When I was first dating my husband, there came a delicate moment when I had to explain that I share my bed with someone else—someone I love, who would not be easily displaced even by the most virile, handsome man. That someone was my stuffed cat, Cinnamon.
I don't talk to Cinnamon, like Mark Wahlberg and his bear in the movie Ted, or tote her around with me in public like Linus, but that furry creature that I got for my 8th birthday is an irreplaceable part of my life, bringing me peace in a stressful world. And I'm not alone.
One study has suggested that 23 percent of adults keep a stuffed animal with special childhood significance. Do the math—that means two Supreme Court justices and 23 U.S. senators may be secretly snuggling up with a teddy at night!
Ask around and you'll hear plenty of stories about shredded blankets that still have a place on the bed or a stuffed dog that was given by a favorite babysitter. My sophisticated friend Lauren, an art dealer, confessed she's had her bear, Brownie, for as long as she can remember. Brownie now lives in her 11-year-old daughter's room. "Ruby loves him so much—it gives us a nice connection. It also reminds me to treat Ruby with the same patience and kindness that I needed when I was her age."
Some people may think it's kind of silly, but having a teddy bear is a legitimate coping strategy, far healthier than some other tools that adults may use to feel less anxious, says Ramani Durvasula, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at California State University, Los Angeles. "It comforts you in a positive way by providing a connection to the past," she explains. And there's proof that a cuddly friend doesn't make you weak or childish. In the delightfully titled 2012 study "Sometimes a Bear Is Just a Bear," researchers in Scotland concluded that adults with stuffed animals are just as mature and psychologically sound as their non-teddy-loving peers—they might simply be more playful and in touch with their younger selves.
Why Cozy Objects Are So Comforting
No parent who's ever watched her child fall asleep cuddling a bear would question the positive power of a lovey. Psychologists often recommend them to help children get through difficult separations, like the first day of school. But why do some adults hang on to teddies and blankies while others send them to the Great Toy Box in the Sky? "The children who are drawn to comfort objects tend to be more touchy-feely in general," says Sandra Lookabaugh, Ph.D., an associate professor of child development and family relations at East Carolina University. Some grown-ups have a greater need for tactile stimulation too, which can result in a collection of fuzzy sweaters—or an attachment to a threadbare stuffed dog.
Plus, like a necklace from your grandmother or the faded baseball cap that your husband can't part with, a stuffed animal is packed with emotions and nostalgia, explains Krystine Batcho, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at Le Moyne College. "In one part of your brain, there are the memories of the person who gave it to you, but on a deeper level, there are emotional memories associated with the smell and touch of the animal. They can instantly trigger pleasant feelings." It's not just the animal's owner who gets attached—many parents save the teddy their kid loved long after their child has moved on to iPhones and Xboxes.
But I have to confess: One reason I won't give up Cinnamon is that she's a potent sleep aid. "So many adults have sleep problems," says Durvasula. "Having a teddy bear can be a healthy part of a bedtime routine, and it's safer than sleeping pills." It's true. As soon as I touch Cinnamon, my brain clicks into snooze mode.
There have been some moments, however—especially as I'm helping my kids sort through their old toys—when I've considered letting Cinnamon go. Then I've thought, No way. And if someday my 11-year-old daughter, who cuddles her doll Lolly every night, wonders whether it's time to give her up, I'll explain what I've learned: When you find something that gives you comfort and joy—and asks for nothing in return except maybe a patch on its ear every few years—it's worth holding on to for as long as you can.
This story originally appeared in the August/September 2014 issue of Dr. Oz The Good Life.