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The COVID-19 pandemic has changed people’s lives in a plethora of ways. Regular routines have been replaced with stay-at-home orders and self-isolation.

Understandably, physical distancing, while extremely necessary, has had an impact on people’s mental health. Keeping your brain busy has become more important than ever.

“During the pandemic, people have increased stress, which leads to depression and anxiety. Staying busy helps us focus on the here and now, and distracts us from our worries,” says Dr. Divyansu Patel, a psychiatry specialist at TeleMed2U.

One way to help keep your brain busy during the pandemic? Apps.

“The stress provoked by the COVID-19 pandemic and civil unrest has caused many to experience a constant heightened emotional state that compromises executive functioning and contributes to what has been labeled ‘pandemic fog,’” says Dr. Diana M. Concannon, PsyD, from Alliant International University.

That’s where apps, which might range from solving puzzles to learning new languages, could make a big difference to your day-to-day life.

For example, Sam Nabil, the lead therapist for Naya Clinics, says some studies highlight that the practice of learning a new language contributes to cognitive plasticity and improves the brain’s ability to absorb new information.

Meanwhile, linked studies from 2018 and 2019 of more than 19,000 participants found that regularly playing puzzles and completing crosswords or word-based games actually improves brain function.

Another 2013 trial also found that playing a brain-training game helped improve cognitive function and memory in a group of young adults.

Mindful meditation — as little as 10 minutes per day — can calm the mind and support body health through positive influences on blood pressure and levels of cortisol (the stress hormone).

So, it stands to reason that finding ways to re-engage and use your brain, such as learning a new language, may help counteract pandemic brain fog.

Read on to find out which apps can help your brain stay busy.

To compile this list, we consulted medical professionals, including psychologists and psychiatrists, to discuss optimal activities and apps to help keep people’s brains busy.

We read reviews and recommendations from app users to ascertain which apps were popular, and which appeared to have reported results in these areas:

  • Did users find their stress diminished after using the app?
  • Did the app provide a useful routine?
  • Did users learn a new skill?
  • Was the app useful during the pandemic?

1. Lumosity

Lumosity claims it will help users “improve memory, increase focus, and feel sharper” with its daily brain-training exercises. The app is suitable for anyone of any age or ability level, and will even adapt to your strengths and weaknesses.

User reviews suggest that Lumosity helps with concentration, mindfulness, and cognitive ability.

One reviewer felt they’d “realized positive results in two weeks,” while another revealed that the app had helped with their focus, processing speed, math calculations, memory, mental agility, and flexibility.

The app’s basic subscription is free. It allows users to play three brain games per day. Standard monthly subscriptions start at $11.99.

2. Duolingo

Duolingo can be a great app for anyone who’s ever wanted to learn another language. The app offers “bite-sized” lessons in more than 35 languages, featuring minigames and a community of more than 300 million users.

Reviewers suggest that Duolingo is a good way to start learning a new language, or to refresh your knowledge.

One user wrote, “Duolingo won’t make you fluent but it is a great starting place and language practice tool to have when first encountering a new language.”

The app is free to use. A paid subscription will get you access to more features.

3. Calm

Calm may help reduce anxiety and help improve sleep quality and focus via mind exercises, meditations, music, and sleep stories. The app features a slew of famous voices, including Matthew McConaughey, Kate Winslet, and Idris Elba, to help you relax.

User reviews list reduced anxiety, better sleep, guided meditations, and self-care as reasons they enjoy Calm.

One user said, “It has changed my perspectives and state-of-mind in ways that have been beneficial to every aspect of my everyday life and well-being.”

Some features are free for all users. Full access to the app costs $69.99 annually for a premium subscription, or $14.99 a month.

4. PsychologyCompass

PsychologyCompass calls itself “a cognition coach in your pocket” that can help you overcome anxiety, improve leadership, and enhance memory and learning.

Dr. Elizabeth Gilbert, the head of research at PsychologyCompass, says the app is “designed to strengthen cognitive skills with short weekly lessons that become helpful, automatic habits with practice.”

One user said of the app, “Very helpful for seeing your mental cognitive abilities improve with simple practices.” Another called it “easy to use and navigate.”

A monthly plan is $20. It costs $200 annually.

5. Headspace

Headspace provides “hundreds of guided meditations on everything from stress to focus to relationships.” It also offers music and soundscapes to aid sleep, short guided meditations, and longer courses.

User reviews claim the app helps with focus, sleep, and increased productivity. One user called the app “life changing,” while another revealed that it had helped with their “anger issues.”

Full access to the app, known as Headspace Plus, costs $12.99 per month, or $69.99 per year. The free version has some assets but is much more limited.

6. Ten Percent Happier

Ten Percent Happier offers meditation lessons and new content on a weekly basis. Meditations, stories, and inspiration cover a range of topics, from parenting to anxiety to sleep.

User reviews suggest that Ten Percent Happier is a great way of reducing stress, working on anxiety, and learning how to meditate in an easy way.

One reviewer wrote, “I appreciate that you get to know the names, voices and styles of the teachers,” and another said their “days have never started so well and relaxed.”

A free version of the app offers some content. Otherwise, membership costs $99 per year.

7. Insight Timer

Insight Timer is a meditation app with a difference. Featuring workshops, guided meditations, music, courses, and celebrity speakers, Insight Timer can help keep your brain busy while helping you reduce stress and get better sleep.

User reviews suggest the app has “great teachers,” including celebrities like Goldie Hawn, Russell Brand, Elizabeth Gilbert, and Gisele Bündchen, as well as a plethora of helpful content.

Regular events mean that users can pack their schedule with workshops, talks, and classes, even during the pandemic.

The app costs $59.99 for the year, or $9.99 monthly.

8. TED

TED boasts more than 3,000 free talks in more than 20 languages on its app, meaning that users can explore myriad topics from all over the world.

The “Inspire Me” feature suggests new content, making it possible to learn from world-class thinkers even while in quarantine.

One user called it “a brilliant way to educate yourself if you lose your focus a lot when reading,” while another suggested it was “a must have for long journeys and opens up a lot of different perspectives.”

The TED app is free.

9. Forest

Forest is a productivity app, or a phone game with a purpose: Users create their own forests, literally watching their healthy habits grow.

User reviews suggest that people who enjoy decorating games will enjoy using Forest to set themselves new targets and routines, which could be particularly helpful during the pandemic when people’s normal daily lives face disruption.

One review called Forest “such a beautiful reminder that everything big happens with many tiny steps.”

The app costs $1.99, and optional in-app purchases are available.

10. Words With Friends

Words With Friends can help you build your vocabulary while playing and connecting with friends and strangers. Much like Scrabble, Words With Friends challenges players to create words from a selection of random letters.

Reviewers note that using Words With Friends has helped make their brains feel sharper and even expand their vocabulary, but some reviewers warn that the chat feature is sometimes misused.

One reviewer said they’d “made new friends, and have gotten closer to old friends through the games. It’s broadened my word knowledge, and has provided me with hours of cerebral challenge and delight on a daily basis.”

The basic game is free but offers in-app purchases and add-ons.

11. Houseparty

Houseparty has come into its own in the pandemic. The video-calling app allows friends to meet up to virtually play games, hang out, sing karaoke, and socialize while abiding by physical distancing regulations.

Basically, if you’re missing the people you love and the only thing that will help is speaking with them, Houseparty could make all the difference.

One review said, “The games with your loved ones on this really helps to temporarily forget the stressful times we have living in.” Another praised Houseparty for “keeping me connected with my friends, some of whom don’t have other social media.”

The app is free to use, but some in-app purchases are available.

12. Chess – Play and Learn

Chess – Play and Learn is the app for anyone who’s binged “The Queen’s Gambit” during lockdown and wants to learn the game for themselves.

User reviews say that Chess – Play and Learn is a great version because it provides players with so many options and themes. Learning a new game will most definitely keep your brain busy, and means you’ll come out of lockdown with a new skill.

The app also offers brain puzzles and the chance to make new friends. One review called it “user friendly at all levels.”

The app is free but offers a range of membership levels with extra content if you’re a fan.

If you’ve found yourself struggling during the pandemic due to the disruption to your routine, the need for physical distancing, and the lack of in-person contact with loved ones, finding an app to keep your brain busy may make a difference to your daily life.

Whether you’re a fan of games or hope to learn a new skill such as meditation or another language, now is the perfect time to invest in your brain health.