"Breathing" cushion shown to reduce anxiety when hugged
When experiencing anxiety, many people may feel the need to hug a squishy object such as a cushion. According to a new study, the act of doing so could actually help reduce feelings of anxiety – especially if the cushion "breathes."
Led by roboticist Alice Haynes, a team at Britain's University of Bristol started out by creating five puffy-pancake-shaped electronically augmented cushions.
Partially designed to reproduce the feeling of touching pets or interacting with other people, these small devices separately simulated the sensations of breathing, purring, a combination of breathing and purring, plus a heartbeat. The fifth one emitted diffused rainbow-colored light.
When tested on a group of 24 students, the breathing-only cushion was found to be the most pleasant to touch and hold. Based on that feedback, the scientists proceeded to make a larger version of it. That device featured a soft microfiber outer casing, polyester stuffing, and an air bladder in the middle – the latter component was rhythmically inflated and deflated via a hose-linked external pump, which couldn't be seen or heard by users of the cushion.
For the next phase of the study, the researchers induced feelings of anxiety in 129 other volunteers, by telling them that they had to verbally solve a series of mathematics problems in front of one another. For eight minutes before taking that math test, 44 of the participants sat and did nothing, 40 were guided through a meditation-based breathing exercise, and 45 hugged the breathing cushion to their chest and belly.
Based on questionnaires which were used to assess the volunteers' anxiety levels before and after taking the test, it was found that the cushion-hugging and meditation groups became considerably less anxious than the group that did nothing. Although the scientists are still trying to determine the exact means by which the breathing cushion reduces anxiety, Haynes already has a theory.
"We have since conducted a study with 21 participants holding the cushion and measuring their breathing rate as the breathing rate of the cushion was varied," she told us. "We found that for the majority of participants, their breathing either partially or fully synchronized with the breathing rate of the cushion. Based on this, we think that the primary reason for anxiety reduction was that students’ breathing rate slowed to match that of the cushion when holding it – slow breathing has been shown to influence the nervous system and reduce symptoms of stress/anxiety."
The team is now planning on refining the cushion further, so it can be tested over longer periods in people's homes. A paper on the research was recently published in the journal PLoS ONE.