The modern man today finds himself on the unrelenting carousel of anxiety. Keeping him in constant company are imagined demons of stress and worry. Aware of this epidemic, researchers at the University of Bath have found a sliver of hope. Spearheaded by computer scientist Alexz Farrall, it has unveiled a shape-shifting relaxation ball, called the Physical Artefact for Well-being Support (PAWS), changing the way individuals engage with their breath.

PAWS is no ordinary stress ball; it has the ability to shift shape as users inhale and exhale, offering a representation of their breathing. When someone holds the ball, their breath transforms into a tangible presence within their grasp, allowing them to both sense and observe the ebb and flow of air through the object’s expansion and contraction. This feature contributes to sharpening mindfulness and emotional regulation. According to the developer, giving breath in physical form enhances self-awareness and engagement, fostering positive mental health outcomes. 

Breathing exercises have long been recognised for their effectiveness in managing anxiety and promoting mental well-being, and they are often integrated into therapeutic approaches like cognitive behavioural therapy and dialectical behaviour therapy. A common challenge, however, has been maintaining focus during these exercises, as wandering thoughts can disrupt the process.

In an experiment involving 58 volunteers, PAWS was used in conjunction with an audio track from a meditation app. Participants reported an average reduction of 75 per cent in anxiety levels, accompanied by a 56 per cent increase in protection against intrusive, worrisome thoughts. In contrast, those who solely listened to the meditation audio experienced an average 31 per cent reduction in anxiety, underscoring the significant benefit of the device. Furthermore, the study found that individuals who used this shape-shifting tool alongside meditation audio displayed significantly higher heart rate variability, a crucial indicator of improved stress resilience and emotional regulation.

Currently, PAWS operates by communicating with a chest strap worn by the user. Sensors affixed to the user’s body collect data on their breathing patterns and transmit this information to the ball via a computer. This setup requires a somewhat technical arrangement involving an electronic and pneumatic circuit to convert respiratory activity into pneumatic motion.

Future iterations, however,  aim to simplify the device. By harnessing Bluetooth technology and innovative geometric designs, it seeks to eliminate the need for cumbersome wires, making the ball more user-friendly and accessible for in-home use. Farrall says, “I want this device to be a genuine catalyst for mental health improvement, not just in clinical settings but also for home users.” It is, however, important to remember that while innovations like these hold promise, mental health research regarding anxiety has all but barely scratched the surface. Still, in times of doubt, recall the Swedish proverb: Worry gives a small thing a big shadow.

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