By Heidi Hiatt
On August 29th, 2010, millions of viewers witnessed the HBO film Temple Grandin win seven Emmy awards. Until then, many people didn’t know who Dr. Temple Grandin is.
Grandin has autism, and is probably the best known advocate for those with this developmental disability. She is also a renowned animal scientist, known for her ability to see the world from an animal’s point of view. I’ve followed her work for years and appreciate that she prompts people to think about life from an animal’s perspective.
As someone who could not stand to be touched, even hugged, as a child, she was intrigued when one day she saw a steer in a squeeze chute, a device used to restrict its motion so the veterinarian could work on it. She noticed how the steer relaxed when the pressure was applied.
Grandin decided to try the device for herself, and went on to build one of her own. Now squeeze machines are used all over as therapy for autistic children as well as trauma survivors and others. This deep pressure stimulation has taken other forms as well, including weighted vests and weighted blankets.
No one has to be convinced of the benefits of deep pressure; most of us enjoy a good massage. Such pressure is profoundly relaxing, and we pay big bucks to enjoy those sensations at spas and from massage therapists. We seek out massages from our spouses and partners, reveling in the touch after a long day at work. Pets know; they LOVE massages.
Survivors of rape, incest, sexual abuse, and domestic violence sometimes can’t handle being touched by others, especially those of the opposite sex. This can also be true of people who have been cheated on, used, betrayed, or abandoned. Their trust in others has been shattered, and even though they crave love, touch, and companionship, it can be traumatic to actually let someone else touch them.
These crimes and boundary violations are frequently accompanied by lasting challenges like PTSD, which can leave your nerves on edge for years. Achieving a good night’s sleep or a period of complete relaxation can be impossible when your body, mind, and soul is silently screaming in the aftermath of a traumatic event. Even if the anguish you have suffered did not include physical abuse, the hell your heart and mind have gone through can manifest physically.
Occupational therapist Karen Moore is an expert on a condition called sensory defensiveness that can happen to abuse and trauma survivors. She has an informative article about this posted athttp://www.sensoryconnectionprogram.com/sensory_defensiveness.pdf. The following excerpt from Moore’s article gives a description of what sensory defensiveness is:
Wilbarger & Wilbarger (1995) define sensory defensiveness as adverse or defensive reactions to non-noxious stimuli. They theorize that genetic disposition as well as physical trauma to the body (e.g. stressful birth, accidental injury, physical abuse) can set off this condition of sensory distortion. Lack of inhibition of sensory input, they believe underlies defensive reactions. Symptoms vary widely and include withdrawal from touch, discomfort from certain clothes, over reaction to sounds, dislike of foods with mixed textures, exaggerated personal space, increased startle reflex, and dislike of complex visual stimuli such as fast moving objects or colors.
People with a history of physical or sexual abuse, torture, institutionalization, sensory deprivation, or a traumatic injury, have about an 80% chance of developing sensory defensiveness. Therefore, statistics alone tell us that we encounter clients with this problem regularly in psychiatric care and especially in clients with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). Symptoms of sensory defensiveness are also very common in patients with Developmental Disorders (Hanschu, 1995; Wilbarger & Wilbarger, 1995).
Deep pressure stimulation is one way of treating sensory defensiveness. If you can identify with this condition, take out a piece of paper and pen and make a list of what you do to make yourself comfortable nowadays. Trust me, the list will flow.
You may do the “human burrito” thing, where you roll yourself up in blankets. You may find that you are more relaxed when kids, cats, or dogs are sitting on you. When you get home from work, you can’t wait to change into particular cotton clothes or soft socks. You might find it very relaxing to hold a pillow or put a hot water bottle on your legs.
You may also find certain things outside of the home very relaxing, like having your blood pressure taken or wearing a lead vest at the dentist’s office when you have x-rays. You may like setting your purse on your lap when you drive. Even the mild restraint a seatbelt offers can bring relief, odd as it sounds. If you can handle being touched by someone else, a strong hug may do wonders for you.
When I first heard of sensory defensiveness, which to me is a very logical response when bad and unjust things happen to you, I contacted a friend with fibromyalgia who helped me make a list of the ways people manage through deep pressure. We were amazed at how quickly the list was written and realized why weighted blankets are becoming so popular.
Weighted blankets are a wonderful stress-reduction option for people with sensory defensiveness, food allergies, insomnia, PTSD, restless legs, dementia, autism, and other conditions because you can use them at home. They generally look like a comforter, and aren’t any warmer than one, but are filled with materials like soft plastic beads to add weight. The weight provides a deep pressure “touch” that allows the user to relax.
A quick Google search will reveal a number of companies that make weighted blankets, and they are often custom-made for the home user in varying sizes, weights, and fabrics. Some adults use 20 pound king-sized blankets, while children may use much lighter twin-sized ones. Some companies make small, square “lap cozies” or throw blankets that are nice for just having on you while you’re sitting.
You might want to consult with your doctor before using a weighted blanket, or having your child use one. I do not know if they’re safe to use with babies or toddlers; until someone convinces me otherwise, I would strongly advise against it. These also aren’t supposed to be used as discipline tools, but as comforts.
If you buy a weighted blanket, be sure to buy a blanket with proper filler material that can be cleaned in a washing machine. Rocks, metals, sand, organic material, and glass should not be used as filler for obvious safety and sanitation reasons. The fabric of the blanket should be one that you find soothing; oftentimes people with sensory defensiveness can’t stand certain fabrics rubbing against their skin.
Unfortunately, these blankets aren’t cheap, so if you find a ridiculously good deal on one as you’re comparison shopping, be suspicious. Be sure of what you’re buying before you hit the “checkout” button. A reputable company should be able to provide all relevant product information up front, or quickly upon request.
I realize that many people who have suffered trauma and abuse have limited financial means, another unfair consequence of what they’ve survived. On that note, it would be nice to see charities and activists donating such blankets and lap cozies to shelters and survivors. I, for one, am convinced of the therapeutic benefits of weighted blankets, and users don’t have to go to a therapist or doctor to experience their benefits.
While Temple Grandin is just one of the researchers who has identified and promoted deep pressure stimulation, she has played a huge role in its proliferation. I’m thankful that she and others like her have made this product mainstream. I hope that more doctors, advocates, activists, psychologists, counselors, and psychiatrists become familiar with weighted blankets and utilize them more regularly.
When you’ve endured the trauma and pain of personal boundary violations, all violations from emotional abuse to extreme physical and sexual violence can carry a residual physical component. Trauma in any form can change your physical well-being in drastic ways.
To aid in your healing process, and to be able to unwind, consider one of these flat, bean bag-like blankets. It’s a simple but effective idea that could have millions of people breathing easier, or even sleeping through the night, for the first time in a long time.
Life breaks us all … but many are made strong at the broken places.