Weighted blankets are specifically designed to provide a calming effect for the
user. The weight of the blanket, soft fabric, and embracing feeling are all forms of sensory processing stimuli. Sensory
processing is the action your body takes when it senses something – a smell, taste, sight, feeling, or noise. If a person experiences anxiety due to hypersensitivity, the weighted blanket can counteract the over-stimulation and provide a calming experience.
Sensory processing is often referred to as sensory integration. It’s the body’s way of reacting to a sense. If you smell chocolate chip cookies baking in the oven, your body senses the sweet treat and craves a bite. When they come out of the oven, you grab a hot cookie and quickly pull your hand away because the nerves in your fingers reacted to the heat and immediately sent a message to the brain to pull your hand away before you got burned. You waited a few minutes until you took the cookie off of the baking sheet and then promptly took a bite of it and tasted the delicious morsels. The initial smell of the cookie, the touch of the hot cookie, taste of the cookie, and the resulting reactions to those senses are all forms of sensory processing. Your brain processes the senses and then quickly reacts to them whether positive or negative.
Feelings of happiness are not always associated with the senses, however. If you experience a negative reaction to a sense or have been overstimulated by a sense, one may have a sensory processing disorder.
Using the same cookie example, a person may have a negative experience when they smell the cookies baking in the oven. The sweet smell of the cookie may not be enticing to them and trigger a temper tantrum or a violent rage instead. For whatever reason, their body processed the smell and instead of triggering happy feelings of eating the sweet-smelling cookie, the body signaled the person to start crying or screaming because they don’t want to eat the cookie or even smell it baking in the oven. The scent may have triggered an episode in the child or person and now they are experiencing anxiety and stress. The sensory processing of the smell can be reversed or diverted with the use of a weighted blanket. It can introduce other senses that create a calming effect on the person and take their mind off the scent of the baking chocolate chip cookies.
Once the blanket is used on the individual, sensory signals are sent to the brain that can calm the person down and focus their attention on the soft fabric on the blanket and the weight of the blanket around them like they are being held or hugged. This hugging feeling is commonly referred to as Hug or Holding Therapy.
Hug Therapy and Anxiety
Weighted blankets have become a popular tool in hug therapy, a natural approach to treating anxiety, depression, and an array of mental health disorders. Painful emotional feelings that include anger and loneliness can be eliminated or decreased when the chemical oxytocin is released in the brain; this happens during a simple affectionate hug. This sounds like such an easy cure for so many mental health issues, but not everyone can just openly receive or enjoy a hug. A hug from a close relative or even a stranger can be more traumatic than you think. If the person suffers from anxiety and does not want to be around people, a simple hug may cause even more stress to the person. The weighted blanket is used as a stepping stone to get someone to that stage where they can be comfortably embraced without being nervous or frightened.
Hug Therapy and Weighted Blanket Benefits
There’s a range of benefits that weighted blankets provide to those who are receiving hug therapy or cope with autism and other mental health issues.
Oxytocin is Released
Oxytocin is a chemical released in the brain when a hug or pleasant touch is felt. It is responsible for emotions that include trust, fear, and anxiety. Researchers from the University of California at San Diego have been conducting studies that may indicate that oxytocin may help with anxiety disorders. Social behavior also tends to positively change when the chemical is released, thus triggering the emotional traits to surface. The person may become more trusting of those around them, become less fearful of a current situation, and experience a decrease in anxious feelings or nervousness. Weighted blankets are often times referred to as anxiety blankets for this specific reason. Although the blankets do not give the physical human touch experience or hug, they do provide a soft calming touch that is heavy enough to mimic an actual hug. Since it mimics the human hug, it’s possible that oxytocin may be released in the brain and contributes to the calming impact of the blanket.
Provides a Safe Haven
Have you ever been tucked into bed at night with the sheets and blankets swaddled around you? It feels warm, comfortable, and safe. The weighted blankets do just that. They provide a warm and cozy environment when you feel uneasy or agitated. When the blanket is wrapped all around you, it’s almost like you are tucked into your own little cave where no one can bother you or touch you and it provides a safe haven from whatever sensory feeling just occurred.
The hugging feeling that a weighted blanket provides brightens your mood just like a hug from a close friend or family member would do. The wrapping and embraced feeling you have can release serotonin, a chemical that is released in the brain that is responsible for creating happy thoughts and promoting a good mood.
Stimulates Nervous System
Hug therapy and weighted blankets stimulate the nervous system with all of the blanket properties that include the texture of the blanket, the weight and heaviness of the blanket, and the feeling of being held when you are wrapped up in it. These senses help in distracting the unwanted nervous and anxious feelings that may be experienced before use and aid in calming the person down. These new senses that the nervous system is now processing from the weighted blanket can reduce stress and anxiety immediately.
Alternative to a Physical Hug
Hug Therapy cannot be practiced in just any environment, and the firm embrace of a gentle hug cannot be done in state facilities like prisons or mental hospitals. The therapy just isn’t safe in these circumstances for the therapists or staff. The weighted blankets bridge that gap since they
offer the same warm and loving effects that a physical hug offers to a person. Many manufacturers now offer medical grade weighted blankets that do not need to be laundered in a washing machine which make them perfect for multiple users. The blankets may not be as soft to the touch since they typically have an impervious outer material that can be wiped down, although duvet covers are available by several brands and may be allowed in certain state or medical facilities.
As you can see, weighted blankets can aid those with numerous mental health issues and have a wide range of benefits. Always speak with your doctor or therapist before purchasing a weighted blanket, as they can specify the best brand and size that is right for you or a loved one.