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Stress Behavior Mental Health Prevention

A Calming Hug: A Tactile Aid To Ease Anxiety

6 months, 2 weeks ago

9836  0
Posted on Mar 11, 2022, 2 p.m.

Anxiety disorders affect approximately one-third of people during their lifetimes and are the ninth leading cause of global disability. Current treatments focus on therapy and pharmacological interventions. However, therapy is costly and pharmacological interventions often have undesirable side effects. Healthy people also regularly suffer periods of anxiety. Therefore, a non-pharmacological, intuitive, home intervention would be complementary to other treatments and beneficial for non-clinical groups. 

Researchers have developed a huggable, cushion-like device that mechanically simulates breathing, and preliminary evidence suggests it could help reduce students' pre-test anxiety. Alice Haynes of the University of Bristol, U.K., and colleagues present the device and findings in the open-access journal PLOS ONE on March 9, 2022.

Treatments for anxiety disorders primarily include therapy and medications. However, these can be costly, and medications may have unwanted side effects. At-home anxiety aids could complement treatments for anxiety disorders and also benefit people experiencing temporary anxiety. Within this category, a small but growing body of research highlights the anxiety-reducing potential of touch-based devices, such as TouchPoints wearables and Paro the seal, an interactive therapeutic robot.

Now, Haynes and colleagues have developed a new, touch-based device that could ease anxiety. They initially built several prototype devices that simulated different sensations, such as breathing, purring, and a heartbeat. Each prototype took the form of a soft, huggable cushion that was meant to be intuitive and inviting. Focus group testing identified the "breathing" cushion as being the most pleasant and calming, so the researchers further developed it into a larger, mechanical cushion.

To test the new device, the research team recruited 129 volunteers for an experiment involving a group mathematics test. Using pre- and post-test questionnaires, the researchers found that students who used the device were less anxious pre-test than those who did not. The experiment also compared the breathing cushion to a guided meditation and found that both were equally effective at easing anxiety.

These findings suggest that the breathing cushion could be used to reduce anxiety, for example for students who are anticipating exams. The researchers now hope to further refine the cushion for testing in people's homes. They also plan to investigate people's physiological response to the device -- for instance, changes in heart rate or breathing patterns -- in order to elucidate the particular mechanisms by which the device might ease anxiety.

The authors add: "We were excited to find that holding the breathing cushion, without any guidance, produced a similar effect on anxiety in students as a meditation practice. This ability of the device to be used intuitively opens it up to providing wider audiences with accessible anxiety relief."

Study Conclusion:

“In this study, we have presented the design and testing of an intuitive haptic interface for easing state anxiety. A set of five primary prototypes were initially developed inspired by naturally occurring haptic sensations such breathing, heartbeat and purring. The prototypes were in the form of soft, huggable cushions to make them accessible and intuitive to interact with. Conducting a qualitative focus group indicated that the breathing cushion had demonstrably the most pleasant and calming behaviour of the five prototypes with no participants rating it as unpleasant. This led to the development of a larger version of the breathing cushion adapted to be mechanically driven, soft and ergonomic based on the focus group feedback. The breathing rate and shape of the interface were designed to encourage the slow, diaphragmatic breathing associated with easing anxiety.

This interface was formally tested in a psychometric experiment with 129 participants, comparing it to breathing meditation and a control case. Baseline anxiety, resilience, mindfulness and stress measures were statistically similar across condition groups. When anticipating an anxiety-inducing event (a verbal mathematics test in front of people), participants in the Cushion and Meditation conditions had a significantly reduced level of anxiety (measured by STAI) compared to participants in the control condition. The experiment demonstrated that holding the breathing cushion interface is an effective alternative to mindful breathing practices at reducing anxiety without need for training or guidance.

In conclusion, the breathing cushion interface is an intuitive haptic device shown to ease state anxiety in the student population when anticipating a test. This suggests that the interface could be an alternative non-pharmaceutical anxiety aid for students during examination periods. The development of an untethered model that can be trialled in people’s homes is our main future goal.”

As with anything you read on the internet, this article should not be construed as medical advice; please talk to your doctor or primary care provider before making any changes to your wellness routine.

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