Insomnia and Weighted Blankets, Do They Help?

July 17, 2019
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We have all experienced a night where you just can’t sleep.  You toss and turn, glance at the clock, and fix your blanket.  You plump up your pillow, open a window, and glance at the clock to find out that it is merely four minutes since you checked last time.  Perhaps you couldn’t sleep because of anticipation and excitement for the next day.  Maybe you were taking a big exam, meeting an old love, or giving an important presentation at work.  Maybe you took a late nap or had a large cup of Joe too late into the afternoon.  By chance, maybe you were worrying or thinking too much about something.  Did I pay the electric bill?  Did I remember to give the kids their vitamins?  Will I have time to make a stop to the post office before work in the morning?  Whatever the reason, wanting to sleep while lying awake at night can be downright frustrating.  Some of us are lucky enough to experience a night like this every once in awhile, while others are not so lucky and experience them more frequently.

Weighted blankets are becoming the new fad and are being used in an attempt to help people alleviate anxious thoughts and insomnia.  Weighted blankets have historically been used to calm behavioral children or those on the autism spectrum.  Weighted blankets are believed to give people a sense of security and protection in the same way that a swaddle is believed to help a newborn infant sleep. 

Weighted blankets are filled with elements, such as pellets, balls, or other materials that increase their weight and can weigh anywhere from a few pounds to twenty pounds.  Weighted blankets are individualized and recommended to weigh more than 10 percent of a person’s body weight. 

The theory behind weighted blankets is that they offer dense, deep pressure stimulation and a type of tactile feeling that simulates stroking movements.  This feeling may trigger the release of brain chemicals to help a person to lower stress, anxiety, and arousal.

At present time, there is no true clinical research to support the claim that weighted blankets help to alleviate anxiety or insomnia.  Instead, most evidence to support that weighted blankets can help nighttime troubles come from consumer reports and reviews.  Some research studies have shown some evidence that weighted blankets decrease stress and induce calm, but these studies have been largely inconclusive. 

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In contrast, there are many therapies that have been clinically researched and proven to alleviate anxiety and sleeping difficulties, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy.  Other alternative options to improve sleep may be to change your sleeping environment, alter your viewpoints about sleep, or practice healthy sleep hygiene.

Despite this, a weighted blanket may assist a person to relax and to increase feelings of comfort during the night.  There are no risks to trying one out, except from a financial sense, as they can be quite pricey.  A weighted blanket may alleviate anxiety due to the placebo effect, as people may feel better using one because they feel that they are supposed to.  Others may arbitrarily connect feelings of comfort and calm with a weighted blanket in the same way that a toddler may feel calmed by a special stuffed animal.   

A weighted blanket will not alleviate sleeping difficulties attributed to sleep apnea.  In fact, a weighted blanket may cause more harm than good because it could potentially add heavy weight onto a person’s chest.  This extra weight may serve to further impair breathing.  A weighted blanket should also be used cautiously with the elderly and with small children, who might have difficult moving it, making it a potential health hazard.

So the next time you find yourself tossing and turning at night, weighed down by all the troubles of your world, perhaps consider weighing yourself down with a weighted blanket instead.

Tracy is a Licensed Professional Counselor and is a clinical supervisor for the Community YMCA, Counseling & Social Services branch. Tracy has over 12 years of experience working in many settings including partial care hospitalization and intensive outpatient programs, community agencies, group practice, and school-based programs. Tracy works with clients of all ages, but especially enjoys working with the adolescents. Tracy  facilitates groups using art therapy, sand play and psychodrama.