Our senses are constantly relaying input from our environment to our brains. Your cup of coffee may be too hot to touch. Your roommates are watching TV loudly in the other room. The vibration of your phone in your pocket informs you of an incoming text.
Your brain takes this sensory input and filters it by importance. But when your nervous system is in a “fight or flight” state, this organization process is difficult.
Deep Pressure Therapy (DPT), or deep touch pressure is a tactile input in any form of pressure exerted equally across the body. Deep Pressure Therapy can be administered through firm hugs, squeezing, stroking, or swaddling.
When your body is acting on instinct and every piece of sensory input is deemed important. This state of mind makes it nearly impossible to calm down.
However, occupational therapists have observed that Deep Pressure has a calming and organizing effect on the nervous system.
How Deep Pressure Therapy Works
Contrary to what we learned in school, the body actually uses 7 senses to interpret the world around us. Besides the original 5 senses (sight, smell, touch, taste, and sound), we also have a sense of movement (vestibular), and a sense of body awareness (proprioception).
We’re going to focus on the proprioceptive system.
Take a minute to close your eyes. Stretch your arms outward and try to touch your two index fingers. You might succeed on the first try. If not, your body corrects itself and by the second try, you should be able to touch your fingers.
This is your proprioceptive system at work. It informs our body of its position in space by directing muscles on how to react to external stimuli. It is essential for building body awareness.
Deep Pressure Therapy is a form of proprioceptive input. The added weight puts pressure on your joints and muscles, giving your brain a better sense of where your body is in relation to space.
Effect of Deep Pressure Therapy on Nervous System
Deep Pressure Therapy also has a profound effect on the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS). As a division of the nervous system, the ANS controls unconscious actions, such as breathing, digestion, and heart rate. This system can be further broken down into two sections.
The Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) is the body’s “fight or flight” response. It releases hormones which increase blood pressure, blood sugar, and breathing. Try to remember the last time you were nervous. Maybe it was before I test or a meeting at work. How did you feel? Your heart was probably pounding. Your palms may have been sweaty, and it may have been hard to think about the task at hand.
That was your Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) at work.
The second section of the ANS is the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PSNS). This section is the exact opposite of the SNS and is dominant during peaceful, quiet times. The PSNS calms the body down by decreasing blood pressure, heart rate, and breathing.
Now try to remember how you feel when you’re taking a bath, or even before you go to sleep. Your breathing is slower. Your thoughts stop racing, and you feel calmer and at peace.
That is your Parasympathetic Nervous System (PSNS).
When you’re in a state of stress, your body is constantly in a “fight or flight” response, meaning your SNS is dominant. This can make it impossible to calm down and can greatly affect your thinking, concentration, and sleep.
When Deep Pressure Therapy is applied to the body, the Autonomic Nervous System becomes balanced. The body’s “fight or flight” response decreases, while the calming PSNS is activated.
This opposite movement within the Autonomic Nervous System not only calms the body down but helps regulate your emotions.
Benefits of Deep Pressure Therapy
Over the years, there have been many advocates for Deep Pressure Therapy. A scientist by the name of Dr. Temple Grandin is a pioneer in this field. Diagnosed with autism herself, she would crave deep pressure during her childhood years.
As she grew older, Grandin began to realize how important this deep proprioceptive input was for her day to day life. She even went on to build her own “Hug Machine” to administer deep pressure to calm anxiety.
But what other effects does Deep Pressure Therapy have on our daily lives?
Researchers found that Deep Pressure Therapy increased serotonin by 28% and dopamine by 31%. These “happy hormones” have a direct and positive effect on mood and behavior.
Researchers also found that the stress hormone, cortisol, decreased by 31%. When cortisol levels are high, the body goes into “fight or flight” mode. This combined effect reduces stress and anxiety, while boosting your mood.
During a 24-hour period, each of us produces hormones that control when we go to sleep and when we wake up. This cycle is controlled by a hormone called melatonin. Produced in the pineal gland in the brain, this hormone is responsible for your body’s internal clock.
In the evening when the sun starts to set, melatonin production naturally rises. It continues to rise though out the night and slowly drops when the sun comes up again.
Melatonin isn’t the only hormone that fluctuates with our sleep and wake schedules. Cortisol, the body’s natural stress hormone, also plays a role in our internal clock. However, cortisol levels fluctuate on an opposite cycle. Production increases during the day and decreases at before bed.
However, if you are stressed, cortisol levels remain high and melatonin production cannot start until those levels begin to decrease again. These two hormones become misaligned and your sleep schedule gets thrown off.
Deep Pressure Therapy increases the production of melatonin and decreases cortisol levels. This realigns your hormone production, making it easier to fall asleep.
Natural Therapeutic Aid
Although helpful, medications for anxiety, depression, and insomnia have huge side effects. Deep Pressure Therapy is a great supplement to an already existing treatment plan.
The calming effect on the nervous system helps combat anxiety symptoms, depression symptoms, and sleep anxiety. This natural calming effect can be achieved without taking more medication.
Who Can Benefit from Deep Pressure Therapy?
Adults and children alike can benefit from the effects of Deep Pressure Therapy, especially those diagnosed with the following:
• Anxiety Disorder
• Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
• Attention Deficit Disorder (ADHD)
• Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD)
• Tourette’s Syndrome
• Restless Leg Syndrome
How Is Deep Pressure Therapy Administered?
Examples of Deep Pressure Therapy tools include the following:
Think about the last time you received a good hug from a loved one. How did you feel? A bear hug applies Deep Pressure to your entire body. Next time you’re on the verge of a panic attack, ask for a hug. The same thing applies for when your SPD child is feeling overstimulated. The extra pressure will calm down their “fight or flight” response.
Massages are great tools to calm the body’s fight or flight response, even before the massage therapist enters the room. The room is dark and the calm music starts to soothe your senses and breathing. Once the massage therapist begins to apply pressure, your dopamine and serotonin levels rise, and cortisol levels begin to decrease.
Another great way to administer Deep Pressure is with a weighted blanket. Designed to weigh 10 percent of your body weight, these blankets evenly distribute pressure across your body. Weighted blankets are portable can be used at any time of the day. Those suffering from anxiety, depression, PTSD, and SPD will find these blankets useful. For children with autism, who cannot tolerate physical touch, weighted blankets are a great tool.
Laying Between Sofa Cushions
This is another way to receive Deep Pressure Therapy. A lot of kids who have sensory processing disorders will ask to be covered in sofa cushions or even rolled up in blankets like a burrito. This is extra pressure is a form of deep pressure and has an organizing effect on their brain.
Deep Pressure Therapy Dogs
Deep Pressure service dogs are specifically trained to apply deep pressure during overstimulating situations. They use their body weight to cover their owner when they feel a panic attack approaching. Therapy dogs benefit a variety of disorders, including anxiety, depression, PTSD, and sensory processing disorder.