by Tammie McKay

W hat exactly is a weighted blanket, and why would someone need or use one? Simply put, it is a blanket lined with evenly distributed weight. The weight varies based on the size of the blanket and the therapeutic intent of the user. Weighted blankets have a long history of use in a type of occupational therapy called sensory integration. This treatment is used to help people with autism or other similar disorders focus on sensory experiences, thanks to the benefits they provide. Weighted blanket popularity has been increasing over the past couple years. They have become much more mainstream since people realized they help anxiety and sleep issues. Weighted blankets offer many benefits to the user without any drawbacks or side effects.

In order to relieve stress or get a better night’s rest, one would probably think you need to take the weight off; however, doing the opposite actually provides a positive result. A weighted blanket is designed to be warm and provide a gentle, comforting pressure, mimicking the sensation of being held. The science behind the blanket that created the feeling of comfort is called “deep touch pressure” (DTP). Children with autism tend to be low in serotonin, as are those individuals who have depression, anxiety, aggression, OCD, PTSD, and bipolar disorder. DTP gently applies pressure on the body, which increases the release of serotonin and dopamine, two neurotransmitters that make you feel better and more relaxed. Some research suggests that slow and gentle touch can simulate portions of the limbic system, the brain’s network for processing emotion and fear.

The biggest benefit of the weighted blanket is improved sleep. Melatonin is a hormone that controls the body’s internal clock, and the weighted blanket stimulates increased melatonin production. It is not uncommon for children with autism to have sleep issues, and their parents usually have to lay with them while they fall asleep. Studies have shown one of the key factors keeping autistic children awake at night is anxiety. A weighted blanket immediately calms the nervous system, helping to soothe the child before or even during an anxiety episode. An overwhelmed nervous system causes a sensory meltdown. Sensory input, like DTP or cuddling, calms the body’s “fight or flight” response. Some autistic children do not like being touched, and the weighted blanket allows for this sensory input to be self-administered.

Not only does the weighted blanket help children with autism, but it also aids those suffering from neurological disorders. Approximately 40 million people suffer from anxiety, and 5.2 million more suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), another type of anxiety disorder. Other anxiety disorders include panic disorder, social anxiety, OCD, depression and bipolar disorder. Anxiety can wreak havoc on health, happiness, and everyday life. One major debilitating side effect of anxiety is the inability to sleep at night, with insomnia often being the result of poor sleep quality. Not only is it important to get an adequate amount of sleep, it is also important to get sleep that is truly restful and restorative. The gentle pressure from a weighted blanket can provide a comforting environment, allowing you to fall asleep, and just as importantly, stay asleep. The weighted blanket is believed to create a sense of being swaddled. As a result, the mind eases and the body relaxes. Although medications can help, many people prefer a natural, drug-free way to manage their anxiety symptoms.