Health

Do Weighted Blankets Even Do Anything for Anxiety?

If you have anxiety, you may have heard some bold claims about this or that thing having the power to relieve some of your worry. Exhibit A: weighted blankets, which have surged in popularity in recent years. Maybe you have a friend who swears by using a weighted blanket or have seen enough glowing reviews to wonder if these items can actually do anything for something as serious as anxiety—or if this is just another trendy product with overblown wellness claims. We spoke to experts and dug through the research to find out.

What weighted blankets are

Weighted blankets tend to look a lot like other cozy throws. The difference is that they’re typically filled with tiny glass sand or plastic pellets that help distribute approximately 10 to 30 pounds of weight evenly over the wearer’s body while they relax or sleep.

The weight people prefer to use varies, and there is no standardized recommendation. But many experts advise using a weighted blanket that is about 10 percent of your body weight, Lynelle Schneeberg, Psy.D., a behavioral sleep psychologist and a fellow of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine, tells SELF.

In the past, weighted blankets (and similar items like weighted vests) have most often been utilized as a therapeutic tool for people with autism. Some occupational therapists and parents have used weighted blankets in an effort to lower stress and agitation in people with autism. (Occupational therapy is meant to help people with illnesses, injuries, or disabilities strengthen skills for daily life.)

The recent explosion in mainstream weighted blanket popularity, however, appears tied to a constellation of factors. Some think increasing awareness of mental health conditions like anxiety and the importance of sleep coincided with—and probably helped to promote—immense interest in a 2017 crowdfunding campaign for the Gravity Blanket, a mass-market weighted prototype that raised $ 4.7 million in pledge money. Gravity Blanket’s campaign also garnered criticism for language that reportedly suggested weighted blankets could “treat” anxiety and other mental health conditions, though that language was later removed.

“There’s no shortage of things out there that people say are helpful for anxiety,” Martin M. Antony, Ph.D., professor and graduate program director in the department of psychology at Ryerson University in Toronto, tells SELF. So, yes, weighted blankets are having a moment. But can they actually do anything for anxiety issues?

How weighted blankets might work for anxiety

The way weighted blankets may work is not totally clear. The theorized mechanism of action is Deep Pressure Touch Stimulation, also called DPTS or deep pressure, Justin Scanlan, Ph.D., professor of occupational therapy and mental health clinician-researcher at the University of Sydney, tells SELF.

Deep pressure is the pleasant, soothing sensation associated with various forms of compression-based touch, like swaddling, massaging, and hugging. “Many people like the feeling of pressure against their body and find this pressure relaxing and calming,” Schneeberg explains.

As Scanlan explains, deep pressure is thought to help reduce the physiological arousal associated with anxiety by acting on the autonomic nervous system (ANS). If anxiety is part of your life, you’re probably intimately aware of the fact that many anxiety symptoms can be physical. Although the way anxiety manifests in the body is pretty complex, experts know that the ANS plays a big role here.

The ANS has two components: the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, according to the Merck Manual. The sympathetic division is responsible for the body’s fight-or-flight response. When activated by stressful situations, it increases functions like your heart and breathing rate, causing physical symptoms like a pounding heartbeat and shortness of breath. The parasympathetic division is the sympathetic’s chill twin: It helps you conserve and restore energy by slowing down functions like your heart and breathing rate.

Basically, the theory is that weighted blankets can provide deep pressure that may dampen your fight-or-flight response and encourage relaxation. So, what does the science say?

Empirical evidence

“There is very little scientific evidence on weighted blankets” for anxiety, sleep psychiatrist S. Justin Thomas, Ph.D., director of the University of Alabama at Birmingham Behavioral Sleep Medicine Clinic, tells SELF. That’s not too shocking, but it is unfortunate when it comes to figuring out how useful—or not—weighted blankets may be for this issue.

What experts do have is a handful of small studies based largely on self-reported participant feedback, Scanlan explains. Some of these have conflicts of interest, such as a 2015 study published in the Journal of Sleep Medicine & Disorders that was funded by the company behind the weighted blankets researchers used. So, there’s even less high-quality evidence on this topic than you might think at first glance, but let’s walk through some of the major takeaways.

Scanlan himself co-authored a 2012 study on weighted blankets and anxiety published in the journal Australasian Psychiatry. For the study, Scanlan and his fellow researchers observed the behavior of 70 patients in a psychiatric unit sensory room. (Sensory rooms, also called comfort rooms, contain objects to help distressed people self-soothe.) There were various items in the room, like a weighted blanket, a rocking chair, and books. “The weighted blanket was one of the most popular items,” Scanlan says.

Whether or not they used a weighted blanket, almost all participants reported reduced distress after being in the sensory room. However, those who opted for the blanket “reported significantly greater reductions in … distress, as well as significantly greater reductions in ratings of anxiety as reported by clinical staff,” Scanlan explains. But, overall, there were no significant post-blanket reductions in how often clinicians felt they had to seclude the patients or how often clinicians reported physically aggressive incidents. It’s also important to note that all of the participants in this study were receiving inpatient psychiatric treatment, so these results aren’t necessarily representative of everyone.

Another interesting study, this one published in the Journal of the Formosan Medical Association in 2016, found that weighted blankets appeared to shift the autonomic nervous system response in people receiving wisdom tooth extractions under local anesthesia. (Don’t mind us, just cringing over here.)

Researchers randomly assigned 60 healthy adults to the experimental group (those using blankets) or control group (those without blankets) and measured their heart rate throughout the procedure. They found positive effects on the patients’ heart rate variability (HRV), which is often used to help measure physiological responses to stress. Specifically, they observed an increase in parasympathetic activity when people used the weighted blankets (remember, that’s the chill part of your autonomic nervous system). But that doesn’t translate into experts being able to say, “Hey, buy a weighted blanket for your anxiety, and you’ll be golden!”

Honestly, it’s going to be kind of tough to do the most scientifically legitimate studies on this. One limit that will be hard to overcome is the placebo effect, or how the mere expectation that a treatment will benefit you may impact your experience. Anxiety is one of the conditions in which you can see a powerful placebo effect, Antony says. Scientists do try to counter this in their investigations. Researchers studying the efficacy of an anti-anxiety drug, for example, can account for the placebo effect by using a control group that receives an inactive pill (and doesn’t know whether it’s getting the real thing or not). This is called a randomized controlled trial (RCT), and it’s the gold standard of medical research. But that’s difficult or perhaps even impossible to do with something like a weighted blanket, because, well, people know whether or not they’re cozied up under a heavy throw.

With that said, there’s nothing wrong with the placebo effect. The bottom line is that feeling better is great, whether or not it’s due to the placebo effect.

Anecdotal evidence

A lack of sound research doesn’t mean weighted blankets absolutely aren’t effective for anyone. Scanlan has heard “informal feedback from a range of people” suggesting that weighted blankets have helped to relieve their anxiety and related issues like trouble sleeping. Whether this is actually due to the weighted blankets or the placebo effect, we can’t be sure.

Gabby H., 20, was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in the last few years, she tells SELF. In addition to taking anti-anxiety medication and seeing a therapist, Gabby uses a weighted blanket to help herself feel calmer and safer during severe anxiety episodes and panic attacks. The heaviness helps her root herself in the present moment when anxious thoughts are carrying her away, she says. “It refocuses [my] senses elsewhere,” Gabby explains. “It basically distracts my brain until it forgets that it is anxious.”

This is referred to as a grounding technique, or a tool that people overwhelmed by intense memories or feelings can use to return to the present moment, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). But using weighted blankets as a grounding technique doesn’t work for everyone.

For instance, Thomas has had several patients report benefits from using weighted blankets for anxiety and/or insomnia, and others report little to no improvement. Like so much else, it’s a really individual thing.

Potential downsides to weighted blankets

Using weighted blankets carries little risk of harm for most people, Scanlan says. However, he does recommend checking in with your doctor if you plan to sleep with one, just in case. For instance, someone with respiratory or circulatory problems may want to make sure the added weight doesn’t exacerbate their symptoms.

Another thing to consider is temperature regulation if you live in a warm climate or are just a generally sweaty sleeper. “The only negative feedback I have heard about [weighted blankets] is that they can be a bit too hot to use in Australian summers,” Scanlan says. Thomas adds that the added weight could theoretically exacerbate hot flashes in people going through menopause. (Some weighted blankets claim to be made of fabric that is breathable or moisture-wicking and thus are marketed to hot sleepers.)

Also, make sure you’re OK with becoming accustomed to sleeping under a weighted blanket. “They can be something that a person learns to ‘require” in order to fall asleep easily,” Schneeberg says. Unfortunately, weighted blankets aren’t exactly easy to haul around when you’re traveling or otherwise sleeping somewhere that isn’t home.

Finally, the biggest downside may be price, Thomas says. You can find weighted blankets on Amazon for anywhere from about $ 50 to $ 500. However much you spend could be a worthy investment or a total waste of money, depending on what you get out of it. And as far as the quality of what you’re getting, it’s hard to go on much besides the reviews. Weighted blankets don’t get seals of approval from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or any other regulatory body.

The bottom line

It’s OK if you love your weighted blanket or are pretty convinced you’re going to buy one. Just keep in mind that a weighted blanket is a potential tool for relaxation or stress relief, not an evidence-based treatment for a diagnosable mental health condition like anxiety.

“I’m absolutely convinced that some people find [weighted blankets] soothing and relaxing,” Antony says. “[That] doesn’t mean it will have any long-term effects…and it doesn’t mean it’s a treatment for an anxiety problem.”

Thomas, for example, doesn’t recommend weighted blankets to his patients. Instead, he will advise the use of evidence-based treatments for anxiety, like cognitive behavioral therapy. But if a patient expresses interest in weighted blankets, he doesn’t discourage them, he says: “I just let them know that few studies have been conducted for us to know if and how much it might help.”

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