A calming hug: Design and validation of a tactile aid to ease anxiety

Author: Alice C Haynes1,2, Annie Lywood3, Emily M Crowe4, Jessica L Fielding5, Jonathan M Rossiter1,2, Christopher Kent5
1 Engineering Mathematics Department, University of Bristol, Bristol, United Kingdom.
2 Soft Robotics Group, Bristol Robotics Laboratory, Bristol, United Kingdom.
3 Bonnie Binary Ltd, Bristol, United Kingdom.
4 Faculty of Behavioural and Movement Sciences, Vrije Universiteit, Amsterdam, Netherlands.
5 School of Psychological Science, University of Bristol, Bristol, United Kingdom.
Conference/Journal: PLoS One
Date published: 2022 Mar 9
Other: Volume ID: 17 , Issue ID: 3 , Pages: e0259838 , Special Notes: doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0259838. , Word Count: 326

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. Existing at-home anxiety aids, such as guided meditations, typically employ visual and/or audio stimuli to guide the user into a calmer state. However, the tactile sense has the potential to be a more natural modality to target in an anxiety-calming device. The tactile domain is relatively under-explored, but we suggest that there are manifold physiological and affective qualities of touch that lend it to the task. In this study we demonstrate that haptic technology can offer an enjoyable, effective and widely accessible alternative for easing state anxiety. We describe a novel huggable haptic interface that pneumatically simulates slow breathing. We discuss the development of this interface through a focus group evaluating five prototypes with embedded behaviours ('breathing', 'purring', 'heartbeat' and 'illumination'). Ratings indicated that the 'breathing' prototype was most pleasant to interact with and participants described this prototype as 'calming' and 'soothing', reminding them of a person breathing. This prototype was developed into an ergonomic huggable cushion containing a pneumatic chamber powered by an external pump allowing the cushion to 'breathe'. A mixed-design experiment (n = 129) inducing anxiety through a group mathematics test found that the device was effective at reducing pre-test anxiety compared to a control (no intervention) condition and that this reduction in anxiety was indistinguishable from that of a guided meditation. Our findings highlight the efficacy of this interface, demonstrating that haptic technologies can be effective at easing anxiety. We suggest that the field should be explored in more depth to capture the nuances of different modalities in relation to specific situations and trait characteristics.

PMID: 35263344 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0259838