The Rise of Cuddly Comfort Objects for Anxious Adults

Kacie Willis is a 34 year-old Atlanta audio producer who suffers panic attacks without any known causes. She’s tried cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), anti-anxiety medication, mindfulness meditation, and CBD oil. Although some of these have provided relief, one coping mechanism has consistently helped her manage her anxiety, particularly at night: Kasey Kangaroo, a stuffed animal she’s had since she was four years old.

Willis can’t quite pinpoint why her stuffed kangaroo helps her anxiety, but it does. “Even if I’m not holding it at night when I sleep, it’s close enough for me to know it’s there. Maybe that’s the reason it helps with my anxiety—just the comfort factor, the familiarity.”

Whether they’re dealing with anxiety, stress, grief, isolation, or memory loss, countless people find solace in stuffed animals, weighted blankets, and other soft comfort objects. Researchers and product developers noticed this, so they have developed products to alleviate specific ailments. There’s now a fluffy robotic seal for people with dementia, a weighted teddy bear for grieving adults, and a cushion that mimics breathing to calm people down.

The science of why objects are soothing is still in development. Stanford University associate chair of psychology and behavioral sciences Dr. David Spiegel says that it is understandable why people feel comfort in such objects. “We know children love stuffed animals—they’re what we used to call a ‘transitional object’ between just being by yourself and being connected with another human,” he says. These objects may also play an important role in adulthood. “It’s not surprising that humans can stimulate thoughts and feelings related to interpersonal contact with an inanimate stuffed object.”

A small study was published in 2020 by the Journal of Integrative MedicineResearchers found that patients in a mental hospital who chose to use weighted blankets experienced less anxiety than patients who did the opposite. Researchers attribute the calming effect of weighted blankets to deep-touch pressure stimulation. This is a sensation that weighted blankets give that calms the nervous system. In 2013, another study was published by the journal. Psychological SciencePeople with low self-esteem found that holding a bear teddy bear can help reduce fear.

In the March 2022 issue of The Journal, another research study was published. PLOS One This gave us additional insights into the reasons these objects could offer comfort. Researcher and roboticist Alice Haynes, a former member of the soft robotics group at Bristol Robotics Laboratory in the UK, joined forces with Annie Lywood—a textile specialist who creates products for people with sensory needs—to test out a breathing cushion students could use to relieve anxiety before an exam.

Students in the test group held the object—a plush, baby-blue cushion the size of a throw pillow that automatically inflates and deflates, mimicking inhaling and exhaling—for eight minutes before their exam. One control group did a guided breathing meditation instead, while another control group didn’t do anything special. Haynes’ team discovered that holding the cushion with a stuffed breath reduced anxiety just as well as the guided meditation.

“This indicated that the cushion could be similarly effective as a breathing meditation for anxiety,” says Haynes, who is now completing her postdoctoral fellowship at Saarland University in Germany. “We didn’t give the students in the experiment any guidance about using the cushion. We didn’t tell them to follow it with their breathing or anything—it was just purely the act of holding it as it slowly breathed that eased their anxiety. I think we thought it would help with anxiety, but we were pleasantly surprised that it was as effective as the breathing meditation.”

Lywood—who is currently working on commercializing the breathing cushion through her company Sooothe—believes the findings highlight our innate need for touch, even if the source isn’t human or alive, for that matter. “We take touch for granted,” she says. But because many people have been deprived of it during the pandemic, she points out, “we are sort of rediscovering how valuable it is.”

Some comfort objects—like the breathing cushion and weighted blankets—were designed specifically to help with stress and anxiety, while others were created to address other mental-health and movement concerns. In 2003, the PARO robot seal was created to help elderly with dementia reduce loneliness, isolation and stress. Now in its eighth iteration, the cute stuffed seal—which weighs six pounds and moves, makes noises, and responds to human interaction just like a real animal would—has been found to also improve things like motivation, socialization, and relaxation in this population.

An article published in Journal of the American Medical Directors Association The PARO seal was used in the care of more than 400 dementia patients in long-term residential facilities in Queensland in 2017. This 2017 study examined the effectiveness of this seal. PARO enabled people to interact with each other verbally, visually, and with greater pleasure than dementia patients who were given their normal care. The robotic seal also helped reduce neutral affect—a lack of facial expressions that can be common among patients with dementia—and made them less agitated. The study found that PARO proved to be very efficient, but the simple plush toys offered many of these benefits.

Sometimes, state-of-the-art robotics aren’t necessary to make a person feel more at ease; an ordinary teddy bear will do. Marcella Johnson experienced a sudden, aching feeling in her stomach and arms after she had lost George her fourth baby. A week after George’s death, she visited his gravesite with her father, who brought her a terracotta pot filled with flowers. “The moment I got that cold, hard weighted pot in my arms, the aching in my heart and my arms immediately went away. It was the first time I felt comfort, and it was marked.”

Johnson began to read about women who lost their babies shortly after. She noticed an interesting trend in the way they sought weighted items. One mother carried a flour sack weighing five-pounds, and another was carrying a pineapple that weighed the same as her baby. “When I read that, I thought, If it’s happening to me and it’s happening to all these other women, then something should be created.”The Comfort Cub is a 4-pound, weighted bear that Johnson created for those who have lost their infants or are dealing with other traumas and grief. “When you put a weighted object in your arms, it can just relieve that pain,” Johnson says.

This field is still relatively new and researchers as well as inventors are thrilled by the prospect of creating cuddly-weighted objects. Haynes, Lywood and the breathing cushion research have begun to explore wearable types of sensory textiles. Lywood, on the other hand, has started work on a relaxing musical cushion.

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

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