By Mira Miller
The COVID-19 pandemic has taken an undeniable toll on many people’s mental health around the world.
With roughly 4 in 10 U.S. adults reporting symptoms of anxiety or depression during the pandemic, compared to 1 in 10 adults in 2019, this drastic decline in mental well-being has been labeled by experts as a pandemic of its own.
Young adults aged 18 to 24 fared the worst, with 56% reporting to have anxiety or depressive disorder, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation survey.
This growing phenomenon left countless people searching for mental health support online in the early days of the pandemic. For those who didn’t have access to therapy, virtual guided meditations became a powerful tool to address their needs.
“People turned to guided meditations during the pandemic because it was the most accessible form of mental health care at the time,” Rachel Ruiz, LCSW, a California-based psychotherapist, tells Verywell. “Even therapists were recommending apps for treatment while we transitioned to virtual platforms.”
According to Ruiz, different types of meditation can alleviate a spectrum of mental and physical health concerns. Though the methods may differ, meditation typically involves training the mind to focus on something specific—be it the breath, an object, a visualization or a chant—in order to reach a state of calm and relaxation.
Ruiz says meditating can help people settle their nervous system, slow their heart rate, ease feelings of anxiety,1 improve memory and attention span,2 and more.
What This Means For You Developing a daily meditation practice can help you learn to settle your nervous system whenever you feel stressed or anxious. From mobile apps to videos on Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube, there are a variety of ways to hop on the digital guided meditation trend.
Popular meditation apps such as Calm and Headspace, which were already gaining traction pre-pandemic, received millions of new subscribers in 2020. Earlier this year, Headspace even launched an eight-episode meditation crash course on Netflix as a response to popular demands.
Sana Panjwani, a 27-year-old who started using the Balance app during the pandemic, says meditation has helped her manage anxiety effectively.
“There are moments now when I’m anxious, and it’s become habitual or like an instinct to just tell myself to stop and cut off all senses and just really focus on the moment, take a breath,” she tells Verywell. “When I start focusing on my breath work, my mind kind of silences.”
Some meditation teachers, such as devotional musicians Deva Premal & Miten, also began streaming live sessions on Facebook and Instagram. They practice a form of meditation that includes repeatedly chanting Sanskrit mantras and have drawn tens of thousands of people to meditate in unison throughout the pandemic.
"What I find most rewarding is that sense of isolation becomes irrelevant,” Miten tells Verywell. “Your physical environment becomes irrelevant because you’re connected—you’re with other people and your brothers and sisters across the world.”
Will the Meditation Trend Last Beyond the Pandemic?
For thousands of years, meditation has long served as a means to find inner peace among the Hindu and Buddhist communities. Only recently has the practice begun to make its way into the mainstream and be seen as a scientific way to manage stress, partly because meditation apps and videos made it accessible for a wider audience.
“Mindfulness and meditation apps, along with YouTube, have positive impacts by making meditation much more accessible to the average person,” Javier Moreira, LMHC, New York-based mental health counselor, tells Verywell.
He says this allows people to integrate meditation into their self-care regimen, providing a cost-effective and convenient way for people to address COVID-19 related stress.
It also means anyone with an internet connection can learn to regulate their emotions whenever necessary, according to Ruiz.
Meditation was already growing in popularity pre-pandemic, with the use of the practice increasing from 4.1% in 2012 to 14.2% in 2017, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But the trend has accelerated since the pandemic as a diverse array of guided meditations has entered the market to attract new online users.
Though the pandemic has facilitated meditation’s transition into the mainstream, experts say it’ll likely be a big part of mental health care in the long term.
“Meditating regularly helps people sleep better, communicate clearly, and choose wisely,” Ruiz says. “If more and more people develop a meditation practice, we will experience a more compassionate world."