Good vibrations could hold answer to calming social anxiety, says study

Uniquely-shaped handheld objects may help control stress


February 26, 2024

/ By / Paris

Good vibrations could hold answer to calming social anxiety, says study

29 participants were asked to participate in an anxiety-inducing activity

Study by researchers at Glasgow University has found that vibrations from uniquely-shaped, hand-held objects can help reduce stress and calm social anxiety.

Rate this post

The power of good vibrations can help reduce stress and social anxiety amongst those vulnerable to these symptoms, new research has found.

According to a press statement issued by the University of Glasgow in the United Kingdom, computing scientists and psychologists at the university have worked with socially anxious people to prototype a series of handheld ‘comfort’ objects.

The statement adds that the study tested whether the objects, which pulse and vibrate in patterns that recall calming sensations like purring cats or the pitter-patter of raindrops, could offer emotional support during an anxiety-inducing presentation.

The results suggest that uniquely-shaped handheld objects which vibrate in ways that evoke personal emotional resonance for people may help to reduce the intensity of their feelings of anxiety in social situations.

The researchers say that the finding, which builds on previous research into the potential benefits of tactile feedback technology as a way to regulate emotional distress, could inform the development of future devices designed to discreetly aid people in anxiety-creating social situations.

The statement adds that the researchers have discussed the process of collaborating with volunteers to develop the prototypes in a paper published in the journal ACM Transactions on Human-Computer Interaction.

“Social Anxiety Disorder can be a debilitating experience for the 12 pc of the population who will experience it at some point during their lives. It reduces their ability to function in everyday situations and negatively affects their quality of life. Listening to calming music or meditating, for example, can sometimes help people reduce their anxiety but it’s not practical to put on headphones or find a quiet corner in the middle of most social situations,’’ says Dr Shaun Macdonald, of the University of Glasgow’s School of Computing Science, who led the research.

Dr Shaun Macdonald

Dr Shaun Macdonald

“What we wanted to explore in this study was whether a handheld, silently-vibrating device could help reduce people’s stress levels to help support them during social interaction without others noticing. The idea is drawn from other research which suggest that the feeling of vibration can help people reduce how quickly their heart beats or how fast they breathe during stressful situations. Other studies suggest that certain kinds of vibrations can induce calm by helping people recall emotional memories of the natural world,” Macdonald adds.

In the first phase of the study, the researchers recruited 20 volunteers who reported living with social anxiety. They were tasked with making palm-sized objects of whatever shape they preferred using familiar crafting materials like Lego, clay and fake fur. Around half the prototypes were spherical, with the rest featuring hand grips, square shapes, or had modelled features like flower petals. Most had soft, fuzzy textures reminiscent of pets like cats or hamsters.

Then the researchers added different vibrations to the objects and asked the participants to pick a vibration style which helped them recall some kind of emotional connection to a calming feeling, like a cat purr, a small stream, or rain. As many as 90 pc of the participants found their new vibrotactile object pleasant to hold and 70 pc felt it helped to calm them, says the university statement.

In the second phase, the researchers built three more robust devices based on designs from phase one, a fluffy ball, a solid cube with different textures on each face, and a malleable tube shape. Each delivered more significant vibrations than the phase one prototypes.

The statement adds that 29 participants were asked to participate in an anxiety-inducing activity, delivering a three-minute presentation to others over Zoom, a video-calling platform.

During the study, half of the participants were allowed to hold a comfort object during their presentation while the other half had to speak without any devices to aid them. During the presentation, their physiological response to stress was measured with sensors. Afterwards, they were asked to report on how they felt while delivering their presentation.

While comfort objects didn’t directly reduce physiological signs of anxiety for most testers, they did appreciably widen the range of their self-reported anxiety levels.

Stephen Brewster

Stephen Brewster

“The feedback from participants showed that they appreciated being able to tailor their comfort objects to their own preferences for their shape and texture. They also felt that having the opportunity to pick a vibration that had an emotional meaning for them made it more likely to be able to reduce their anxiety,” says Macdonald.

“Technology offers us huge potential to deal with a wide range of physical and mental health issues, but it is important that any new devices take into account the preferences and lived experiences of users right from the start. Although this is a small study, it suggests there is value in offering people discreet access to emotionally resonant vibrations during stressful situations to help reduce their discomfort. Further studies could help deepen our understanding of the benefits vibrotactile technology offers people living with social anxiety and lead to commercial products in the future,” says Stephen Brewster from the School of Computing Science, who is a co-author of the paper.



    Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *