Does a Weighted Blanket Help with PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder)?
A soldier is stunned by the searing pain and soul-shattering terror of being blown up by a roadside bomb. An ER nurse struggles in vain to save a gravely injured child in the aftermath of a horrific head-on collision. A mother barely survives a difficult childbirth and grieves the death of her baby.
Suddenly their lives are dramatically changed by a psychiatric condition known as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) that occurs in people who have lived through or witnessed a disturbing traumatic event such as a serious accident, a natural disaster, combat, rape or other violent assault.
Although it’s most often associated with military personnel returning from war, PTSD can affect anyone. And it’s much more common than most people think. According to the American Psychiatric Association, PTSD affects approximately 3.5 percent of U.S. adults and an estimated one in 11 people will be diagnosed PTSD in their lifetime. Women are actually twice as likely as men to suffer from PTSD.
And it can have a devastating impact on their lives.
What happens when somebody has PTSD?
Where once a person with PTSD took pleasure in their lives and their minds were occupied with plans for the weekend, funny things their children said, or every-day to do lists, now their thoughts go to and stay in a dark place they feel they can’t get out of.
Somebody with PTSD might be preoccupied with intense, disturbing thoughts, feelings, and memories of their experience that persist long after the traumatic event is over. They often feel sad, afraid, anxious or fearful. They might relive the event by having nightmares or flashbacks. To lessen these feeling they tend to avoid people and situations that remind them of what they went through. They can be jumpy and have strong negative reactions to loud sounds or an unexpected touch. Perhaps the most debilitating of all, people with PTSD may feel detached, alone, and cut off from other people -- even those who are closest to them and want to help.
Is PTSD all emotional? Or is there a physical component?
Although the root of PTSD seems to be mainly emotional, the physical part of it is very important. And it all happens in the brain.
When people without PTSD feel like they are in danger, a part of the brain – the amygdala- leaps into action and triggers a fast, automatic reaction called “the fight-or-flight” response. It acts like an alarm that prepares your body to react to the threat by either confronting it or running away.
The amygdala communicates with another area of the brain called the hypothalamus, which in an alarm state releases the stress hormone cortisol. Then the brain’s prefrontal cortex kicks in to evaluate the nature of the threat and decides whether the body needs to continue to be on high alert or whether the danger has passed and the body can relax and calm down.
Experiencing a traumatic event can throw off those areas of the brain to the point where the alarm never really shuts off and is activated by what would otherwise not be perceived as threatening. PTSD also seems to depress the calming effects of the prefrontal cortex. The result is that the person is always on edge. They have extreme difficulty relaxing and calming down. And as you might imagine, that can have a serious impact on being able to get a good night’s sleep.
PTSD often seals off one of the most soothing refuges of the human mind.
Understandably, constantly being on high alert, battling disturbing thoughts, and struggling with feelings of guilt and worthlessness, can be exhausting. A feeling that most often can be remedied with a night of deep, calming, rejuvenating sleep.
Unfortunately, people with PTSD don’t have a switch to shut off that “fight or flight” reaction, and can have extreme difficulty falling and staying asleep. The problem is that the disorder seems to disrupt sleep by increasing the time a person is in a light sleep and decreasing the time a person experiences being in deep, restorative REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep that is associated with dreaming – and nightmares. Perhaps it’s the body’s way of helping the person avoid relieving their traumatic event.
The problem is that deep sleep is when experiences are turned into long term memories that are then stored. So, in addition to resting the body, a person needs sleep in order to process and sort out experiences, including traumatic events.
Part of that processing involves learning. One critical step in overcoming trauma is learning that memories and reminders of a terrible event are not dangerous – so you don’t have to be on high alert. And consequently, you can feel safe and calm again.
Without that healing, high- quality sleep experience, PTSD is difficult to overcome. Plus, having insomnia during the night can lead to extreme fatigue during the day which can make the other symptoms worse.
What are the treatments for PTSD?
Aside from finding ways to calm down and get a better night’s sleep, the most common and effective PTSD therapies involve cognitive behavior therapy that focuses on talking about the trauma and identifying where the fears are coming from. These include:
- Cognitive Processing Therapy which involves 12 weeks of 60 to 90 minute weekly sessions with a therapist to face your trauma and figure out ways to live with it.
- Prolonged Exposure Therapy that uses breathing techniques to reduce the anxiety you feel when you think about your trauma. Then they’ll have you make a list of things you’ve been avoiding and learn how to deal with them. This therapy typically requires 8 to 15 sessions of 90 minutes each.
- Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing doesn’t require you to talk to your therapist about your trauma. Instead you think about it when you watch or listen to some outside stimuli like a sound or a flashing light so you associate it with something positive or neutral. This therapy typically takes about 3 months of weekly sessions.
- Stress Inoculation Training is another therapy that doesn’t ask you to relive your trauma. Rather it teaches you massage and breathing techniques that will help stop negative thoughts, calm your mind, and relax your body. You should start to experience the stress-reducing benefits of this therapy after 3 months.
- Medications can help people with PTSD stop thinking about what happened, including having nightmares. Your doctor may prescribe various types of medications that affect the neurotransmitters serotonin or norepinephrine (SSRIs and SNRIs), including:
Because people respond differently to medications, your physician may prescribe other medicines as well, including:
- Monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs)
- Antipsychotics or second generation antipsychotics (SGAs)
Although medications likely won't totally eliminate your symptoms, they can make them less intense and more manageable.
Weighted blankets offer a natural alternative or an additional way to treat PTSD.
Cognitive behavioral therapy and medications are proven ways to treat the underlying causes and distressing symptoms of PTSD. But therapy can be expensive and most medications have side effects that some people can’t or aren’t willing to tolerate.
For those looking for an alternative or additional help in dealing with PTSD, the benefits of a cool weighted blanket are something to consider. Although you’ll want to talk to your doctor or mental health professional before purchasing a heavy weighted blanket, it makes sense to consider using one.
As mentioned earlier, sleep disturbances and insomnia are one of the symptoms and aggravating factors of PTSD. People suffering from sleep disorders including more than 20% of veterans (about 1.2 million) have been able to experience a deeper more restful sleep by using a washable weighted blanket for adults. And here’s why:
- Deep Pressure Touch (DPT). this therapeutic technique has long been used for a variety of purposes, including PTSD, anxiety, depression, autism, and ADHD. By grounding or “earthing”, the deep, even pressure across your body that a weighted blanket provides has been proven to relax the nervous system and lower your heart rate.
- Decreased Cortisol. When you’re experiencing the fight or flight response, your body produces a great deal of the stress hormone called cortisol. Weighted blankets for anxiety can reduce the amount of cortisol in your body, allowing you to relax and fall into a deep restorative sleep
- Increased Serotonin. The deep pressure of a heavy weighted blanket may also increase the amount of serotonin in your body, a neurotransmitter that promotes feelings of contentment and serenity that can counteract disturbing thoughts associated with PTSD.
- Reducing Tossing and Turning. Settling in under the heavy weight of a weighted blanket for anxiety naturally makes it harder to shift and fidget. The typical recommendation for the heft of a cool weighted blanket is that it should be about 10% of your body weight. 10 lb weighted blankets, 15 lb weighted blankets, and 20 lb weighted blankets work for most body weights, although heavier and lighter ones are available.
The advantage of using a heavy weighted blanket for anxiety caused by PTSD, is that it is natural, instantly effective, and doesn’t have the physical side effects of medication.