How Do Anxiety Blankets Work?

The warmth of a soft, cozy blanket can feel wonderful when we are sleepy, exhausted and ready to relax. But what about when we feel anxious? Could a blanket also offer that same sense of comfort to help us relax when our bodies and minds don't feel relaxed at all?

Anxiety blankets are weighted blankets, also sometimes referred to as gravity blankets, that have been used in many hospitals and therapeutic programs for years. More recently, anxiety blankets have become more mainstream as people have come to know the many benefits of using a weighted blanket at home.

Weighted Blankets

Weighted blankets were previously best known for being used in a type of occupational therapy called sensory integration therapy. Sensory integration therapy is used to help people with autism, or other sensory disorders, to focus on regulating sensory experiences.

This approach is used with the understanding that when the therapy is used in a structured, repetitive way, the person learns to process and react to sensations more effectively. Blankets have offered a safe sensory experience that can be used easily and in a non-threatening way.

Deep Pressure Stimulation

A weighted blanket offers something called deep pressure stimulation. Again, often traditionally used with those who are challenged with sensory processing conditions, deep pressure stimulation helps calm an overstimulated system.

When applied properly, this pressure, often to be thought of as the same pressure experienced with a warm hug or embrace, a massage, or cuddling, can help the body switch from running its sympathetic nervous system to its parasympathetic nervous system.

The blanket offers an evenly distributed, gentle pressure on a large area of the body at one time, creating a sense of calm and safety for those who feel anxious or overstimulated.

Calming Our Nervous System

The body is a complex structure, with systems in place to help us regulate our functions and navigate our world. Our autonomic nervous system regulates our body's unconscious functions, such as breathing, heart rate, blood circulation, and reflexes. These are, essentially, the ways that our body functions everyday without us having to think about it. For example, we can breathe without having to think about taking a breath. If we could only breathe when we intentionally think about it, we would never be able to get anything else done!

When we become stressed or alerted to a threat in our environment, our sympathetic nervous system registers that danger is coming, kicks into gear and says "I'll help you!" The sympathetic nervous system is what help us distinguish whether we need a flight or fight response. It uses the information we are taking in and tries to help us quickly decide how to respond in order to survive that moment.

As helpful as this is for our survival, it is common for people in our modern society to be in constant fight or flight mode at work, at home, in our relationships, with responsibilities and obligations. Living under this constant pressure can cause our sympathetic nervous system to operate on overdrive and can lead to us experiencing things like:

  • Accelerated heart rate
  • Constricted blood vessels
  • Pupil dilation
  • Goose bumps
  • Sweating
  • Rise in blood pressure
  • Slower digestion

When we are experiencing prolonged stress and anxiety, our sympathetic nervous system is shooting out signals to areas all over our body to alert us that we are in the face of a threat and we need to fight or flee. The trouble is that when we are experiencing everyday stress, such as work, deadlines, worries, family responsibilities and hectic schedules, we are not usually in a dangerous and life threatening situation.

So, even though we are not in physical danger, our body is sending and receiving all of these signals and trying to regulate itself, feeling overwhelmed, overloaded and overstimulated. Our overwhelmed system causes us to experience anxiety, sometimes resulting in episodes of panic.

The use of a weighted anxiety blanket, using pressure stimulation, offers our body a chance to switch from the "fight or flight" mode of our sympathetic nervous system to a "rest and digest" mode that is regulated by our parasympathetic nervous system. When our body gets the signal that it doesn't need to be on guard anymore and that it is safe, the parasympathetic nervous system has a chance to kick in to help our body calm down, regulate and find balance.

How They Work

There are many designs of weighted anxiety blankets, especially as they have become more popular and mainstream. Most blankets are made with cotton or cotton blends, making them more durable and easier for washing and maintaining. There are also microbial covers that can be used for weighted blankets to help minimize the spreading of germs, especially when the blankets are used in a hospital or treatment center setting. Companies offer a variety of fabrics so people have options for personal comfort and style.

Anxiety blankets are often filled with a form of small plastic pellets. Most blanket brands describe the plastic they use as being BPA free and FDA compliant. There are some companies that use glass beads which are described as the texture of sand, that can help to create a lower profile, less bulky, blanket.

To make sure the weight of the blanket is evenly distributed for maximum effectiveness of the intended pressure stimulation, blankets are often designed with a pattern of squares, similar to a quilt. Each square has the same amount of pellets to ensure consistent pressure across the blanket and sometimes filled with a bit of polyfil as you might find in a traditional comforter or pillow, for added cushion and comfort.

Weights and Sizes

Anxiety blankets are available in a variety of sizes and weights, depending on personal preference, as well as the age and size of the person using the blanket. Weighted blankets are commonly available in weight ranges from 5-25 pounds.

Although this may sound pretty heavy, remember that the weight is being distributed evenly across the entire surface area of the blanket. The intent is for the person using the blanket to feel a consistent amount of gentle pressure across their body.

What Weight Is Best for You?

Before deciding on what weight of blanket to use for yourself or your loved one, it is best to talk with your doctor to determine what will be most helpful and effective. It is a good idea to let your healthcare provider know why you are wanting to use a weighted blanket, how you are hoping it will help and allow them to talk with you about an appropriate weight based on your age, size and body weight.

SensaCalm, a leading company specializing in therapeutic products such as weighted blankets, suggests calculating the appropriate weight of a blanket with the following formula:

Appropriate weight of blanket = 10 percent of body weight plus three pounds.

So, for example, to calculate an appropriate weight of blanket for someone who weighs 170 pounds:

10 percent of 170 = 17

17+3 = 20 pounds

Using this example, a person weighing about 170 pounds may benefit from a weighted anxiety blanket of 20 pounds. It is recommended that weighted anxiety blankets do not exceed 15 percent of the user's body weight.

Other Factors

Another thing to consider is height. There are a variety of sizes of anxiety blankets available, just as you would find with traditional blankets or comforters. Some companies size their blankets by bed size, such as twin, full, queen and king. Other companies size their blankets by small, medium, large and extra large. It is important to keep in mind the age and height of a person, as well as where you will most often be using the blanket.

For example, you may want to use your blanket at night as a bed covering while you sleep, or you may prefer a more portable version to use while lounging on the couch, watching television or reading a good book.

Precautions

Remember that weighted anxiety blankets are considered a therapeutic tool, so it is a good idea to talk with your doctor or other healthcare professional before purchasing and using an anxiety blanket.

Weighted blankets are not recommended for infants. Although companies have varied guidelines and recommendations, it is generally noted that weighted blankets are not intended for use by children two years old or younger. When children are unable to move freely while sleeping or lack adequate muscle strength, the blanket can be a danger even at lighter weights. Again, as with other therapeutic tools, it is important to talk with your healthcare provider about a size and weight of blanket that would be safest and most effective.

It is suggested that weighted anxiety blankets not be used if you are challenged with the following:

  • Unregulated blood pressure
  • Fragile skin
  • Diabetes
  • Circulation problems
  • Breathing problems like sleep apnea or asthma
  • Skin rashes
  • Open wounds

Weighted blankets are not to be used by children under the age of two years old. A child using a weight blanket must be able to move the blanket on their own, at their will. If they are unable to do that for any reason, a weighted blanket is not recommended. In addition, weighted anxiety blankets are never to be used as a restraint.

What Else Are Weighted Blankets Used For?

Weighted anxiety blankets are meant to offer the pressure of a warm hug, bringing a calming effect and signaling to the body that it is safe. This is very beneficial to those who struggle with anxiety and panic, as it can calm our bodies and allow it to switch from that overstimulated sympathetic nervous system to the parasympathetic nervous system that allows our body to better relax. In addition to anxiety, there are other things that weighted blankets are known to help with as well, including:

In addition to anxiety, one of the top reasons people reportedly purchase weighted blankets is for better sleep at night. With an estimated 25 percent of people in the United States developing insomnia each year, it is understandable how weighted blankets have become popular. Understanding how the pressure stimulation helps to calm our system, weighted blankets offer a healthy way to find better, more restful sleep without the use of over the counter sleep aids or prescribed medication.

Lap Pads

What if you want to feel the benefit of a weighted blanket at work or while traveling? Toting a weighted anxiety blanket around may not always be an option. However, there is a more portable option available for use outside of the home or while on the go. Weighted lap pads offer the same pressure stimulation effect on a smaller scale, offering portability and convenience. Using a lap pad can help with things like:

Although lap pads can be created in variety of sizes, a typical lap pad measures anywhere from 12" x 18" up to 18" x 18" depending on the needs and size of the user. Beads used in the fill of the blanket are the same and the even distribution of the weight by using quilted squares is the same in the lap pads as with the larger blankets.

The recommended weight of a lap pad is approximately two pounds, since the surface area of the body being covered is less than when using a blanket. Some companies will create a heavier weighted pad, however, it is highly recommended that the weight of a lap pad not exceed 5 percent of the user's body weight. For example, our 170 pound person we used as an example for the blanket would benefit from a lap pad weighing in the range of 2-8 lbs.

Lap pads can be a nice option for students, therapeutic patients or adults who work in an environment where they might sit at a desk for long periods of time. If you are in a job that tends to leave you feeling stressed and anxious, a lap pad could be a nice tool to use to increase your sense of calm while also increasing your focus and productivity.

A Word From Verywell

If you struggle with anxiety, you know how hard it can feel at times to find a sense of relief. While appropriate treatment with counseling and medication management can certainly be helpful, a weighted anxiety blanket can offer an additional therapeutic resource that can be used without any worry of harmful side effects. Even when you are utilizing some great cognitive behavioral tools to help minimize anxiety, the use of a weighted blanket can offer additional calm.

With the use of pressure stimulation, such as what we would experience with a warm hug, a massage or cuddling, the anxiety blanket can help our overstimulated sympathetic nervous system (the fight or flight system) calm down by kicking in the parasympathetic nervous system (the rest and digest system). If you are looking for a safe and convenient way to help reduce anxiety, increase relaxation or experience more restful sleep, a weighted anxiety blanket might be your answer.

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Article Sources
  • Chambers, D. The science behind weighted blankets: Why and how they work. 2018. https://www.sensacalm.com/blogs/news/the-science-behind-weighted-blankets-why-and-how-they-work

  • PTSD Journal. Sleeping with weighted blanket helps insomnia and anxiety, study finds. 2019. http://www.ptsdjournal.com/posts/sleeping-with-weighted-blanket-helps-insomnia-and-anxiety-study-finds/