PTSD is a serious mental health condition that develops as a reaction to a traumatic, life-threatening event. Military combat, terrorist attacks, sexual assault, and serious accidents are all triggers.
No matter the cause, PTSD is a serious, debilitating disorder. In addition to cognitive behavioral therapy and medication, many people suffering from PTSD have found relief from weighted blankets.
Those suffering from PTSD relive their trauma through flashbacks that pop up without warning. They may feel detached, depressed, or have major mood swings. Insomnia is also common, as trauma often plays out in reoccurring nightmares.
This fear of falling asleep affects day-to-day life. It can be hard to focus throughout the day, and as a consequence, work and school may suffer. Those combating PTSD may be easily startled and lash out at friends and family. These symptoms can last from months to even years after a traumatic event.
What Is a Weighted Blanket?
Designed to weigh 10% of your body weight, weighted blankets put gentle pressure on the body’s sensory receptors. The feeling is similar to a firm hug which provides a feeling a safety and relief.
For years, occupational therapists have been using weighted blankets as a natural therapeutic tool. The added weight of the blanket calms the body’s “fight or flight” response, relaxing not only the body, but the mind as well. But how can something as simple as a weighted blanket have such a profound effect on PTSD symptoms?
How Do Weighted Blankets Work?
Many scientists, including Temple Grandin, have been huge advocates for DTP over the years. Grandin, who was diagnosed with autism, would crave deep pressure during her childhood years. When she felt anxious, Grandin would wrap herself up in a blanket or bury herself under the sofa cushions. The added pressure gave her almost instant relieve from over overstimulating environment.
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.
Effect 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. Those suffering from PTSD are almost always in a “fight or flight” response. Certain situations or places force them to relive their experience, which causes physical symptoms. Their heart will start beating faster, the hairs on their neck rise, and they may start to sweat.
These physical reactions are from the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS).
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.
Those suffering from PTSD may not have may situations where they feel at ease. But anything that does not trigger flashbacks, such as hugs from loved ones or maybe a warm bath will slow their breathing. For a moment, their thoughts may stop racing and they will feel calm and at peace.
These physical reactions are from the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PSNS).
Those suffering from PTSD are constantly in a “fight or flight” response, meaning their SNS is dominant. This can make it impossible to calm down and can greatly affect their sleep, mood, and concentration.
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 their emotions.
How Do Weighted Blankets Ease PTSD Symptoms?
Similar to swaddling a baby or receiving a firm hug, weighted blankets have a calming effect. This Deep Pressure Therapy is long lasting and effects, especially for those suffering from PTSD.
Calming Tool for High-Arousal Periods
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. Levels are supposed to go back down to normal once the body no longer needs to be alert.
But for those suffering from PTSD, their body is always ion high alert, meaning that cortisol levels are always elevated.
With help from a weighted blanket, the body calms down. Muscles begin to relax, and blood pressure and breathing decrease. Elevated levels of dopamine and serotonin provide relief from an overactive memory.
Natural Sleep Aid
In a 2015 study published in the Journal of Sleep Medicine & Disorders, researchers found that sleep time increased during weighted blanket use. Participants also found it easier to fall asleep, and woke up more refreshed in the morning.
This circadian rhythm is controlled by a hormone called melatonin. Produced in the pineal gland in the brain, this melatonin is responsible for the 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, also plays a role in the internal clock. However, cortisol levels fluctuate on an opposite cycle. Production increases during the day and decreases at before bed.
However, if you’re suffering from PTSD, your body is in a constant “fight or flight” mode. This means that your cortisol levels are always elevated. When cortisol levels remain high, melatonin production cannot start. These two hormones become misaligned and your sleep schedule gets thrown off.
By using a weighted blanket and applying Deep Pressure, you can realign your cortisol and melatonin levels. Although weighted blankets alone cannot erase traumatic memories or fully prevent flashbacks, they can soothe anxiety while trying to fall asleep.
If you or a loved one is suffering from PTSD, please don’t be afraid to seek help. Consult with your therapist if you think a weighted blanket could help.
If you have any questions, please comment below. We’d love to help!