Weighted Blankets have been rising in popularity in recent years, especially since the first Kickstarter for commercially made weighted blanket reached viral status some time ago. But many people are wondering: Is this just another pseudo-medical fad like essential oils, healing crystals of homeopathy? Here, we take a look at some of the evidence and dispel some of the rumors surrounding weighted blankets.
A Quick History on Weighted Blankets
One of the best ways to know if something is a fraud or not is knowing the history behind it. For weighted blankets, the history and timeline are remarkably clear. It starts, as many therapies have started, as a response to what were clinically acceptable (but at times morally and ethically challenging) practices such as restraint and seclusion. In multiple in-patient psychiatric and occupational health settings, it had long been determined that the primary method by which to control behaviors we would see as symptomatic of sensory disorders or autism would often be to isolate the individual to allow them to “cool down”, often in a restrained manner so as to ensure they do not hurt themselves. As many could guess, in several cases these treatments would be seen more as punishments and even abuse. To help stop this potentially abusive treatment method, the clinical zeitgeist began to shift: Instead of restraining patients, teach them to self-soothe and use tools to address their individual needs without the use of force or coercion. For further reading, “Sensory Approaches in Inpatient Psychiatric Settings: Innovative Alternatives to Seclusion and Restraint” makes for overall light, but very informative reading. One of the first steps towards the use of the weighted blanket was a common occupational health tool, the weighted vest. However, efficacy with this vest, especially with children seemed to make it less effective than other, more nurturing methods. To these ends, research began in what was once used by people to help calm down disabled children at home. Where blankets originally would be filled with many layers of fabrics and household items like seeds, clinically oriented weighted blankets would be made using more modern materials (such as the Sleep Force blankets currently are) and would be prescribed for over a decade. In recent years, the weighted blanket has slowly transitioned from a prescribed tool only, to something that can be used to help with multiple issues if used correctly.
How Do Weighted Blankets Work?
So, we’ve seen the basics of where Weighted Blankets came from, primarily in helping those with autism or sensory processing disorders, but how do they work? Well, to answer this, we can take a dual approach of the neurophysiological and the social. Let’s take a look at the social context of why this treatment can be effective first.
As anyone with a mental illness can likely attest to, having an issue anywhere, whether in or outside of your home, can make you incredibly self-conscious, as can many self-care methods as they can at times be indiscreet or intrusive. Say, for example, you are an office worker with a generalized anxiety disorder diagnosis, and being touched or held tends to calm you down. You certainly can’t go ask Susan in Human Resources for a hug and just wait it out, but you can at least simulate a similar pressure to a hug by having the blanket over your lap when working, allowing you to take comfort in the texture and weight while also having a convenient excuse of just “feeling a little chilly” if someone asks and you’re not comfortable sharing any information. In a similar context for children who may need to lower their hyperactivity to focus on reading or homework, having a blanket over them while still having the freedom of movement to turn pages or write can be extremely beneficial. In short, this allows for a sensation that while not typically acceptable in social circumstances, can be made so with this blanket, and also help divert attention away from potential positive symptoms that could disrupt one’s social or work life.
In regards to the physiological, specifically the neurophysiological, we have to take into account two neurotransmitters and how they work in mental illness. These two are Dopamine and Serotonin. Dopamine is often simplified as the “happy chemical” that allows for elevated mood, lowered heart rate, and euphoria, or if there is a significant lack of it, depression, anxiety, and a proclivity towards addictions which would increase one’s immediate levels of dopamine. Serotonin is often seen as a mood regulator and a lack of serotonin can often lead to anxiety or hyperactivity. Now, what is one way to both increase serotonin and dopamine? Well, there are of course multiple medications that can be used in conjunction with one another to help deal with either depression, hyperactivity, and anxiety. There is also exercise and nutrition which should be considered, as they can have very high net positive effects on the aforementioned disorders (though admittedly, can be difficult to start on). And then there’s adequate sleep, which can help the brain regulate neurotransmitters more effectively, and can be aided by a weighted blanket which can cause a net increase in Dopamine, Serotonin and the hormone Melatonin, which is used to regulate sleep. Lastly, deep pressure stimulations (things like tight hugs or a weighted blanket) can often also lead to a release of dopamine and serotonin through a physiological cascade that signals your mind and body to relax as they are safe. Now, this does pose a bit of an issue with some individuals who have sensory processing disorders or severe anxiety. There are some cases in which individuals will feel “trapped” or being closed in on, and the added pressure will in fact trigger what is termed a “sympathetic” response (also called a flight or fight response), which can lead to negative results. Knowing when and if to use a weighted blanket can be important, just as knowing the limits of all the above treatment methods are.
In closing, do weighted blankets work? Usually, yes. In fact in a study published in 2008, nearly two thirds of individuals polled believed it helped them lower anxiety, and nearly 80% of individuals preferred it as a calming modality, making it clinically significant. This means that for a one-time, affordable price, yourself or your loved ones may have a more successful time focusing or coping with life’s daily stressors, even if they by way of mental illness seem significantly worse.