’s playing in a docked iPhone, or on a large display connected to your Apple TV.
Coloring and games
When you need to take your mind off things, try a spot of coloring, or a risk-free bout of gaming.
Free + IAP • v2.1.3 • 179.4 MB • By Pixite LLC
Adult coloring books are big business, but most iOS takes lack polish and authenticity. Pigment bucks the trend, with hand-crafted illustrations that look great even when zoomed in, and a smartly designed range of tools.
You can “tap to fill,” but it’s better to work with the faithful simulations of pencils and pens. Amusingly, you can also opt for a halfway house – scribbling in automatically masked zones, so there’s no danger of going over the lines.
Whether using a stylus or a finger, Pigment provides a pleasing experience that brings the joy (but not the mess) of coloring to iPhone. And although IAP’s required for unlocking all the illustrations (and printing your work), a selection of free pictures provides many hours of coloring pleasure.
Free or $3/£3 • v1.15 • 173.3 MB • By EDOKI ACADEMY
Although aimed at kids, Zen Studio’s a novel coloring app that should appeal to all ages. Instead of free-form scribbling, you tap triangles on a grid to color them in; each tap also emits a sound over the ambient background soundtrack, so you generate unique music as you go.
For free, the app’s limited to eight blank canvases. Pay $3/£3 and you unlock templates, white paint (mostly used for erasing errors), and the means to create galleries of unlimited size for each family member, so everyone gets the chance to chill out with this lovely app.
Free • v2.4.0 • 116.8 MB • By PopCap
Most versions of Bejeweled involve frantically swapping jewels to make matches of three or more and beat the clock. But Zen mode is different, providing a risk-free, zero-stress take. According to creators PopCap, the repetitive actions within match games can be calming – akin to knitting. And when it’s impossible to lose, the end result is surprisingly, well, zen.
You get a few extras, too. We’re not too keen on the mantras and breathing modulation, but Bejeweled’s ambient background noises are rather nice – at least if you first disable the standard voiceovers that otherwise rather obliterate the mood.
$5/£5 • v1.0.4 • 199.7 MB • By Snowman
Endless runners are hardly known for their calming nature. Alto’s Odyssey is more relaxed than most, with its gorgeous day/night cycle, one-thumb gameplay, and beautiful scenery. However, while you’re sandboarding along, you’re only ever one leap away from faceplanting, or plunging into a massive ravine.
Swipe from the right on the home screen, though, and you enter Zen Mode. This just pits you against the endless desert. And although it’s not failure-free – you can still end up in the dirt or down a ditch – Alto quickly finds his feet after any crash and carries on going. Great stuff if you fancy tuning out with a game, but without stress and frustration.
Our final choice is designed to help you get more rest at night – by figuring out when you’re being disturbed.
Free + IAP • v5.5.1 • 115.9 MB • By Northcube AB
Billed as an intelligent alarm clock, Sleep Cycle aims to wake you during the lightest phase of sleep. This, in theory, means you should feel more rested and relaxed. To do this, the app uses your iPhone’s motion sensors or microphone to detect movement and which phase of sleep you’re in.
On waking, you can peruse all kinds of wiggly lines on graphs that detail the quality of your sleep, and this over time starts to provide patterns. Pay the subscription and you can add notes, back up data, and work with sleep aids. But even for free, Sleep Cycle’s ideal for gaining insight into what you get up to while asleep.