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Weighted blankets are a type of blanket designed to provide tactile stimulation and make the user feel safe, relaxed, and comforted.
Weighted blankets typically weigh somewhere between 4 and 30 pounds. They are heavier than ordinary blankets because they’re filled with little plastic beads, glass beads, or metal chains. These are sewn into self-contained pockets within the blanket, evenly distributing the weight across your body.
Weighted blankets are generally considered safe for most adults, with some exceptions.
Although weighted blankets were initially used in professional ‘sensory integration therapy’ (a type of occupational therapy), they are now used to support mental health in other ways.
Many people struggling with insomnia, anxiety disorders, ADHD, and autism have turned to weighted blankets for assistance with their symptoms.
Weighted blankets are a relatively new product, so there hasn’t been much research on their effectiveness in treating and managing anxiety. However, the few studies that do exist provide some insights.
If you’re struggling with anxiety and looking to reduce your symptoms and feel calmer, read on to determine whether weighted blankets could help.
The autonomic nervous system controls and regulates many of the important involuntary functions of our body, including regulating heart rate, blood pressure, respiration, and digestion.
The autonomic nervous system has two divisions, which have opposing effects on the body:
Sympathetic nervous system
Parasympathetic nervous system
When we’re anxious or stressed, our sympathetic nervous system is activated. This is associated with a stress response known as ‘fight-or-flight.’ The response originally evolved as a way for our early ancestors to survive life-threatening situations.
Activation of the sympathetic nervous system causes a release of stress hormones and an increase in heart rate and breathing rate, two symptoms commonly experienced in anxiety.
It is normal to experience anxiety from time to time in stressful situations. Once the stressor or trigger has gone, the balance between the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems should then be restored, so you should no longer feel anxious.
However, people who are chronically anxious have difficulty achieving this balance. This is because their sympathetic nervous system remains activated even in the absence of any stressful or life-threatening situations.
Several small studies have shown that weighted blankets can help restore the balance¹ and reduce the symptoms associated with an activated sympathetic nervous system and the release of stress hormones. Some of these studies are based on participants reporting their symptoms, while others measure physical markers.
In one study², participants used a weighted blanket for five minutes, which reduced anxiety for 63% of participants, and 78% found it calming.
Another study showed that participants' pulse rates decreased after using a weighted blanket for 20 minutes, and they scored lower on an anxiety questionnaire³.
Yet another study⁴ in people hospitalized for a mental health crisis showed that 60% reported lower levels of anxiety after using the weighted blanket.
Weighted blankets are believed to work for anxiety by mimicking certain therapies already practiced, such as deep pressure stimulation and grounding.
It is believed that weighted blankets provide deep pressure stimulation⁵. This is a therapy associated with hands-on, tactile sensory input. It involves applying gentle yet firm squeezing or pressure using your hands, massaging tools, or heavy products such as a weighted blanket.
This pressure makes you feel as if you are being tightly hugged or swaddled, much like how a baby is comforted when upset.
Deep pressure stimulation may increase the quality of life in people with anxiety⁶. This is achieved in the following ways:
Deep pressure stimulation helps calm and regulate the nervous system, making you feel more grounded.
Proprioception is known as our ‘sixth sense’. It makes the joints and muscles more aware of the position and movement of the body and its sensations.
Weighted blankets are believed to stimulate proprioception because they provide a physical boundary that makes you more aware of your physical surroundings.
Shifts the balance of the autonomic nervous system
Deep pressure stimulation activates our parasympathetic nervous system and reduces the activity of the sympathetic nervous system⁶. The parasympathetic nervous system is associated with the rest and digest relaxation response, the opposite of ‘fight-or-flight.’
An essential role of the parasympathetic nervous system is to slow our breathing and heart rate. Studies have shown that this reduces anxiety⁷ and helps you feel calmer⁵.
Triggers the release of hormones
Deep pressure stimulation is thought to trigger the release of serotonin³ by activating the parasympathetic nervous system and proprioceptive input. Serotonin is a chemical messenger found in our brain that relays signals between nerve cells. You may have heard it referred to as one of our ‘happy hormones’ due to its role in stabilizing our mood, well-being, and happiness.
Deep pressure stimulation reduces cortisol levels³. Cortisol is our ‘stress hormone,’ which is released during the stress response and is often elevated in people with anxiety.
Deep pressure stimulation may trigger the release of melatonin³, a hormone that helps you feel relaxed and is vital for sleep.
It might also trigger the release of oxytocin⁸, which is naturally released by touch and may be achieved by the ‘hug’ feeling of a weighted blanket. Oxytocin is associated with feeling calm and can also improve your mood and reduce anxiety,
Grounding is a therapeutic technique that uses the five senses to allow us to be present. It is helpful because anxious people often feel disconnected from themselves and their reality.
Sleeping under a weighted blanket is a form of grounding because the heavy blanket pushes your body down towards the earth and allows you to feel the pressure across your entire body.
Some studies have shown that grounding reduces or even eliminates sleep difficulties and stress⁹.
Grounding can also reduce night-time cortisol levels⁹ and bring overall cortisol levels into a more normal range. Although this effect was discovered using a grounding mattress pad, weighted blankets may produce a similar effect.
Activating the parasympathetic nervous system can improve your sleep, which in turn can reduce symptoms associated with anxiety.
For people with generalized anxiety disorder, studies have found that using weighted blankets can reduce insomnia¹⁰ and improve the quality of sleep¹¹, leading to less daytime anxiety. This effect was shown after four weeks of participants using weighted blankets, and participants who continued to use weighted blankets regularly for a year maintained the improvement in sleep.
The cocooning effect provided by weighted blankets might also reduce insomnia as it is believed to release anxiety¹¹. The tactile input may suppress the activity of the sympathetic nervous system.
Another study¹² showed that people reported feeling 13% less stressed at bedtime and 17% more relaxed when falling asleep when using a weighted blanket.
More research is needed for any conclusions to be made and for weighted blankets to be recommended by medical professionals. There is also the possibility that the placebo effect may also have been a factor in any positive results in studies.
Despite this, some evidence shows a correlation between using weighted blankets and a reduction in the physical and mental causes of anxiety.
Weighted blankets are considered to be very safe with few associated risks. Even so, there are some factors to be aware of:
Type of blanket
Mink or fleece weighted blankets tend to get hot. If you’d like to use a weighted blanket throughout the year, you should choose one made from cooler fabrics such as bamboo or light cotton instead.
Age of the user
The American Association of Pediatrics recommends that children under two years old or who weigh less than 50 pounds should not use weighted blankets. This is due to the risk of suffocation and sudden infant death syndrome¹³. Children with certain physical or learning difficulties are also not recommended to use weighted blankets.
There is very limited information on the safety of weighted blankets for children, and parents considering weighted blankets should consult an occupational therapist or pediatrician.
Risk of suffocation
The risk of suffocation is also important to consider for older adults who may find it difficult to move underneath the blanket. You could opt for a lighter 10-pound weighted blanket instead.
Pre-existing medical conditions
Some pre-existing medical conditions may make it dangerous to use weighted blankets. Make sure to speak to your doctor before using a weighted blanket if you have any of the conditions listed below:
Claustrophobia — The feeling of tightness could trigger a fear response and worsen your anxiety.
Low blood pressure
Low muscle tone
Difficulty regulating temperature, such as hot flushes if you are going through menopause
Any other condition that you may be worried about
If you have breathing problems due to conditions such as asthma, which can worsen at night, or obstructive sleep apnea, where your breathing is momentarily cut off due to airway closure, you should place a weighted blanket no higher than waist-level. This prevents too much pressure on your chest, allowing you to breathe easier.
There are a few things to keep in mind when closing your weighted blanket:
Weight of the blanket
The weight of the blanket should be between 7–12% of your body weight, with the ideal weight being 10%¹⁴. You should be able to move underneath the blanket and lift it off easily; otherwise, it can worsen your anxiety and sleep.
The blanket doesn’t necessarily need to fit your bed. It’s better to make sure that it fits comfortably but tightly over your body rather than falling off the sides of your bed.
Whether you share a bed
If you’re sharing a bed with someone and will also be sharing the weighted blanket, the difference in your weights could mean that the distribution of the weight provided by the blanket is uneven, so it may be less effective.
Weighted blankets are a lot more expensive than ordinary blankets, ranging from USD $100 to over $200¹⁴.
It’s important to be aware of the benefits and limitations of using weighted blankets. They do not offer a cure for anxiety and should not be used as a primary treatment or a replacement for other treatments.
However, there is evidence suggesting that deep pressure stimulation and grounding techniques, which weighted blankets provide, can effectively treat anxiety. If you are suffering from anxiety, using a weighted blanket could help to reduce your symptoms.
Brain hormones | Endocrine Society
Anxiety and stress weighing heavily at night? A new blanket might help | Harvard Health Publishing