What comes to mind when you think about anxiety? Maybe you think about racing thoughts and excessive worries. Maybe you think about the physiological symptoms such as chest tightness, a racing heart, or butterflies in your stomach. Regardless of what automatically comes to mind when you think about anxiety, we can agree that anxiety is unpleasant.
While anxiety isn’t the most fun emotion to feel, it has an important purpose in our lives. Small amounts of anxiety can keep us safe or help us perform. For example, let’s say two students in a math course are about to prep for an exam. One student will feel slightly anxious about the exam and the other has no worries. The student who has slight anxiety will likely perform better because that anxiety is motivating them to study so they do well on the exam. Too much anxiety can cause problems, though.
There are various anxiety-related mental health conditions that someone can face if they experience too much anxiety. Someone who experiences anxiety much of the time and faces excessive worry surrounding many daily events may meet the criteria for generalized anxiety disorder. Others may experience intense anxiety surrounding a very specific situation or item (e.g. phobias).
Treatment for generalized anxiety and anxiety towards a specific situation or stimuli look different. In past articles we’ve discussed how weighted blankets can be used to mitigate anxiety, but we’ve never addressed how weighted blankets can combat specific anxiety disorders, such as phobias. Therefore, this article will focus on weighted blankets, which are one option of many coping skills for anxiety, but we will use the existing research to theorize how weighted blankets may fit in with phobia treatment.
Two Common Types of Phobia Treatment
Safety behaviors, or coping skills for anxiety, have been widely debated in phobia treatment. Arguably, weighted blanket use could be considered a safety behavior given that many use them as a coping skill for anxiety. To understand how weighted blankets should be used in phobia treatment, it is first important to look at the two primary schools of thought related to phobia treatment: exposure therapy and systematic desensitization.
Exposure therapy starts by having clients rank various situations associated with the feared stimuli from least anxiety-provoking to most anxiety-provoking (see example below). Once a hierarchy of feared situations has been established, clients will work through facing each of these situations. Clients are encouraged to notice their thoughts and feelings in each situation and remain in the “exposure” until their anxiety symptoms subside, or they habituate to the situation. Overtime, they will experience less and less anxiety-related symptoms to the feared stimulus and can move up the hierarchy they’ve created.
Systematic desensitization is similar, but during the exposure clients practice coping skills for anxiety to help relax them. Clients may use weighted blankets while engaging in the exposure to reduce physiological anxiety-related symptoms and help them habituate to the feared stimulus easier/quicker.
Weighted Blankets used as a Coping Skill for Phobias
With these two schools of thought, which is preferred? This is difficult to say, because ultimately it will depend on one’s comfort level. However, there is research to suggest that increased use of safety behaviors during periods of high social anxiety can increase anxiety frequency. These findings make sense from a behavioral lens; a safety behavior (e.g., weighted blanket) used during times of high anxiety may cause a decrease in physiological symptoms, but may also reinforce that anxiety because weighted blankets are pleasant. Still, there is research to support systematic desensitization as a treatment for phobias, so again, it really depends on one’s preference and comfort level.
Coping skills for anxiety will always have their place in anxiety reduction because they can help deescalate situations where one is experiencing severe distress. Therefore, whether you subscribe to systematic desensitization or exposure therapy, weighted blankets for anxiety are a great complementary tool to mitigate distress.