Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) affects about 5.2 million people in the United States. The symptoms of PTSD can manifest after an individual has experienced a traumatic or life-threatening event. While PTSD is perhaps most closely associated with people who have experienced military combat, PTSD can also occur after a car accident, a near-death experience, an assault or any traumatic of life-threatening experience (or experiences).
For many people with PTSD, sleeping is a big challenge. If you’re struggling with this condition, a weighted blanket for anxiety and PTSD may help you get the rest you need.
What Is PTSD?
PTSD is a type of anxiety disorder. Other anxiety disorders include panic disorder, social anxiety disorder and generalized anxiety disorder (GAD).
According to the American Psychiatric Association (APA), PTSD “is a psychiatric disorder that can occur in people who have experienced or witnessed a traumatic event such as a natural disaster, a serious accident, a terrorist act, war/combat or other violent personal assault.”
In past decades, PTSD was most closely associated with combat experiences, which is why the disorder went by names like “shell shock” and “combat fatigue.” While it’s almost certain that veterans have experienced PTSD for as long as war has existed, doctors didn’t truly begin to study the condition it until World War I. One of the earliest PTSD researchers was an English physician named Charles Myers, who wrote about shell shock in 1915.
At first, doctors theorized that brain damage from proximity to artillery blasts was the culprit for the symptoms of PTSD. However, this theory didn’t account for service members who seemed to have symptoms even when they hadn’t been exposed to high-powered blasts.
Over time, researchers began to understand that PTSD wasn’t the result of brain damage. Rather, it seemed to develop after particularly stressful and traumatic experiences. The more mental health professionals studied the disorder, the more they discovered that PTSD can affect anyone who has suffered through a frightening or stressful event. In fact, 1 in 11 people will experience PTSD at some point in their life.
4 Common Symptoms of PTSD
Although symptoms vary, there are four hallmark signs of PTSD, per the APA.
Intrusive Thoughts - This is a symptom with which most people are familiar, as it frequently involves “flashbacks.” When a person with PTSD has a flashback, it can feel like they are reliving the traumatic event. They may sleepwalk or suffer panic attacks as they struggle to remember they are not in danger.
Avoiding Reminders - Avoidance is a natural human behavior. When we dislike something, we tend to do whatever we can to stay away from it. For example, if you hate making small talk at parties, you might decline an invitation to a wedding or work gathering. For people with PTSD, however, avoidance can take a serious toll on their social life and even their careers. The reason is that PTSD avoidance tends to creep into most aspects of a person’s life.
A good example of this is a traumatic car accident. If you were involved in a serious crash, you might suddenly find that even sitting in a car makes you sweat and panic. As you might imagine, a sudden inability to drive can stop someone from getting to work, taking children to school or running errands.
Negative Thoughts and Feelings - PTSD tends to make sufferers doubt themselves and their self-worth. It can also prompt people to feel shame about their condition. They make start to drift away from friendships and personal relationships. For many PTSD sufferers, depression and anxiety are co-occurring disorders.
Arousal and Reactive Symptoms - In this context, arousal refers to psychological arousal, which is a state of being physiologically alert. Some people describe it as “firing on all cylinders” or being “wired” all the time.
When a person feels this way, their brain tells their body that danger is imminent. When this happens, the body kicks into a “fight or flight” response, which elevates the heart rate and raises the individual’s blood pressure. Staying like this for extended periods of time can tax the heart and raise cortisol (stress) levels.
An individual doesn’t have to experience all four categories of symptoms to be diagnosed with PTSD, and it’s actually uncommon for a person to suffer from all four. However, even one type of symptom can seriously interfere with an individual’s everyday life.
Additionally, researchers have found that people with PTSD also frequently suffer from co-occurring disorders, such as fibromyalgia.
Treatment Options for PTSD
There are many types of therapy and treatment for anxiety and PTSD. What works for one person may not be as effective for another, and you may have to experiment with a few different therapies before finding what works best for you.
It’s also important to see a doctor or therapist who specializes in the treatment of PTSD. As the Anxiety and Depression Association of America states, “It is important for anyone with PTSD to be treated by a mental health care professional who is experienced with PTSD. Some people will need to try different treatments to find what works for their symptoms.”
Some common treatment options for PTSD include:
Cognitive Behavior Therapy - Often abbreviated CBT, cognitive behavior therapy concentrates on altering the way the person responds to the negative feelings that arise because of their PTSD. A popular CBT technique involves writing down thoughts that crop up when you find yourself in an upsetting situation and then later analyzing your response and how you could modify it.
Exposure Therapy - Exposure therapy is exactly what it sounds like. The idea is that by intentionally exposing yourself to situations you might avoid, you “prove” to your subconscious that those things aren’t as frightening or uncomfortable as you thought. Mental health professionals have discovered that avoiding our fears can actually make them worse and that exposure therapy can help us confront and overcome the challenges that stop us from fully enjoying life.
For example, someone who has been involved in a car accident may develop anxiety when they drive or ride as a passenger in a vehicle.
Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing - Eye movement desensitization reprocessing, or EMDR, is a type of therapy that works by having the person think of a traumatic memory or experience, hold that thought in their mind, and then focus their eyes on some other type of stimulus, such as a laser pointer, flashing light or a swaying object like the kind a hypnotist might use. The goal is to retrain the mind to disassociate from the traumatic feelings.
Many clinicians have hailed EMDR as a breakthrough therapy, but there is still debate around its efficacy. As with any other type of therapy, it’s best to talk to your doctor before giving it a go.
Mental health professionals also stress the importance of addressing the side effects of PTSD. As many PTSD and anxiety sufferers know, lack of sleep is a common side effect. When your mind is consumed with worry and stress, it’s often difficult, if not impossible, to shut it off and settle down for the night.
4 Ways Weighted Blankets Can Help People With PTSD
A weighted blanket may help alleviate many of the symptoms of PTSD.
Fewer Nightmares, Better Sleep
It’s common for people with PTSD to experience nightmares and interrupted sleep. While just 5 percent of the general population has nightmares, a study of Vietnam veterans revealed that 52 percent experienced nightmares. By using a form of therapy called deep touch pressure stimulation, weighted blankets prompt the body to produce more serotonin, the chemical that helps regulate the body’s sleep cycle.
In a 2006 study, researchers for the journal Occupational Therapy in Mental Health observed that people who slept with a weighted blanket had lower physiological symptoms of stress, including reduced blood pressure, lower pulse rates and better pulse oximetry. Among study participants, 63 percent said they felt less anxious and 78 percent “preferred the weighted blanket as a calming modality.”
In a 2015 study published in the Journal of Sleep Medicine & Disorders, researchers found that participants who slept with a weighted blanket found it easier to settle down for sleep, slept longer, had higher sleep quality and woke more refreshed in the morning.
As the authors of the study stated, “Overall, we found that when the participants used the weighted blanket, they had a calmer night’s sleep. A weighted blanket may aid in reducing insomnia through altered tactile inputs, thus may provide an innovative, non-pharmacological approach and complementary tool to improve sleep quality.”
If your PTSD keeps you up at night or makes it difficult to stay asleep throughout the night, a weighted blanket might help you feel more relaxed and less anxious, which could translate into deeper, more restorative sleep.
As a result of better sleep, people with PTSD may also experience less brain fog during the day (since the negative effects of sleep deprivation build over time).
Relieve Physiological Symptoms of Stress
Using a weighted blanket may also reduce the amount of cortisol in the body. Known as the “stress hormone,” cortisol has been linked to a wide variety of health problems, including insomnia, stroke and heart attack.
Reduce Physical Pain
Deep touch pressure stimulation has been shown to produce calm, reduce anxiety and ease physical pain. When autism researcher Dr. Temple Grandin studied the gentle squeezing and touching effects of deep touch pressure stimulation therapy, she observed that patients were less anxious and more at ease with touch. They also experienced lower amounts of pain throughout the body.
Improve Mood through Oxytocin
Deep touch pressure stimulation may also help boost levels of oxytocin, the “feel good” chemical in the brain. In a study published in the Harvard Review of Psychiatry, researchers found that “[oxytocin] is increasingly recognized as an important regulator of human social behaviors, including social decision making, evaluating and responding to social stimuli, mediating social interactions, and forming social memories.”