Do weighted blankets help with anxiety and insomnia?

Anxiety and insomnia often spend the night together, causing many of us to toss and turn while our minds gets stuck on some worry or another. We’ve all suffered the occasional sleepless night before an important exam or big date. But some struggle with both anxiety and insomnia regularly. “Chronic stress often goes hand in hand with difficulty sleeping,” says Sarah Silverman, a clinical psychologist, behavioral sleep medicine specialist and director of the Cognitive Behavioral Sleep Medicine Program at Montefiore Medical Center.

A growing number of those people are trying a new “treatment” to alleviate both the worry and the wakefulness: weighted blankets. These special blankets are filled with pellets or small plastic balls to increase their weight, from just a couple of pounds up to about 20 pounds. According to Harvard Health, using extra weight to calm someone has been practiced a long time, especially among children with autism or behavioral problems. Weighted blankets may add a feeling of safety and security, just as swaddling helps a newborn baby. And there is some evidence that, among these specific groups, weighted blankets do help.

[Trouble Sleeping? Ask Yourself Why]

But what about those with basic — or even clinical — anxiety? Is there any evidence weighted blankets help them get their zzz’s?

Weighted Blankets and Anxiety

“There is no research supporting use of weighted blankets on anxiety, so the answer is, we don’t know,” says Martin Antony, professor of psychology at Ryerson University in Toronto and author of “The Anti-Anxiety Workbook.” “Anecdotal evidence says it helps, but that’s not all that useful for recommending this as a treatment.”

[See: 8 Ways to Relax — Now.]

Indeed, anecdotal evidence is really all we have to go on, especially when it comes to sleep disorders. “I think most of what we know about these blankets comes from consumer reviews,” Silverman says. “The few studies published in alternative medical journals have shown some evidence for reduced stress and worry. The scant data that we do have makes a convincing case for potential stress reduction.” For example, one small study of 32 adults, published in the journal Occupational Therapy in Mental Health in 2006, found that 63% reported lower anxiety after using a 30-pound blanket, and 78% “preferred the weighted blanket as a calming modality.”

Weighted Blankets and Insomnia

The data on blanket use for insomnia and other sleep disorders, however, is “scarce and inconclusive,” Silverman says. On the other hand, there is plenty of evidence that other therapies do help with sleep management. One of the therapies Silverman provides is called cognitive behavior therapy for insomnia, or CBT-I, which is an evidence-based treatment that does not include medication. It has been shown to significantly improve sleep quality and quantity over time. “It is the first-line treatment and gold standard therapy for insomnia, unlike medications!” she says enthusiastically. According to the National Sleep Foundation, this treatment “is aimed at changing sleep habits and scheduling factors, as well as misconceptions about sleep and insomnia, that perpetuate sleep difficulties.” It’s considered a safe and effective means of managing chronic insomnia.

[See: Is it Healthy to Sleep With Your Pets?]

“I see many of my patients constantly look to other alternatives to help them get better sleep, but the reality is you don’t need the blanket, the new fancy device, the sleep tracker, the pill or the supplement to get better quality sleep,” Silverman notes. She believes that no “alternative” option is going to improve your sleep, especially if you already have a sleep problem. “They may change your perception or views about your sleep. They may help make your environment more conducive to sleep. Or they may get you to fall asleep a bit easier on a few nights in the short-term. But in the long-term, they don’t change your chronic sleep patterns, bad habits or the ways you might react to a poor night’s sleep. Knowing how to better manage your sleep in a healthy way is key and what you’re doing before bedtime matters.”

Do Weighted Blankets Help?

Despite this lack of evidence and better alternatives, a weighted blanket may still be helpful if you’re looking for a drug-free way to help improve your ability to relax and potentially feel more comfortable during the night. There is little risk to using one — other than to your wallet. These blankets can cost up to about $200. “It’s just not an end-all, cure-all,” Silverman says.

[Read: Can Untreated Anxiety Lead to Other Mental Health Problems?]

Antony agrees that there’s no harm in trying a weighted blanket to relieve anxiety, “the same way there’s no harm in watching a funny movie or calling a friend, but we wouldn’t consider it a treatment.” And any comfort it does bring may be coincidental. “Anxiety tends to come and go, so people may make connections with changes that are more correlational than causal,” he says. “Anxiety is also responsive to placebo, so people may feel better when they expect to feel better. There are an infinite number of things that comfort people — a fire on cold winter day, a walk on the beach, playing with a dog. All those things comfort different people and reduce anxiety, but we wouldn’t consider those treatments.”

There are many ways to help manage your sleep. One of the best ways to combat nighttime anxiety, Silverman suggests, is to get up as soon as the worry thought process starts, or as soon as you start to feel anxious, stressed, frustrated or overwhelmed in bed. “That’s when you want to physically get out of bed, go to another room — ideally — and practice a relaxation exercise or nonstimulating activity until you’re sleepy. The more you can retrain your brain to worry outside of the bedroom, the greater the likelihood that your sleep quality will improve in the bedroom.”

Risks of a Weighted Blanket

As a warning, Silverman does not recommend a weighted blanket if you already have a sleep problem and are expecting the blanket to fix your sleep. “If you snore or have obstructive sleep apnea, I would be very cautious. You don’t want any heavy weight pushing down on your chest potentially disrupting your breathing even more,” she says. She also recommends caution with children. “The blankets can be heavy, hard to travel with and challenging to maneuver around. If your child is unable to arrange the blanket and use it without you present, I would advise against one as a safety precaution.”

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