|Screenshot of the Stress Free|
Full disclosure: I was given a full month free trial of the app so that I could try it and review it. The opinions here are my own, unbiased view of my experience using the app.
While I was signing in for the first time, the site played soothing music. I wasn't having any particular anxiety at the time, but it was still relaxing. The home page featured an inviting beach animation, complete with rolling waves. Signing up was simple. I typed in the usual name, email and password to create an account. In order to log in, I had to confirm my email address.
Once you have an account, you will see a few options on the page arranged over a cartoon island. They include breathing, "Thrive," meditation, self-hypnosis and deep muscle. I clicked Thrive first to learn a bit more. It took me to a link to a blog, a mental health helpline and advice on how to get help from NHS after hours. I'm in the U.S. and these resources are based in the UK, so they are not super helpful to me. However, that wouldn't be a deterrent for using the app because people in the U.S. can find similar help with just a quick Google search.
Next, I went to breathing. I have some experience with breathing techniques, but it is nice to have guided options. Stress Free explains that breathing has some benefits and offers breathing exercise lengths between 3 minutes and 15 minutes. I went with three to start. A friendly voice explains that calm breathing can help you relax and tells you how to do it, at least insofar as telling you how long to breathe in, hold and breathe out. Page features a little animated dude and some more ocean scenery that I later realized were present for most of the pages. Be wary, the timer for the breathing practice stops when you click away to another tab. It resumes when you go back, so you have to really do the full exercise to move on to the next thing.
I tried meditation next. This is something I have significant experience with, though not enough success. Sessions last from 5 minutes to 25 minutes. Again, I went with the shortest to start. I wanted to get a taste of what Stress Free had in the way of meditation before I dove in. Right away, I realized something interesting about the method. Stress Free asks users to repeat a mantra when distracted by thoughts when meditating. It's not my usual method, but I gave it a shot. It kind of reminds me of the "cue word" technique used by a former therapist of mine. You could definitely use this to develop a cue word.
Deep Muscle didn't unlock until I finished the meditation session. I was wondering what it was because I've only every heard the term deep muscle in reference to massage. It turns out that this is basically a body scan meditation. This one does not have length options or tell you how long it will be. I kept track and it took five minutes to do the muscle exercises. The app then led me through a series of questions that for some reason made me relax more. I'm not sure how long that lasted. I closed my eyes and felt a lot like I should take a nap.
The final category on the first island was self-hypnosis. I'm not a fan of hypnosis because I think it's pretty much guided meditation with an element of suggestion. Since we're "self" suggesting in this instance, I played along. This too was a lot like conditioning yourself to respond to a cue word or phrase. There is no length option. It takes roughly 3 minutes.
I finished the first "island" on all of the shortest settings. I then clicked the little palm tree icon on the bottom right that would take me the next island. There was a section there called "Zen Garden."Zen Garden is a cool little area where you can create your own virtual versions of Japanese Zen Gardens. It's meant to help with meditation. It's a nice idea. I suggest shutting off the sound while in the Zen area. The beep it makes when you click on items is distracting. I'm not sure if there is a way to shut that off and keep the music. I know you can shut off the music in the settings section too. You can always play your own relaxing music on another device while using the Stress Free app.
The second day I logged in, the app asked me my mood based on its mood meter so that it could suggest exercises. When I finished, it didn't suggest anything. In fact, the categories weren't even visible. When I reloaded the page and logged in again, the categories were available and deep muscle was highlighted as my suggested activity. I'm pretty sure that should have happened the first time, but it just glitched out for a second. No big deal. It was back up in no time.
On the final island, after the Zen Garden island, you can check your progress, write messages in bottles to other users and use the mood meter. There is a thought trainer section in the progress area. I have no idea what that is. I can't find anything that has to do with thought training and I've made no progress in that area in my own treatment. I would like to thought train, but I just couldn't figure it out. Sorry about that, guys.
My final word on the Stress Free app is that it's pretty cool. I personally have never paid for any of these services because I know where to find them all individually free. However, if you have the budget for it and prefer your breathing, meditation, hypnosis, etc. in the same place, this app could work for you. Do I think it's a magic fix for anxiety disorder? No. Don't expect to be cured when you finish, but don't be afraid to use the app as a tool to get through panic attacks or stressful days. It has the potential to help.
Note: I reached out to the developers on Twitter to see if they had plans to make it a mobile app and learned that the app is now available on Android and Apple! I didn't test the mobile versions, but I do imagine this will make it more accessible to those who need it. Furthermore, Thrive does intend to continue develop the app, which means more islands and other features in the future.