Why do hugs feel so good? Why do massages de-stress us? Why do some people like sleeping with heavy blankets, even in the heat of summer? Why do we love high-pressure showers and squeezing our loved ones’ hands as a sign of support?
It’s all to do with pressure—and utilizing its soothing powers is becoming the next trend in health and wellness.
The instinct to calm ourselves and others through the application of pressure is deep-seated in our subconscious. Mothers swaddle babies tightly to calm them down. Young children squeeze stuffed animals when woken by nightmares. A job well done is rewarded with a pat on the back, and when reunited with a loved one, we wrap them in an embrace, the longer and tighter the better.
Touch and pressure are so vital to our well-being that their absence can create serious impairments in our physical and psychological health. For example, children who grow up without extensive physical contact are more likely to have developmental challenges. Adults also languish without skin-to-skin contact; what psychologists term “touch hunger” can, along with other factors, permanently damage the mental and physical health of prisoners in solitary confinement.
Touch and pressure seem to promote health by regulating the nervous system’s responses, which control our vital reactions to the external world. If you are being chased by a saber-toothed tiger, for instance, the autonomic nervous system kicks the body into fight-or-flight response. When this happens, your heart rate quickens, your pupils dilate, and blood rushes to the limbs to prepare you to run as fast as you can.
Some researchers posit that applying pressure in the form of physical touch or heavy blankets works to calm us by slowing down the fight-or-flight response. It may decrease the release of the stress hormone cortisol and increase the release of “happy hormones” like serotonin and dopamine. As an example of this, a study of teenagers revealed that French adolescents touch each other a lot more and exhibit fewer physically or verbally aggressive behaviors compared to their US counterparts. Increased serotonin levels convert to melatonin, which also helps us to sleep better and even boost memory by affecting the hippocampus.
Beyond mental health and cognitive function, studies of HIV positive, autoimmune disease, and cancer patients show that touch may also boost physical immunity and even slow the progression of disease. According to the research of Tiffany Field, the founder and director of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami School of Medicine, deep-touch pressure may increase natural “killer” cells that ward off bacterial, viral, and cancer cells.
Pressure-based innovations to improve mental health
A few pressure-based interventions have made the news in the past decades. For example, Temple Grandin, professor of animal science at Colorado State University, built a “hug machine” that became well-known in the autism community. At age 18 in 1965, Grandin, who is on the autism spectrum herself, built it to manage her own anxiety and increase her tolerance for being touched by others. The user controls the pressure that the device exerts, imitating the sensation of being hugged. Preliminary research supports the hypothesis that the machine has a calming effect on those with autism, especially those with high levels of arousal or anxiety.
Other children may find relief using a “deep-pressure vest,” which was developed by Brian Mullen, the former CEO of Therapeutic Systems and current innovation strategy manager at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Sometimes called a “portable hug” by supporters, the weighted vest presents a non-invasive, non-medicated option for someone to manage their condition in times of acute distress. An engineer by training, Mullen spearheaded many of the pioneering studies on the efficacy of weighted blanket and weighted vests for those with autism, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, and related disorders.
Pressure systems are being used to calm people outside of the medical community, too. When our evolutionary instincts react inappropriately to sensory input in the developed world, our nervous systems can overload us with fear and anxiety in situations that are far from life-threatening, like a presentation, a first date, or simply trying to get to sleep. To combat these stressors, in May 2017, a crowdfunding campaign raised over $4.7 million to bring a weighted blanket to market. Targeting the stressed-out average American, the product promises to promote relaxation, help people get to sleep, and meditate. Citing Mullen’s research, the blanket simulates “the feeling of being held or hugged.” A featured testimonial even describes it as “like Advil PM for your whole body.”
The trend goes beyond vests and blankets. Another Kickstarter campaign has raised over $35,000 for a weighted backpack for students with autism. The creators say they were inspired by other weighted sensory tools to design the backpacks, which feature pouches for weights and “hugging straps” for children between the ages of six to 12 years old. In Canada, a group of volunteers also sewed “heavy helpers,” which are weighted stuffed animals, to help children in need deal with sensory processing issues or trauma.
How you can reap the health benefits of pressure
You don’t need to install a hug machine in your office to reap the calming benefits of pressure. There are plenty of DIY solutions that can be done at little or no cost, and in no time at all. According to Field, as little as 15 minutes of touch a day can boost your health. If you don’t have a partner or pet to cuddle with, Field says that self-touch can be just as effective especially when you use an object such as a tennis ball. Engaging in physical activities that stimulate pressure receptors, such as yoga or fast walking, may also do the trick.
Pressure researchers are hoping to build on pilot studies investigating how devices such as the weighted blankets can be safely and effectively adopted by patients. Although such devices seem innocuous, every intervention comes with risks. For example, putting a heavy blanket over an injured, frail, or elderly person presents dangers. In a couple of tragic cases, children have passed away after suffocating under heavy blankets they didn’t have the strength to lift. Research is lagging behind popular interest in these products, and scientists don’t have a full picture of what makes these strategies safe and effective for some and not for others yet. So if you’re thinking of tinkering with weighted devices yourself or using them with your family, consult an occupational therapist and refer to best-practice guidelines issued by scientific bodies first.
Science has shown that enjoying high-pressure showers and deep-tissue massages is not all in your head. The sensory input leads to a range of biochemical responses that impact your entire body, promoting feelings of well-being. Though the market for such devices are currently aimed at the medical community, recreational pressure-based solutions are likely to grow as people seek out innovative ways to find relief from stress and anxiety. Here’s hoping that research funding catches up with consumers’ interest in cost-effective innovations to common mental-health challenges.