.The Fake Fur and Real Benefits of Stuffed-Animal Therapy

In a world in which social distancing is the norm and hugs are hard to come by, it’s important to have a friend you can count on. Even if that friend isn’t technically real.

With her bright blue eyes, whip-smart style and easy smile, most people probably wouldn’t peg 36-year-old Santa Cruz native Jennifer Wentworth as someone who’s been hospitalized more than 200 times. But for many grueling years, Wentworth’s Bipolar-1 disorder (with severe manic episodes, terrifying voices, delusions of grandeur and violent psychosis) sent her to the inpatient psychiatric unit an average of once a month. She found herself trapped in a vicious and ongoing cycle—one that she believed would never end.

”Sometimes I’d get out of the psych unit, and they’d send me back just a few days later. 250 times,” says Wentworth. “I was locked in restraints for hours on end—just for thinking I was the second coming of Jesus Christ. They allowed me to pee myself. They put me in isolation for 14 hours for not wanting to take my meds. The hospital always traumatized me more than helped me. But that was home.”

Today, “Jen Jen”—to her friends and loyal, loving husband Brent—has a real home. A domicile free of restraints, medical gowns, locks, fences, trauma or abuse. It’s been close to three years since Wentworth’s last hospitalization. She calls it a “miracle.”

So what changed? How did Wentworth suddenly reach stability and true recovery for the first time in her adult life? Well, it involves some cotton, and a whole lot of fur.

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Light-brown, with a crimson heart on his right foot and a bit of a tummy, Drew is Jen’s favorite bear. She says that he reminds her of another, real-life Drew—an old friend and bishop at her former church.

Wentworth’s number two, Ryan, is a tiny, cream-colored stuffed bear. He’s named after another one of her closest friends, who was close to her during her years living in the dry heat of Arizona.

Then there are Brandon (brown) and Tyler (white), who are buddies and usually travel as a team. And Parker, who proudly wears a black bowtie.

Each of Wentworth’s bears is named after one of her close friends, people she dearly loves and misses.

“The stuffies have really helped me stay stable. They have become powerful, and amazing coping skills,” says Wentworth. “When I feel alone and can’t be around a friend, or when I need their love and support, I’ll hold onto that teddy bear. It’s like giving that person a hug. I started carrying Drew two years ago, and I haven’t been in the hospital since.”

Where Wentworth goes, her bears follow. She takes them to classes, support groups, even to Starbucks for her daily caffeine fix. When symptoms of her bipolar disorder spike and she is struggling, she turns to her fuzzy friends for comfort and support. On occasion, she even talks to her bears like they are real people, telling them how she feels.

Wentworth gets a few raised eyebrows and curious looks, but in the end, she’s not embarrassed in the least.

“I definitely have people look at me, but I don’t feel self-conscious at all, actually,” she says. “I’ve had so much trauma in my life that anything that helps me self-soothe and makes me calm, I’ll happily do. If you have bipolar disorder, you need to find things that make you feel good. If you need to hold a teddy bear, that’s perfectly OK.”

Drew, Ryan, Brandon, Tyler and Parker have helped Wentworth immensely. They’ve worked wonders to ease her mania, dampen negative self-talk, quiet voices, soothe anxiety and eliminate depression. The teddies happily provide the comfort and emotional support she needs, right when she needs it. They are always there for her, even if her “real” friends are thousands of miles away.

“When it comes to hearing voices and having psychosis, [the bears are] something physical in front of me—that comforts me. And for anxiety that’s associated with mania or depression, it’s helpful as well. Providing contact, and touch,” says Wentworth. “I guess it’s like carrying around a security blanket. I actually used to do that as a child.”

The seed of Wentworth’s stuffed-therapy-bear idea was planted two years ago while taking a DBT (Dialectical Behavior Therapy) class. She learned about the power of touch—by far her favorite of the five senses—and how to harness it. Today, her soft and supple crew of teddy bears are solid and steady things she can hold.

Rates of anxiety, depression and other types of mental illness are up during these pandemic days of self-quarantine and social isolation. Folks are desperately craving and seeking out connection and touch—Zoom meetings aren’t going to cut it.

But ever wonder why hugs feel so good? Light touch, stroking, pressure on the skin, general warmth and hugs activate thousands of somatosensory nerves in our grey matter, releasing a flood of a magical little hypothalamic nonapeptide called oxytocin.

Secreted by the brain’s sensory nerves in response to an array of interactive behaviors, oxytocin is linked to numerous positive effects—including stress (cortisol) reduction, enhanced general well-being, even a decreased sensitivity to pain. In the long term, it’s known to have anti-depressant effects and even decrease the symptoms of autism, Asperger syndrome and mental illnesses like schizophrenia.

The Covid-19 outbreak is causing a parallel epidemic of loneliness, fear and anxiety. Children and grownups alike, are struggling to build and maintain relationships. So what can you do if your oxytocin levels are in the gutter, and you can’t hug someone?

You can hug something.

It turns out that oxytocin, the brain’s key player in social closeness, trust and meaningful connections, doesn’t discriminate. The hormone can be sent free, allowed to do its majestic dance, in a number of different ways.

Pet owners, and their pets each experience significant spikes in oxytocin levels when they frolic and play. And when a pet mom or pet dad caresses or strokes his or her fur baby, even more of the chemical is sent skittering throughout the brain. Paying attention to our pets will give us waves of pleasure, and mellow us the heck out.

Real pet ownership is associated with reduced blood pressure, cholesterol and anxiety. It also positively impacts the body’s ability to cope with chronic conditions like dementia, heart disease and even cancer. And since oxytocin decreases the release of cortisol, human-pet relationships are accompanied by decreased stress levels.

South African clinical psychologist Fairuz Gaibie contends that when we stroke or cuddle anything, even a doll or teddy bear, that is soft, cushiony and comforting, oxytocin is released. Gaibie contends that a simple plush toy can have life changing effects—lowering your body’s stress level, enhancing your overall wellbeing and leaving you feeling soothed, calmed and at ease.

While close to two-thirds of U.S. households care for real, breathing, fur babies, providing for a cat, dog or iguana can get overwhelming. Stuffed pets are fantastic fallbacks if you can’t have or care for a real one. They produce therapeutic effects akin to their flesh and blood counterparts, and don’t slobber, destroy, bark or require years of behavioral and potty training.

The truth is that anything—even a rock—can hold sentimental and symbolic meaning. And if oxytocin is involved, all the better. A bear, a doll or a puppet … in the end, the object of our affection doesn’t really matter. What’s really important are the emotions, memories and feelings it conjures. And the emotional support it provides.

As “transitional objects,” plush pets give children an oh-so-important layer of security and comfort when they are away from their adult caregivers. Young ones are able to adapt to serious developmental challenges, experiment with their autonomy and independence, and handle unfamiliar environments. Children come to rely and depend on their stuffies—to the point where their entire sense of safety and security is imbued in their favorite bear or doll. Their stuffed friends become way more than just toys.

NOW FOR GROWN-UPS

While it’s common for kids to carry around and sleep with their teddy bears and other stuffed friends—associating them with safety, home and positive experiences—a large contingent of grown-ups actually bond with and interact with stuffies, too. In fact, more than 40% of adults interact with their stuffed animals on a regular basis, according to a recent OnePoll study.

Ellen Adams, a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT) on Santa Cruz’s Westside, has been in practice for more than 20 years, and has utilized stuffed-animal therapy.

“In my previous practice, I had stuffed therapy pets in my office that my clients could hold during a session,” says Adams. “I found that they would have a calming effect. Some folks would hold them close and find them comforting—calming and centering.”

For those who have difficulty expressing their feelings, Adams says stuffed animals can “open a door.”

“Stuffed pets are helpful in the office for sure. People who are emotionally frozen could relax,” she says. “One client had a really hard time showing emotions at all, but when she held onto my floppy little rabbit, she could cry—and she could feel. She let herself break down.”

We truly live in the golden age of stuffies—thanks eBay! You can buy a bear rocking the uniform of your favorite football team, a bright-pink manatee wearing a top hat, or a stuffed pig with wings that kind of reminds you of your dear uncle Jimmy. The possibilities are endless. There are a handful of companies out there that will build one-of-a-kind stuffed therapy pets for you; they can even painstakingly create squishable versions of your favorite (living or dead) canine or feline friends.

A few firms will take it a step further, engineering surprisingly realistic robotic versions of your favorite pup or kitty, complete with “barkback technology,” “vibrapurr,” built-in sensors and brushable fur. Pet your new robo-stuffie in the right spot, and they’ll roll on their backs and emit a soft purr or moan.

HISTORY OF STUFFED ZOOLOGY

We’ve got it good, but it’s worth noting that children and adults weren’t always so blessed in the squishy-and-supple toy department. Before the 20th century, soft toys were rare. It wasn’t until the 1890s—when a diminutive, wheelchair-bound German entrepreneur named Margarete Steiff began marketing her handcrafted elephant (and then mouse and rabbit) pincushions to the kiddies in her neighborhood—that soft toys actually became a thing.

When Steiff’s animal creations, made of felt and cloth and filled with lambswool, started to fly off the shelves of her humble storefront (outselling the then-fashionable-felt-underskirts she was accustomed to making), she rolled the dice and began to produce them full-time.

Steiff saw the potential of a market that had never previously existed. She and her then-tiny company applied for a groundbreaking patent in 1892 “for making of animals and other figures to serve as playthings.” In each subsequent year, production, sales and the number and variety of toys at Steiff rose higher. Kids flocked to the “Felt Toy Factory” where Steiff’ displayed an ever-growing-army of stuffed playthings, and parents ordered from a colorfully printed catalog. A toy empire was born, one that popularized the teddy bear, paved the way for modern toys like Cabbage Patch Kids, transformed tea parties and normalized human/stuffie interaction. Steiff’s cute and innocent animal-shaped pincushions forever changed the way that children, and many adults, play.

PLAY BACK

Play, especially for adults, is an underrated concept. In the age of social media, Candy Crush and Grand Theft Auto, many of us have simply forgotten how to slow down, shut off, chill and just be. Instead of viewing life as a series of obstacles and a point-obsessed competition, sometimes we need to stop and smell the roses—or at least the musk of our favorite stuffed friend—once in a while.

With stuffies, there are no goals. No points, coins or power-ups. They allow us to explore and make sense of the often brutal and chaotic world around us. Akin to a Jackson Pollock painting, stuffed pets allow us to tap into our inner selves, and to paint with our instincts and emotions.

“No one is too old to have stuffed friends,” says Wentworth. “If it makes you feel calmer, peaceful and improves your mental health I’m all for it! With all the fear in the news and in our world, the need for stuffed therapy pets is greater than ever.”

5 COMMENTS

  1. This article is right on! So true, especially in these days of isolation. But, just to let you know, I’ve been sleeping with two teddy bears for over thirty of my 78 years.
    Thanks for advocating this healthy, life changing, loving practice!
    Lenore

  2. This is a wonderfully written, smart article, Hugh! I am very sorry about Jennifer’s suffering–and I appreciate hearing about this route to healing.

  3. This is a great article that is artfully written. I just loved this line: ” Akin to a Jackson Pollock painting, stuffed pets allow us to tap into our inner selves, and to paint with our instincts and emotions.” Bravo to the author for addressing a common experience that is mostly underground! Over the years, I too have had a number of adult clients who have been comforted and supported by their stuffed animals!

  4. Wow. So interesting. Missing my Teddy Bear collection! Jennifer is a strong, confident woman. So sad she went through that trauma. 🙁 Thank you for shining a light on this wonderful coping option.

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