Weighted Blankets For Anxiety: Do They Work?
Weighted blankets have gained some popularity as wellness products to regulate emotional distress and anxiety. While the research on treating mental illnesses with weighted blankets may still be in the early stages, some evidence suggests they can alleviate symptoms. However, a weighted blanket isn’t a substitute for therapy, and you may experience the best results when using a weighted blanket in addition to attending regular sessions with a licensed therapist. To learn more about weighted blankets, knowing the science behind them may be helpful.
What Is A Weighted Blanket?
How Do Weighted Blankets Work?
The concept of deep pressure stimulation is generally believed to have been pioneered by autism advocate and animal researcher Temple Grandin. Working in slaughterhouses and stockyards, Grandin noticed that cattle often seemed less afraid when their sides were gently pressed by a “squeeze chute”. She was curious about whether the same process might help with the distress caused by her autism-related sensory processing issues. She designed a “hug machine” and discovered that it did indeed help her feel a greater sense of calm and well-being.
How Does Deep Pressure Stimulation Reduce Anxiety?
Weighted blankets may achieve a similar sensation to Temple’s invention through a more affordable mechanism. The added weight spread across or wrapped around the body can provide firm, continuous pressure without requiring active squeezing.
Deep pressure stimulation appears to achieve its effects by activating the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS). This combination of nerves, glands, and hormones typically controls bodily processes like relaxing and breaking down food. It’s often called the “rest and digest” system. Your body may interpret the sensation of being gently squeezed as a sign of safety, potentially resulting in increased activity in the parasympathetic nervous system.
This increased activity may decrease the sympathetic nervous system's (SNS) activity. The SNS is involved when you’re excited or scared, filling your bloodstream with stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol while increasing your heartbeat, respiration, and sweat production. When you're out of danger, the parasympathetic nervous system turns down this “fight-or-flight” response, helping you calm yourself.
Do Weighted Blankets Reduce Anxiety?
Neurological research suggests that chronic anxiety may be linked to an overactive sympathetic nervous system. This could potentially make you oversensitive to the feeling that you’re in danger. By giving your body a signal of safety, a weighted blanket might soothe this hyperactive fear response.
Does the research back up this idea? To date, there have been relatively few studies addressing this question. The evidence we do have suggests that weighted blankets can help with anxiety. A 2018 review of the existing studies on this question concluded that while more research is likely needed, there may be reason to think that “weighted blankets may be an appropriate therapeutic tool in reducing anxiety”.
A more recent study published in 2020 indicated that weighted blankets could help cancer patients undergoing chemotherapy feel less anxious. This suggests that in addition to relieving anxiety disorders, weighted blankets might also help people whose worries are linked to rational, urgent concerns about their well-being.
In addition to their possible direct effects on anxiety, weighted blankets may have a few related benefits. For example, some people have reported that weighted blankets help relieve their panic attacks, though there aren’t yet any controlled trials validating this effect. Some studies suggest that it may be easier to get restful sleep under a weighted blanket, especially for individuals with psychiatric disorders. Better sleep is generally associated with reduced anxiety, along with numerous other positive health effects.
Can Anyone Use A Weighted Blanket For Anxiety?
Evidence suggests that weighted blankets can be safe for almost all adult users. A safety study found that weighted blankets up to 30 pounds (the researchers didn’t test heavier ones) had no meaningful impact on vital signs. Sellers of weighted blankets may recommend choosing one that’s no more than 10% of the user’s body weight, but this may be more of a guideline for comfort than a safety recommendation. Contact your doctor if you’re concerned about your health using a weighted blanket.
According to Nationwide Children’s Hospital, weighted blankets could pose a suffocation risk for children under one year of age. Some manufacturers advise against letting toddlers four and under use these products without adult supervision. If you want to try to relieve your child’s anxiety with a weighted blanket, it may be best to make sure they’re strong enough to lift it off themselves and remain in the room to supervise.
Elderly users do not appear to be at risk from weighted blankets. Some studies showing positive effects of weighted blankets were conducted in nursing homes. However, the safety level could be different for those with cardiac or respiratory issues. Older adults may benefit from checking with a doctor before using a weighted blanket for anxiety.
It may also be worth noting that some types of anxiety, such as extreme fears of being enclosed or smothered, might get worse instead of better when you’re weighted down. However, at least one study reported that participants whose claustrophobia was incited by weighted blankets had no further issues after they switched to a lighter-weight model.
How To Use A Weighted Blanket For Anxiety
When you’re worried, anxious, or afraid, you can wrap a weighted blanket around your body or lie underneath it. It may be best to keep the blanket below your neck to avoid any sensation of suffocation. You can experiment to find what’s most comfortable for you. You might prefer to wrap the blanket around your torso, drape it over your legs, or cover as much of your body as possible. You can also drape a weighted blanket over yourself while you’re going to sleep.
If your weighted blanket makes you feel trapped, anxious, or panicky, you may try using it on a smaller portion of your body. You might also choose to exchange it for a lighter-weight blanket. If the sensation persists, weighted blankets may not be practical for you. However, even if you don’t find these blankets effective, there are many other anxiety relief tools and methods to try, including therapy.
Other Support Options
Weighted blankets can be helpful if they make it easier to manage persistent anxiety. However, their immediate relief may not translate into a long-term reduction in symptoms. Instead, you might try using a weighted blanket in combination with evidence-based treatments for anxiety, such as talk therapy. Therapy can offer strategies for overcoming fear in situations where you can’t pull out a blanket and may help you experience less anxiety in general.
If you’ve been reluctant to seek out a mental health specialist because the idea makes you anxious, you might also consider online therapy through a platform like BetterHelp. Internet-based platforms can make it possible to attend therapy from the comfort of your couch. In addition, communicating with your therapist through video call, online chat, or voice-only conferencing can create a sense of control that may be comforting for you.
Although online therapy is a newer resource than in-person counseling, studies indicate it can also be effective. Researchers at the Cochrane Library reviewed the scientific literature in 2016 and concluded that online therapy “appears to be an efficacious treatment for anxiety in adults.” They found no significant differences in the effectiveness of online vs. face-to-face treatment.
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