Searching for more zzzs? There is a sleep app for that

BrainTap Pro aims to create a balanced brainwave state with binaural beats and guided visualization.

(CNN)As the global pandemic drags on, many of us are more stressed out than usual. And that often means scoring a lot less sleep at night.

"Trying to get good sleep while you're stressed out is like trying to make a half-court shot while blindfolded," said Michael Breus, a clinical psychologist in Los Angeles. Breus focuses on insomnia and high-performance sleep coaching, a three- to six-month program for CEOs, athletes and celebrities.
"You can do it, but it's really tough to pull off."
Let's say you have been feeling extra overwhelmed lately. That, Breus said, prompts your body to release cortisol, the primary stress hormone. This coincides with sugar (or glucose) entering the bloodstream, which elevates your blood pressure.
    Next thing you know, Breus said, your muscles tense up, your heart pumps faster and your brain kicks into overdrive. It's the old fight-or-flight response you learned about in grade school. In other words, your body is now in survival mode.
    That is what makes falling asleep very tricky.
    When that stress persists week after week, the body adjusts to the higher cortisol levels. This continues to prevent you from getting quality shut-eye but can also lead to serious problems like heart disease, hypertension, diabetes and depression, according to Breus.
    Enter these sleep-focused apps.
    We use apps for just about everything, so why not use them to help us out when it comes to sleep, right? Perhaps. It depends on what type of sleep issue you are having, since Breus said there are 88 different sleep disorders.
    "I think that apps will be helpful for people to manage stress, become educated and learn about their sleep environment," Breus said.
    When looking for an app, first consider what is keeping you from sleeping and what the app is going to address. Do you need to quiet your noisy environment, ease your stress levels or address a diagnosed condition?
    Make sure to think of it as a tool, not as a stand-alone solution that can solve your unique situation. And keep in mind, it's best to place the phone face down so the screen light doesn't bother you. For most of the apps, you can also download content and put your phone in airplane mode, so you won't receive calls or texts while attempting to snooze.
    Here are some expertly curated apps, chosen by Breus and New York City-based psychologist Joshua Tal, who specializes in treating sleep disorders.
    If your sleep issues persist, make sure to consult with your doctor for personalized medical advice. Many medical professionals are offering telehealth services during the pandemic.
    Subscribe to CNN's Sleep, But Better Newsletter: Want the best sleep of your life? Sign up for our newsletter series for helpful hints to achieve better sleep.

    Apps that nix a noisy environment

    Some relaxation apps lull you into dreamland with sounds of the Amazon rainforest or monitor your sleep habits throughout the night. Others incorporate meditation to help reduce stress levels before bedtime. And some, designed specifically for insomniacs, require a prescription.
    "I usually recommend nature and white-noise apps for clients that have a snoring bed partner or loud noises outside," Tal said.
    Portal ($29.99 per year), for example, is an app that uses immersive 3D sounds -- think gentle waves in Hawaii, a log fire in Switzerland or a whale encounter in Tahiti -- as a way to help you get ready for bed.
    Portal provides calming soundscapes that lull you to sleep.
    "It can be a good wind-down, pre-bedtime activity," Tal said.
    Other noise-blocking apps include White Noise Generator, Relax Melodies and myNoise.

    Apps to ease your mind

    Breus said he's impressed with Pzizz ($9.99 per month), an app that uses binaural beats, with two different frequencies played in each ear. Plus, there is a man's voice encouraging you to relax. Don't worry: You can mute this if you'd like. The user can also schedule bedtime reminders, as well as nap reminders.
    BrainTap Pro ($9.99 per month), another mobile app that Breus recommended, is designed to retrain the brain and also incorporates binaural beats. This one combines those beats with guided visualization, 10-cycle holographic music (a sonic technology that produces a 360-degree sound environment) and isochronic tones, which are equal-intensity pulses of sound followed by moments of silence. It's all meant to create a balanced brainwave state.
    Headspace and Calm, recommended by Tal, offer sleep mediations and relaxation exercises.
    Headspace ($12.99 per month) includes sleepcasts, a 45-minute audio recording (think of it as a bedtime story) that uses sound, breathing exercises and visualization to help put you in a tranquil mood.