New ‘smart’ relaxation ball shows promise in reducing anxiety

A groundbreaking new study has found that a “smart” relaxation ball, known as a Physical Artifact to Support Wellness (PAWS), could be the key to significantly reducing anxiety. Developed by computer scientist Alexz Farrall of the University of Bath, UK, the shape-shifting ball is designed to “personalize” breathing by giving users a tangible representation of their breath, which helps regulate emotions and focus attention.

Breathing exercises have long been used as a method to combat anxiety and improve mental well-being. However, it is often difficult for people to focus on their breathing while performing these exercises, leading to wandering thoughts and decreased effectiveness. The PAWS balloon is designed to address this problem by giving the breath a physical form, increasing self-awareness and engagement.

In a study involving 58 volunteers, participants reported significant benefits from using the ball along with audio from a meditation app. The combination of visual and tactile feedback from the ball led to an average 75% reduction in anxiety levels and a 56% increase in defense against anxiety-provoking thoughts. In comparison, those who listened to the audio only had an average 31% reduction in anxiety.

In addition, participants who used the ball along with the meditation audio recording had a significant increase in heart rate variability, indicating improved stress tolerance and emotional regulation. This suggests that the PAWS ball can not only reduce anxiety, but also improve overall mental well-being.

Currently, the PAWS ball interacts with the chest strap worn by the user, making its customization quite complex and technical. However, if the device can be simplified in the future, it can be used by anyone from the comfort of their own home.

Depression and anxiety are becoming increasingly common problems, with a significant proportion of the population reporting high levels of anxiety. PAWS offers a promising solution for the treatment and management of these mental health conditions, both clinically and at home.

“I want this device to be a real catalyst for improving mental health,” says Farrall. “Not only in clinical settings, but for home users as well.”

Although not yet published in a peer-reviewed article, the study results were presented at CHI’s conference on Human Factors in Computer Systems.

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