Could hugging a soft, mechanized pillow that simulates slow breathing help test-stressed students ward off anxiety and stress? British researchers are betting on it.
The pillow in question looks like any typical cushion, noted study author Alice Haynes. She's a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Bristol in the United Kingdom.
But when hugged, the light blue plush cushion deploys a potentially therapeutic secret: a hidden inflatable pouch designed to mimic slow breathing.
The objective, said Haynes, is "on alleviating the high levels of anxiety students often experience during examination periods."
With that narrow goal in mind, the pillow has not been tried out among patients diagnosed with any form of chronic anxiety disorder.
However, early testing among the sort of healthy young people who routinely find themselves in stressful situations suggests that the pillow is just as effective as guided meditation at minimizing anxiety.
In Wednesday's issue of PLOS ONE, Haynes explained that the pillow project emanated from her highly specialized work in a field of research known as "affective haptics," which looks at how the sensation of touch can interact with robotics to boost a person's sense of well-being.
In the search for the most effective anxiety-reducing pillow design possible, the team initially asked 24 British students (aged 21 to 40) to try out five different prototypes.
Four pillows respectively mimicked breathing a heartbeat purring or purring and breathing combined. A fifth pillow emitted a diffused ring of light.
Haynes and her colleagues found that the breathing pillow was rated the best by a "significantly higher" number of users, who variously described it as calming, soothing, and/or relaxing. A little more than one-third agreed that when functioning, the pillow "feels like breathing," while three said holding it felt like holding a cat.
So the investigators decided to focus on the breathing pillow, and to refine the design for further testing.
The final result is roughly 14 inches long, 10 inches at the widest point, and 6 inches thick. Covered in soft polyester microfiber and corduroy, the pillow is intended to be hugged close to the belly and chest.
A tube running from an external -- and externally powered -- pump "plugs" into the pillow's inner mechanics, which includes an inflatable chamber. The tube itself remains hidden from view (and noise-free) by those using the pillow.
In the same vein, the interior mechanics are buried deep inside the pillow, and set to mimic a breathing rate of 10 breaths per minute. (The study authors pointed out that people typically breathe at a rate of between 12 to 18 breaths per minute, so the pillow is intended to replicate slow breathing.)
Once the breathing pillow design was completed, 129 adults aged 18 to 36 (about 75% were women) were enlisted for testing.
All were first told that they would be taking a verbal math test, in which participants would have to answer questions in front of each other. The goal: to provoke anxiety and social stress.
More testing needed
Participants were then randomly divided into three groups: a meditation group based on a standard 8-minute breathing guidance delivered via headphones a group that was asked to spend the same time simply sitting quietly and waiting (without access to cellphones) and the pillow group. The pillow group was instructed to hug their cushion upright for 8 minutes while wearing sound-blocking headphones.
In separate rooms, each group completed multiple standard anxiety tests, before, during and after the experiment.
The researchers found that not only was the cushion as effective as meditation, but it was particularly beneficial for students who said they often experienced high test anxiety, said Haynes. For those individuals, the device may be particularly helpful.
In addition, she explained, "we believe that the breathing cushion could also provide support for a wide range of people, and particularly those that may find existing methods/treatments such as meditation inaccessible."
Haynes noted that as a research prototype the cushion is not yet for sale or even in production, so for now it's unclear what it might cost or whether insurance might cover it.
But she described the pillow as intuitive and easy-to-use even while engaging in other activities, such as watching TV or talking with someone. It should be thought of, she said, as "a complementary device that people can have in their home to provide comfort and support when needed."
Martina Svensson is an associate researcher with the Experimental Neuroinflammation Laboratory (ENL) at Lund University in Sweden. Though not involved in the study, she agreed that the findings indicate "that the calming pillow may have some calming effect in certain situations for people who do not suffer from anxiety disorders, but are just anxious before a demanding event."
At the same time, she stressed that further research is needed, perhaps including more objective anxiety measures, such as heart rate and breathing patterns. And Svensson reiterated the important caveat that "it remains to be evaluated whether this device is equally effective for people diagnosed with anxiety disorders."
There's more on students and anxiety at Harvard Medical School.
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