Can a shape-changing ball really help boost your mental health?
That’s the idea behind a new ‘shape-changing’ device invented by a PhD student at the University of Bath - which its maker says can reduce anxiety by 75%.
The ball - known as the Physical Artefact for Well-being Support (PAWS) - works by helping people to focus on breathing exercises, which are commonly used to help regulate emotions.
The ball works through haptic feedback, where sensors attached to the user's body transmit data about their breathing patterns to the ball via a computer.
The soft ball is meant to ‘personify’ breath, expanding and contracting in time with the user’s inhalations and exhalations.
Alexz Farrall, the student in the Department of Computer Science who invented the device, said: "By giving breath physical form, the ball enhances self-awareness and engagement, fostering positive mental health outcomes."
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"I hope this device will be part of the solution for many people with problems relating to their mental wellbeing."
Farrall said: "When an individual holds the ball, their breath becomes a physical thing between their hands. They can feel and see the flow of air as the object expands and contracts.
"This allows them to become more aware of their own internal sensations and more receptive to psychological change. It gives a personalised and engaging experience, and is accessible to everyone."
Measured breathing is highly rated by mental health practitioners both for its ability to lower the temperature in emotionally charged situations and to increase a person's receptivity to more demanding mental health interventions.
Disciplines that frequently include mindful breathing include Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) and trauma-focused therapies.
Many people struggle to focus on their breathing exercises - which is where the PAWS ball comes in.
The researchers asked volunteers to use the ball while listening to a guided audio recording from a meditation app - while another group listened to the recording without using the ball.
Among those who used the ball, there was an average 75% reduction in anxiety and a 56% increase in protection against worry-induced thoughts.
Those relying only on the audio recordings experienced a 31% reduction in anxiety (recording 44% more anxiety than their counterparts).
The ball users also showed significantly higher Heart Rate Variability (indicative of better stress resilience and emotional regulation) than those using only audio.
Professor Jason Alexander, who supervises Farrall's project from the Department of Computer Science at Bath, said: "The beauty of PAWS is that the concept is so simple — letting someone 'feel' their breath — yet it has the potential to revolutionise the delivery and outcomes of mental health support not only in the UK but worldwide."