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LIFESTYLE

4 MIN

I'm a Lousy Sleeper (Especially on Planes). Will a Weighted Blanket Help?

Weighted blankets have become a popular way to ease anxiety – especially (but not exclusively) for people with autism spectrum disorder

In the war against insomnia, everything has been tried, and no solution is perfect. There are harmless supplements, like melatonin, which are vaguely, occasionally effective, but completely inadequate in the face of chronic, severe sleeplessness.

There are more powerful pills, like Ambien, whose power comes at the small cost of addictiveness, as well as side effects including hallucinations and diarrhea. Meditation helps with sleep-destroying anxiety, but if you’re too anxious you can’t really meditate effectively. Exercise is nicely sedative, but not faultlessly so. Whatever I try, sometimes my consciousness is just totally determined to stay on.

So, although it sounded odd when someone told me that I should wear a weighted blanket when I couldn’t sleep, I was eager to give it a shot. A sample was sent to me by Hippo Hug, a company in Alberta that makes very pretty ones in a variety of colours and weights.  And I was pleasantly surprised at how well it worked for me.

Originally, weighted blankets were meant for people with autism, who often have difficulties with out-of-whack sensory stimulation. On some autistic people’s skin, even very light touches can feel intense and unpleasant. Deeper pressure, however, often exerts a calming effect. This fact has lead to various therapeutic interventions, most famously the “hug machine” built by autistic genius Temple Grandin – a giant contraption which squeezes alarmed people or cows, instilling in them a tranquil mood. Weighted blankets are just a simpler, less extreme form of the same thing. They’re a wearable hug, basically.

Courtesy Hippo Hug

As we all know, hugs are great whether you’re on the autism spectrum or not. So it makes sense that weighted blankets would find broader application. Most of us recall the pleasure of being temporarily entombed by our parents’ arms, or being young children covered in heavy comforters. With a weighted blanket you can get back to that sort of feeling without calling your dad.

"The agitation slowly dulled, then disappeared."

During my first few minutes with my Hippo Hug blanket, I didn’t feel anything hugely special. Sure, it felt nice, but not tremendously tranquilizing. In fact, the usual terror of insomnia came in, right on schedule: fear of not falling asleep, which makes you not fall asleep. You ruthlessly examine your consciousness for signs that it’s slowing down, but the examination itself makes that impossible. “Why isn’t this blanket working?” I thought. For a moment, I was indignant about having carried all 20 pounds of it from the post office.

But the agitation slowly dulled, then disappeared. It was an effect not dissimilar to the onset of a sleeping pill, but without the drugginess. Slowly, I noticed that my thoughts were all slowing down. And while I couldn’t be sure that it was the blanket precisely, it seemed likely, because I’d been having racing thoughts in bed for weeks, and the blanket was the only variable that accompanied their cessation. Not only was the weight reassuring, but it discouraged fidgeting, a thing I normally do relentlessly. It ensured a state of involuntary stillness. Sleep was a logical conclusion.

There’s a small but compelling array of clinical data suggesting that weighted blankets, despite how suspect a concept they might seem, have tangible benefits. One study from the journal Australasian Psychiatry showed reductions in distress and anxiety in psychiatric inpatients who slept under heavy blankets. Another study, from the American Journal of Occupational Therapy, showed that children with ADHD who wore weighted vests displayed lessened attentional symptoms -- and while this wasn’t a study on blankets specifically, it seems plausible that this effect is a generalizable property of weighted clothing. These are just two examples of a growing scientific literature.

Courtesy Hippo Hug

And, though a single anecdote isn’t data, I should mention that I grew really attached to my Hippo Hug over the course of a week or so. In spite of the fact that I spent the week sandwiched between awkward deadlines and contending with a number of family obligations, sleep was unusually high-quality and easily obtained. Even the feeling of the little disc-shaped weights under the blanket, which struck me as odd at first, became familiar. It was like being covered in shells.

Taking it on an airplane worked really well, too. Sleeping problems are especially troublesome on flights because combining any sedative medication with jet lag can result in truly grotesque bodily experiences. I had an awful experience the one time I deliberately took medication to induce drowsiness. Stumbling disoriented through Shanghai 12 hours later, I felt like I’d been robbed of half my frontal cortex. Even red wine really isn’t a good idea in my experience.

"A weighted blanket is a far better option than having to choose between medicated oblivion and unmedicated wakefulness."

This poses a problem because I’m an anxious flier. Even though I know that taking a modern airplane is safer than jaywalking, that “wow, we’re leaving the ground” moment still gets my nerves all jangly – enough that it can ruin the possibility of getting any sleep whatsoever.

A weighted blanket, then, is a far better option than having to choose between medicated oblivion and unmedicated wakefulness. I recently wore one on a short flight, one on which I absolutely needed to sleep, because I had an important occasion to attend shortly after I hit the tarmac. And I went out like a light, before I even left the ground. I woke up and I was home. The only problem with the experience was that I drooled on my book a little bit. But that’s hardly the blanket’s fault.

Even if, despite the emerging studies, you’re still skeptical of the idea of this unconventional garment, you have to concede that, at worst, a weighted blanket offers an  enjoyable and benign addition to the normal sleeping experience. At best, it’ll knock you out when life is trying very very hard to prevent that.  The only downside is that they’re a little expensive. Hippo Hug’s heavier models run over $200. That being said, remember that the consequences of sleeplessness – everything from reduced performance at work to drifting off on the highway and totalling your car because you were up all night staring at the ceiling – can be the most expensive thing there is.  

This article was originally published June 6, 2017.

Published Friday, September 29th 2017

Header image credit: Shutterstock

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