We live in a stressful world, and, more and more, we're solicited by our work all day long, thanks to our devices that keep us connected by phone, email, and text messages before and after working hours. It can be hard to relax and to get a good night's sleep, if you've got a lot going on. Fortunately, these same devices can help us calm down and catch some shut-eye. Here are four apps--and some audio recordings--that can help you do stay calm, and sleep better. (Pro tip: The Macworld editors will definitely be using these this weekend to unwind after CES.)
Read next: Best iPhone sleep apps and alarm clock apps
Relax your breath
Sometimes, on a stressful day, you want to get a quick bit of calm. You may want to chill out for a few minutes before, or after, an important meeting, or you may simply want to keep your stress level down during the day. You can do this by breathing; not the same breathing you do most of the day, but a type of controlled breathing. If you slow your breathing, it can relax you; but it's not easy to do this on your own, but Breathing Zone ($4) can help.
Start by checking how fast you're breathing using the app and your iOS device's microphone. Then, set a target breathing rate, which is several breaths per minute lower than your current rate. Start the app, and follow its guidance as it slowly helps you slow down your breathing. You can have voice instruction, musical guides, or just a visual animation to help you slow down your breath.
If you use this app regularly, you can lower the target rate progressively, helping calm yourself. It's easy to use, and I find it very effective. (It's worth noting that the FDA has approved some devices that work in a similar manner as tools to reduce blood pressure. This app suggests that it may also have such an effect.)
Meditate and calm your mind
For longer-term relaxation, why not try meditating? Meditation is not some new-agey Eastern thing; it's a simple, practical exercise you can do to help your mind and body be calmer. Headspace (free) is a great way to discover meditation, and learn how to do it on your own. Start with ten free ten-minute meditations, then, if you wish to subscribe to Headspace's program ($8 a month for a year), continue through daily guided meditations that increase in length.
Headspace makes meditation easy and encourages you to do it every day. In addition to the guided meditations, the app lets you set reminders, shows statistics of how long you've meditated, and lets you set up meditation buddies. It's a bit cute, but if you're new to meditation, it's an easy way to get started.
Get a better night's sleep
Do you wake up groggy after a long night's sleep? Sometimes, this can happen when your alarm clock wakes you at the wrong time: when you're in a deep sleep cycle. Runtastic's Sleep Better (free) can monitor your sleep, and wake you up when you're in a light sleep cycle, making those first steps in the morning a little better.
This app works by detecting your movements in bed. You place your iPhone on your mattress, launch the app, and let it run overnight. Set the alarm for a specific 30-minute "wake-up window," and it will wake you when you're not in deep sleep. I find the whole sleep tracking thing to be dubious: there have been nights when, according to the app, my sleep was, say, 96 percent efficient, but I still felt tired when I awoke.
All the app does is measure movements in bed, and I suspect that if you don't sleep alone, it detects your partner's movements as well. But the alarm feature, which wakes you when you're not in deep sleep, can be useful. Note that Runtastic will send you lots of emails after you create an account to use this app, annoying you to buy a "gold" membership. Click the unsubscribe link at the bottom of the first one.
Get to sleep more easily
Some people find it hard to get to sleep, and find that playing different sounds can help. These can range from white noise, to mask ambient sounds, to relaxing nature sounds. While I don't use these myself to get to sleep, I do find it relaxing to listen to sounds of calm waves breaking on a shore, or the rustling of leaves and chirps of birds in a forest.
Relaxing Sounds (free with in-app purchases) plays sounds like heavy rain, serene waterfalls, calming fireplace, and singing birds (but I don't see how that grand clock will help anyone fall asleep!). With in-app purchases, you can buy ten other sounds, at $1 each, or $4 for all of them. Set a timer to play the sounds as long as you need to fall asleep, and have a good night's rest.
Nature sounds to relax
If you find the sounds of nature relaxing, why not put some on your iOS device to help you relax wherever you are? There are lots of albums on the iTunes Store that contain music like this, but I found a couple that are real bargains. Nature Sounds 1 ($10, but listed incorrectly on the iTunes Store as Ocean Wave Sounds) and Nature Sounds 2 (22 Hours) from Sound Dreamer each contain eleven two-hour recordings of natural sounds. They have ocean wave sounds, whale calls, river sounds, birds, rain, calm lake waves, waterfalls, and sounds such as "campfire and bird sounds," "small brook and crickets," and more. Each one lasts two hours--more than enough to help you go to sleep, to listen to during your commute, or for when you want to take a break during a busy day.
Unfortunately, these tracks are album-only on the iTunes Store, but you can buy them individually on Amazon--Nature Sounds 1 and Nature Sounds 2--where the albums only cost $8. So if you just want one or two of the sounds, they're less than a buck each.
With these apps and recordings, you can keep your cool, sleep better, and be more relaxed, day and night--and let's face it, we all need some extra R&R from time to time.