The rise of cozy and comforting objects for anxious adults

Kacie Willis, a 34-year-old audio producer in Atlanta, suffers from panic attacks with no known cause. She tried cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), anti-anxiety medication, mindfulness meditation, and CBD oil. Although some of them have given her relief, one coping mechanism has always helped her deal with her anxiety, especially at night: Kasey Kangaroo, a stuffed animal she’s had since she was four years old. .

Willis can’t figure out why his stuffed kangaroo helps him worry, but it does. “Even though I don’t hold it at night when I sleep, it’s close enough that I know it’s there. Maybe that’s why it helps relieve my anxiety – just the comfort factor , familiarity.

Whether dealing with anxiety, stress, grief, isolation, or memory loss, countless people find comfort in stuffed animals, weighted blankets, and other soft, cozy items. Researchers and product developers have noticed this and in turn have created products specifically designed to help relieve certain ailments. Now there’s a plush robotic seal for people with dementia, a weighted teddy bear for grieving adults, and a cushion that mimics breathing to calm people down.

Because this is an emerging field, the science that explains why certain objects soothe us is still being explored. But Dr. David Spiegel, associate director of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University, says it makes sense that people find solace in these objects. “We know kids love stuffed animals – they’re what we used to call a ‘transitional object’ between just being alone and being connected to another human,” he says. Objects like these probably play a similar role for adults. “It is not surprising that humans can stimulate thoughts and feelings related to interpersonal contact with an inanimate stuffed object.”

A small study published in 2020 in the Journal of Integrative Medicine found that weighted blankets reduced anxiety in patients at a psychiatric facility who chose to use them, compared to patients who did not. The authors attribute this calming effect to deep touch pressure stimulation, a sensation provided by weighted blankets that soothes the nervous system. Another study published in 2013 in the journal Psychological Sciences found that simply holding a teddy bear could reduce existential fear in people with low self-esteem.

Another study published in March 2022 in the journal PLOS A provided additional information on why these types of objects might provide comfort. Researcher and roboticist Alice Haynes, a former member of the Soft Robotics Group at Bristol Robotics Laboratory in the UK, teamed up with Annie Lywood, a textile specialist who creates products for people with sensory needs, to test a cushion breather that students could use to relieve anxiety before an exam.

The students in the test group held the object – a plush sky-blue pillow-sized cushion that automatically inflated and deflated, mimicking inhaling and exhaling – for eight minutes before their exam. A control group did a guided breathing meditation instead, while another control group did nothing special. Haynes and his team found that holding the padded breathing pillow reduced anxiety as much as guided meditation.

“This indicates that the cushion could be just as effective as a breathing meditation for anxiety,” says Haynes, who is currently completing her postdoctoral fellowship at Saarland University in Germany. “We did not give the students of the experiment advice on the use of the cushion. We didn’t tell them to follow him with their breathing or anything – it was just holding him while he breathed slowly that eased their anxiety. I think we thought it would help relieve anxiety, but we were pleasantly surprised to find it was as effective as the breath meditation.

Lywood, who is currently working to commercialize the breathing cushion through his company Sooothe, believes the findings highlight our innate need to touch, even if the source isn’t human or living, for that matter. “We take touch for granted,” she says. But because so many people have been deprived of it during the pandemic, she points out, “we’ll kind of rediscover how precious it is.”

Some comfort items, like the breathing pillow and weighted blankets, were designed specifically to help with stress and anxiety, while others were created to address other mental health and mental health issues. movement. The PARO robotic seal, for example, was introduced in 2003 to reduce stress, isolation and loneliness for older people with dementia. Now in its eighth iteration, the cute plush seal – which weighs six pounds and moves, makes noise and responds to human interaction just like a real animal would – has been shown to also improve things like motivation, socialization and relaxation in this population.

A study published in the Journal of the American Association of Medical Directors in 2017 examined the use of the PARO Seal in over 400 patients with dementia in long-term care facilities in Queensland, Australia. People who interacted with PARO were more verbally and visually engaged and reported experiencing more pleasure than people with dementia who received their usual care. The robotic seal also helped reduce neutral affect – a lack of facial expressions that can be common in patients with dementia – and made them less agitated. Interestingly, the study also tested a similar-looking plush toy without robotic features and found that while PARO was highly effective, the simple plush toy provided many of the same benefits.

Sometimes advanced robotics aren’t necessary to make a person feel more comfortable. an ordinary teddy bear will do. When Marcella Johnson lost her fourth baby, George, shortly after she was born in 1999, she found herself overwhelmed with a painful sensation in her arms and chest. A week after George’s death, she visited his grave with her father, who brought her a terracotta pot filled with flowers. “The moment I had that cold, heavy pot in my arms, the pain in my heart and arms immediately disappeared. It was the first time I felt comfortable, and it was marked.

Soon after, Johnson was reading books about other women who had lost babies, and she noticed a surprising and unexpected trend: Many of them were looking for weighted objects to carry with them. One woman carried a five-pound sack of flour, while another carried a pineapple that weighed as much as her baby. “When I read this, I thought, If this is happening to me and it is happening to all these other women, then something should be created. She created the Comfort Cub, a four-pound weighted teddy bear designed for people across the country struggling with the loss of a baby and other forms of trauma and grief. “When you put a weighted object in your arms, it may just relieve that pain,” Johnson says.

Researchers and inventors in this relatively young field are excited about the promise of plush weighted objects. From the breathing pillow study, Haynes began researching wearable forms of sensory textiles, while Lywood began work on a soothing musical pillow.

“Designing around this sensory need for people of all ages is so valuable,” says Lywood. “I feel like we’re at the start of this journey.”

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