The Science of Weighted Blankets
"I have been considering a weighted blanket but am unsure if it would truly benefit me. I'll have to look into it but It's nice to know it made a difference for you. Is there any other uses other than sleep they are helpful with?"
Therapeutic Applications of Weighted Vests for kids with Sensory Issues
There is clinical validity to the idea of weighted blankets. When I worked as a behavior therapist, many of my clients had sensory issues, which meant their nervous system processed sensory information differently; every little thing is consciously processed, like being aware of the sensation of the air on their skin at all times, feeling blasted by bright light and echoes in the hallways, or overwhelmed by smells from the cafeteria, or feeling subtle vibrations as if they were an earthquake. They could easily become overstimulated by all of the sensory information that is just a natural part of life.
Similarly, many of with clients with ADHD struggled with dysregulation, except their nervous system is the opposite. It’s under-stimulated so it’s constantly seeking more stimulation.
In both instances, whether over-stimulated or under-stimulated, weighted vests helped them self-regulate. The weight gives the nervous system something to focus on processing, rather than constantly scanning the environment.
You can think of your nervous system kind of like a computer; it only has so much processing power. When the nervous system is processing the sensory information of pressure on the skin from the weight of the vest, it is too busy to process all the external stimuli in the environment. This helped my kiddos focus on their schoolwork instead of constantly reacting to subtle shifts in their environment. The weight and the sensation it creates brought their awareness back to their body.
The Relationship Between Trauma & Insomnia
People with PTSD and anxiety sometimes have a similar experience to those with sensory issues. Symptoms associated with hypervigilance are the result of a hyperactive nervous system. When our nervous system struggles to self-regulate (which is what's happening when we have chronic stress and anxiety or panic attacks), we can easily get overstimulated and overwhelmed by everyday sensory input. That’s why the insomnia buster routine offered through the Overcome! program recommends techniques that limit sensory input in the hours before bed. When the nervous system is prone to dysregulation, we are easily overstimulated, which leads to more dysregulation.
There is a TON of information that our bodies process, from both our internal and external environments, typically without our awareness. Most people can tune out sensory input that isn't important, or can tune in by focusing their attention on it. People who live with PTSD or chronic anxiety experience a disruption in the ability to tune out sensory input. Our nervous system doesn’t turn off when we sleep. Your body is scanning for temperature regulation, breath and heart rate, pressure or pain (and waking you up a little bit to roll over), etc. all while you sleep.
Trouble Falling Asleep & Staying Asleep
When we are prone to dysregulation, any little sensory stimulus can rouse us from sleep. To the body, hypervigilance = safety. Sleep states are vulnerable because we can’t be hypervigilant when we’re asleep. Dysregulation is like our body’s alarm system. When the alarms are going off, that’s typically not a good time to relax and go into vulnerable states, so the body is like no sleep! I’ve got to be on guard!
This is especially true when we habitually wake up before going into REM sleep, because that’s when we would be most vulnerable, most unaware of our environment. We can sleep for a while but as soon as our deep sleep brain waves activate, our alarm system starts to go off. If this happens on repeat, this essentially becomes learned behavior for the nervous system.
Weighted Blankets & Your Nervous System
The weighted blanket gives the nervous system something secure and unchanging to process instead of scanning the environment. This ties back into the computer analogy: the nervous system only has so much processing power. If it's processing the gentle pressure from the weighted blanket, it doesn’t have space to process the subtle shifts in our environment that might trigger our alarm system. In this way, using a weighted blanket helps us focus on meeting our needs rather than working against our imbalance.
How do I actually get results?
It takes time for the nervous system to make new associations and unlearn the habituated response of hypervigilance. When you've been living with PTSD or anxiety for a while, the body has to re-learn that relaxation and deep sleep are safe.
Pairing relaxation techniques with activities we want our body to learn are relaxing is an approach based on behaviorism. We think of Pavlov and his experiments with the dogs and the bell. He paired the sound of the bell with food and after enough repetitions, the dogs would automatically salivate at the sound of the bell.
You can train your nervous system in the same way with your bedtime routine. It takes many repetitions to train a new response, and even more to get that response into the unconscious (where it becomes automatic). Insomnia is really hard because it’s both a symptom and a catalyst. It’s very challenging for anyone’s nervous system to find regulation and stay regulated when we haven’t had enough sleep. But the dysregulation makes it hard to sleep. And the cycle goes round.
The insomnia buster routine we recommend in the Overcome! program is like a slew of relaxation triggers. Eventually your body will learn when the tv goes off, I relax. When my jammies go on, I relax a bit more. When I crawl into bed, I relax a bit more. When I do my breathing exercises in bed, I relax a bit more. Eventually, the relaxation response will automatically activate when those triggers present. As your nervous system generally becomes more habituated to relaxation through daily practice of relaxation techniques, staying asleep will gradually get easier.
The weighted blanket is a tool that you can use to help your nervous system self-regulate while you practice relaxation techniques. It seems counter-intuitive to provide more stimulation to an already overstimulated nervous system in an attempt to help it relax, but it works because of the whole processing power analogy. It's the same reason we give hyperactive kids stimulants to calm them down. When your body doesn't have to be hypervigilant by scanning the environment, you can relax.
Other Uses for Weighted Blankets
In a practical sense, the weighted blanket can be used for more than just sleep. You can fold it and use it in your diaphragmatic breathing practice instead of buying a sandbag. It’s also quite firm so I like to roll it up and use it almost like a foam roller to lay on and stretch my back. I also find myself draping it over my legs when I’m just watching tv or working on my computer. I like mine a lot!
Alternatives to Weighted Blankets
In Ayurveda, it’s recommended that people with anxiety wear tight fitting clothing, or even those compression exercise clothes. It’s the same idea as the weighted blanket. It gives gentle pressure, which gives the body something secure to focus on instead of scanning. I know it’s not a fashion statement everyone wants to make in public, but it could be worth considering for bed time. Or, I’ve seen those compression-style boxer briefs. Something like that could be an alternative to sporting full on spandex.
I’m sure there could be many other uses for a weighted blanket, but that’s the experience I can share. Since I started using my weighted blanket at night, my insomnia has improved. After sleeping with it for a couple weeks, I decided to experiment and tried sleeping without it for a couple of nights. I markedly felt more restless.
Recommendations & Considerations
I got my weighted blanket from Luna Blankets. I like them because they have organic cotton blankets, they use medical grade quality beads for the weight, and they even offer a cooling bamboo option for the warm months. I also like that their weight options are more customizable than other companies I looked in to. I was able to find a blanket that is just right for me.
Weighted blankets are contraindicated for people who have joint pain or hypermobility in the joints. The added pressure throughout the whole night can exacerbate joint pain or encourage joints out of alignment. This can sometimes be accommodated by sleeping with pillow props to support the joints under the extra weight, but I guess it just depends if that's cozy for you.
If you want to learn more about natural ways to overcome insomnia and other symptoms associated with disordered stress and anxiety, the Overcome! Anxiety Program offers a structured eight-week program to educate you about your body, help you better identify your needs, and teaches you tools to help you restore your body's natural ability to self-regulate.
About the Author
Nancy Cooke is a certified Trauma Informed Yoga Therapist and Professional TIYT Clinical Facilitator with the Overcome Anxiety Project, a non-profit organization committed to teaching body-based therapeutic approaches to mental health.
At FBW, not being able to afford our advertised rates does NOT mean you are unworthy of our services. Contact Nancy to ask about our scholarship program.