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Back in 2010, HBO released a movie about Temple Grandin, a professor of animal science at Colorado State University who has autism. In the movie, Temple invented something called a hug box.
A hug box is a machine that she’d get into whenever she felt overwhelmed or distressed (two feelings that pop up often in people with autism). All she had to do was pull a string, and the sides of the machine would close in on her, applying pressure to her body (like a hug). The pressure would make her feel better.
I didn’t know this at the time, but this is called deep pressure therapy (it’s also known as deep touch pressure or deep pressure stimulation). And it helps people with problems other than autism too.
In fact, I had no idea it could help with two issues that I’ve dealt with in my own life — anxiety, and insomnia — or that I could experience deep pressure therapy without owning a hug box…
Deep pressure therapy for anxiety and insomnia
Research shows that the simple act of applying pressure to your body is incredibly soothing. There are a lot of ways to apply pressure to your body, but one popular way is by using a weighted blanket.
Here are some of the scientific highlights supporting the benefits of deep pressure therapy for anxiety and insomnia using a weighted blanket:
- A 2011 study found that applying a weighted blanket to people at the dentist reduced anxiety, lowered blood pressure and lowered heart rate.
- A 2008 study found that using a weighted blanket lowered anxiety in 63 percent of study participants who tried it.
- A 2012 study found that patients in a psychiatric unit had less anxiety and distress after using a weighted blanket.
- A 2004 study found that people with sleep issues, stress and pain slept better when using a weighted blanket.
- A 2015 study found that people who slept with a weighted blanket fell asleep quicker, slept longer and felt more rested than when they didn’t use a weighted blanket.
Why does it work?
Well, deep pressure therapy simulates hugs, cuddling, swaddling, and holding — all things we’ve been trained from a young age to enjoy. When someone we love hugs us or hold us, we feel safe, calm and relaxed. And that’s likely why pressure from an inanimate object can make us feel these things too.
More specifically, pressure helps relax your nervous system by encouraging your brain to produce serotonin, a brain chemical that plays a role in sleep and mood. Studies have also shown that it decreases the amount of cortisol your brain produces. Since cortisol is a stress hormone, it’s no wonder deep pressure therapy makes you feel more relaxed.
Understanding your deep pressure therapy options
Like I said above, weighted blankets are one of the more popular ways to practice deep pressure therapy. These are blankets that are filled with something (usually glass beads or plastic pellets) that give them extra weight. Experts say the ideal weight for a weighted blanket is about 10 percent of your body weight plus an extra pound or two.
Of course, there are other ways to practice deep pressure therapy. You can use:
- Temple Grandin’s hug box
- Compression clothing
- Weighted vests
- Pressure vests
- Weighted backpacks
You can even get a therapy dog that’s trained to apply deep pressure therapy! But if easing insomnia is your goal, weighted blankets make the most sense. They’re available online, and many of them are under $100. So, if you struggle with anxiety, insomnia or both, try one. It could be a simple, safe way to sleep and feel better.
- How Weighted Blanket Therapy Can Help Those With Anxiety, Autism, And More — Medical Daily
- What is Deep Pressure Stimulation? — AppliedBehaviorAnalysisEdu.org
- Ackerley, et al. “Positive Effects of Weighted Blankets on Insomnia.” — Journal of Sleep Medicine and Disorders, 2015.
- Novak, et al. “Pilot study of a sensory room in an acute inpatient psychiatric unit.” — Australasian Psychiatry, 2012; 20(5).
- Mullen, et al. “Exploring the Safety and Therapeutic Effects of Deep Pressure Stimulation Using a Weighted Blanket.” — Occupational Therapy in Mental Health, 2008.
- Y. Chen, et al. “Physiological Effects of Deep Touch Pressure on Anxiety Alleviation: The Weighted Blanket Approach.” — Journal of Medical and Biological Engineering, 33(5): 463-470.