The Beginner's Guide to Weighted Blankets for Anxiety

Originally published on May 19, 2019
By
Jason Gutierrez
in
Anxiety

Lately, all my friends and family have been raving about weighted blankets for anxiety. I've heard that they help people with anxiety sleep better, provide a natural “hug” while sleeping, and reduce overall anxiety in both adults and children.

Curious about the benefits myself, I borrowed a friend’s weighted blanket for the week and tried it out. After 7 days of surprisingly positive results, I was sold.

If you're wondering "do weighted blankets work for anxiety?" The answer is yes. Here's why I bought one for myself, and why I’ll be buying one for everyone else I know struggling with anxiety.

What Are Weighted Anxiety Blankets?

Weighted blankets have been used for years as part of occupational therapy for young kids with disorders like ADHD and autism. They didn’t really start gaining traction as a tool for adults to ease anxiety until around 2014.

Since then, they’ve exploded in popularity. Gravity Blanket racked up a cool $4 Million+ during its 2017 Kickstarter campaign, and more options seem to be popping up on Amazon daily.

As the name implies, weighted blankets are blankets equipped with extra weight (ranging anywhere from 5 to 30 lbs), thus more force applied to your resting body.

All weighted blankets are filled with a special material used to make them heavier, however the specific material varies depending on the supplier. This is a key point of interest since the material determines the feel of the blanket and how easy it is to maintain (aka if you'll ever actually wash it).

Most weighted blankets consist of glass beads or plastic pellets. These are the most popular and probably what you’ll want to be looking for. Of the two, glass beads are the preferred because they provide a more evenly distributed weight and aren’t much trouble to wash. Higher quality blankets will add cotton or other filler materials in addition to the beads to provide a more cushiony and traditional comforter-type feel.

There are other types of materials used(things like rice and millet) but they’re much less common and desirable than glass or plastic pellet options.

How Weighted Blankets Work

Being an engineer, I’m always deeply curious in how things actually work. After using the blanket for a few days and experiencing some benefits for myself, I took to the internet for a little research. Every piece of information I came across mentioned something called deep touch pressure (DTP) therapy, also referred to as deep pressure stimulation (DPS).

If you’ve ever crawled into bed on a cold winter night under the warm embrace of a thick, heavy blanket and felt calm and at-ease, you’ve experienced DPS in action. It’s essentially a therapy designed to provide a firm but tender “hug” that acts to relax the nervous system.

This is accomplished through the surge of “feelgood” neurotransmitters such as dopamine, serotonin, and oxytocin that the body produces in response to said hug. Real or stimulated, the production of these chemicals help to counteract cortisol produced by stress and anxiety.

Where They Came From

The genesis of the weighted blanket came from a lady by the name of Mary “Temple” Grandin while attending university. Growing up, Grandin noticed she craved love and affection but felt over-stimulated when hugged or held. Eager to solve her hypersensitivity problem, she eventually developed a contraption known as a Hug Machine.

While visiting her aunt’s ranch in Arizona, she would watch cattle being led through a compression device engineered to hold them still during vaccination.

Source: Wikipedia

Grandin noted how the cows were much calmer after the gentle squeeze of the machine, and she eventually used this concept to create her own invention. The Hug Machine provided all the benefits of a hug without feeling trapped or restricted, and without the sometimes unpleasant or unwelcome contact with another human.

To this day, there are still a variety of modernized Hug Machines on the market. However, most of these devices come with a hefty price tag, which means they’re perfect for therapy centers and hospitals, but not so much for regular folks like you and me.

That’s where the opportunity for weighted blankets arose. With growing positive research on deep pressure stimulation relieving symptoms in children with autism, sensory processing disorder, and related ailments, weighted blankets became a much cheaper, more readily available solution.

Why Weighted Blankets Are Especially Good for Anxiety

According to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA), anxiety disorders are the most common mental ailment in the US, affecting more than 40 million adults each year.

That means roughly 18 percent of the population suffers from anxiety, more if you include the people struggling undiagnosed and children under 18 years of age.

Simply put, anxiety is a huge problem for us living in developed nations, yet many people don’t seek treatment or bother helping themselves.

That’s where weighted blankets can be a big help to those in need, since they’re discrete, generally affordable, and shown to alleviate symptoms of anxiety.

Another big benefit of weighted blankets for anxiety is sleep. While we still have a lot to learn about the relationship between anxiety and sleep, what we do know is that their bond is bidirectional, which means anxiety causes sleep loss, and sleep loss causes anxiety.

Sleep researcher Matthew Walker, PhD talks about this in detail in his book Why We Sleep (which, by the way, is one of my most recommended books).

The National Sleep Foundation tells us that somewhere around 45 percent of the US population is sleep deprived, and anxiety is without doubt partially responsible. Based on a 2015 study in the Journal of Sleep Medicine and Disorders, weighted blankets improved the sleep of participants.

“Objectively, we found that sleep bout time increased, as well as a decrease in movements of the participants, during weighted blanket use. Subjectively, the participants liked sleeping with the blanket, found it easier to settle down to sleep and had an improved sleep, where they felt more refreshed in the morning. Overall, we found that when the participants used the weighted blanket, they had a calmer night’s sleep.”

The Counter-Argument (Downsides)

Largely speaking, the pros of weighted blankets far outweigh the cons, but for the sake of painting the full picture let’s review those downsides.

First, weighted blankets are obviously heavy. Blankets ranging from 5 to 30 pounds can be difficult to travel with and tough for children to use unsupervised. Not deal-breakers by any means, but notable nonetheless.

Second, the added weight means these blankets tend to run much warmer than traditional comforters. This could be great in the winter or places where it’s cooler in general, but might mean that you have to keep the A/C running a little lower when temperatures are higher, such as during the summertime.

Third, there are limits as to how heavy blankets can be produced before sacrificing quality. As such, heavier individuals (~those who weigh > 230 lbs) will have a hard time finding a blanket that suits them. More details on recommended blanket weights are included further below.

And lastly, most weighted blankets are designed to fit a person, not the bed. If you sleep alone, this won’t be a problem for you. But if you sleep with a partner or someone else, you won’t get as much out of it if you try to “double-up” and both sleep under the same weighted blanket.

My Personal Experience

Despite all the science and evidence, I wasn’t fully ready to commit to buying my own weighted blanket without at least trying one out first. After all, the benefits can differ slightly from person to person, so I was eager to see what, if any, I would experience.

Fortunately, a neighbor was kind enough and willing to let me borrow his for one week. It worked out fairly well since we’re roughly the same height and weight, which meant the blanket would be sized appropriately.

Part of the reason I was looking forward to the experiment was because my anxiety grew from a manageable 4 or 5 to a somewhat overwhelming 8. We’ll skip over the life circumstances that led me there,but I wanted to at least give you an idea of where I started on the anxiety spectrum.

I first used the blanket while settling into my bed for the night. Though my anxiety didn’t go away, I deeply appreciated the “hug” and must say that it felt very calming and relaxing. Snug would be the perfect term to describe the feeling.

For the next several days, I used the blanket strictly at nighttime, and I noticed myself falling asleep faster and staying asleep. When my anxiety spikes, I usually grind my teeth and toss and turn throughout the night. This often leads to waking up with a tight jaw, extremely messy hair, and on the other side of the bed.

I did not have those problems while sleeping with the blanket. This could likely be attributed to the anxiety-reducing effects of the deep pressure stimulation, as well as the weight of the blanket preventing me from tossing and turning.

For the last couple of days using the blanket,I experimented with it on the couch, which felt super comforting, and I continued to notice my anxiety symptoms subsiding.

Overall, while there is certainly some level of placebo effect in play, it’s hard for me to deny that I simply felt better, more relaxed, and less anxious after consistent use of the blanket.

Despite all of scientific benefits, I think the most important aspect of weighted blankets is that it just feels damn good to be hugged, whether real or simulated.

So, after the 7 days when I had to give the blanket back to my neighbor, I felt like my experience justified buying one of my own.

Advice on Buying A Weighted Blanket

There are lots of options when buying weighted blankets. As with most things, you get what you pay for. Blankets on the lower end of the price scale will be much more affordable but lacking in quality,whereas blankets on the higher end of the price scale will be of much greater quality but typically less affordable.

In my opinion, you don't need to go with a super expensive one to get the quality you're looking for, especially for your first blanket. The blanket I now use is a BABO weighted blanket (a dual-weather blanket which means it's perfect for hot and cold seasons) and I love it.

babo-weighted-blanket
Buy it on Amazon

It's a very high quality blanket and tough to beat for the price. If you're on-the-fence of trying one, BABO is the blanket I recommend.

Amazon's new choice blanket is this one right here (slightly less expensive than the BABO):

ynm-weighted-blanket
Source: Amazon

After that, if you love how your weighted blanket works and are looking for something more luxurious, there are some great options (at a higher price tag) that you may want to check out.

Gravity Blankets (not an affiliate) are currently the most popular, offering a wide range of blankets and specially designed duvets that enhance the weighted blanket experience.

Feel free to use one of my recommendations above, or browse around Amazon and Google for yourself to compare with others.

How Heavy Should They Be?

Suppliers aside, there is one thing you’ll definitely want to figure out before buying a weighted blanket: how heavy it should be.

A good rule of thumb for purchasing a weighted blanket is to buy one that is around 10% of the user’s body weight. For example:

Since not all suppliers sell a wide-range of blankets with different weights (i.e. it can be tough to find a 12 or 18 lb blanket), it’s OK to stray slightly in either direction, but typically you should try to buy one that is close to this target as possible.

If you do stray, most people opt for the lower weight option (at least according to Gravity Blanket’s customer exchange data).

Or Consider Making One

Lastly, if you’re interested in a weighted blanket but can’t quite afford the price tag, making your own is another option. All you need is a little bit of craftiness, a few suppliers, and ahandful of time to pull it all together.

There are plenty of DIY guides across the internet that a simple Google search will yield. Here’s one example, but you might want to do a little more of your own research -- based on your level of aptitude -- that will meet your needs.

The TL;DR (Too Long; Didn’t Read)

Based on some science and my own personal experiments, weighted blankets are an awesome and promising tool for anxiety sufferers. They’re an effective and relatively affordable way to lower anxiety,improve sleep, and simulate the feeling of a “hug” without unwanted or unavailable human touch.

I, personally, am excited to see how this industry will continue to evolve and innovate to solve more anxiety-related problems (airplane travel, for example), and how well further research will support its development.


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