Well, here you go again. You’re awake, tossing and turning, and no matter how long you lay with your eyes closed, you can’t seem to fall asleep. That runaway train of thoughts is at it again: Did I pay that phone bill? I should have got my oil changed today. How am I going to schedule getting the kids to practice? What if I mess up my presentation at work tomorrow? Did I lock the door? Worries run amok, and before you know it, your alarm is going off and you haven’t gotten an ounce of sleep. Insomnia and disrupted sleep patterns can be a result of many different triggers such as a rough day at the office or an altercation earlier that day, but sometimes more serious conditions, like autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and sensory processing disorder (SPD), can be the root cause.
Certainly, there are medications out there designed to help with insomnia and anxiety. Many people, now aware of side effects are looking for alternatives. Sometimes, medications simply aren’t helping. There are some medications and therapies available for ASD and SPD as well, and like those for insomnia, these options aren’t always the answer. One alternative therapy, however, comes relatively cheap and with virtually no side effects and it’s capable of helping people with these conditions, and a whole lot more.
Hugs: They Do A Body Good
Now at first glance, you might think that something as simple as a weighted blanket shouldn’t be able to hold its own against extensively researched and designed drugs. Even therapies designed to relieve anxiety or alleviate certain ASD symptoms take many years of study and practice. How, then, could a heavy blanket be the answer many people with these conditions have been hoping for?
The science behind weighted-blanket therapy, also called deep pressure touch therapy, goes back to our basic human behavior that is known to calm us — being held. Clinical studies show that stimulating certain pressure points on the body causes the brain to release serotonin. This hormone is responsible for regulating several brain functions, including sleep and mood.
“Historically, Native Americans and other indigenous tribes from around the world automatically wrapped their babies snuggly in a swaddle or cradle board to ease fussiness,” says Tori Boucher, an autism spectrum counselor (via Medical Daily) “Innovative hospitals and birthing centers today continue this practice. Weighted blankets are a clever extension of that idea for individuals who continue to need snug pressure beyond infancy.”
The key to stimulating this response is the weight of the blanket, which provides deep pressure touch stimulation. This is seen in swaddling and is present in hugs and when we stroke animals.
“In contrast, light touch pressure is a more superficial stimulation of the skin, such as tickling, very light touch, or moving hairs on the skin,” wrote Dr. Temple Grandin in the Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychopharmacology. “In animals, the tickle of a fly landing on the skin may cause a cow to kick, but the firm touch of the farmer’s hands quiets her. Occupational therapists have observed that a very light touch alerts the nervous system, but deep pressure is relaxing and calming.”
An Alternative With Many Benefits
Initially, deep touch pressure stimulation was used in occupational therapy as a way to help children with ASD or SPD. These children often experience sensory overload, meaning they have difficulty filtering out background sensory information, often resulting in restlessness and anxiety, emotional dysregulation and trouble participating in ongoing tasks. Sleep disturbances or often seen in children with ASD or SPD, which in turn leads to an increased inability to manage sensory input.
Studies have shown weighted blankets can help children with ASD fall asleep. The children benefit from the release of serotonin, the decrease in heart rate and blood pressure as cortisol levels come down and the resulting calming effect that this response brings.
More and more, benefits are being seen in those without specific sensory disorder as well. In 2004, a study involving participants complaining of sleep dysfunction, stress, and pain showed a reduction in nighttime cortisol levels while patients slept with weighted blankets. A reduction in cortisol, the primary stress hormone, lead to overall better sleep quality.
Yet another study found that 63 percent of participants reported lower anxiety after using a weighted blanket, a benefit that has been verified by subsequent studies. Since the use of weighted blankets is considered safe for most users, patients with a multitude of conditions have given weighted blankets a shot — the benefits have been seen in those with post-traumatic stress disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, Alzheimer’s disease, fibromyalgia, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and all types of anxiety.
Like any medication or alternative therapy, deep pressure touch stimulation isn’t for everyone. But because there are virtually no side effects, weighted blankets can provide a feeling of calm and comfort that has escaped many of us for a long time.
*Weighted blankets should never be used for infants or small children who cannot move the blanket unassisted. Consult a doctor before use if you have pre-existing health conditions.