SRU researchers to test effectiveness of weighted blankets on college students
From left, Kim Keeley, Slippery Rock University associate professor of exercise and rehabilitative sciences, and SRU occupational therapy doctoral students Jennifer Paullin and Connor Vincke are conducting a study on the use of weighted blankets and anxiety levels in college students.
Jan. 22, 2020
SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. — No matter where you did your holiday shopping, it seemed one of the season's biggest product pushes came in the form of weighted blankets. Marketed as "offering the gentle feeling of being hugged in order to encourage deep and restful sleep," weighted blankets have been used for years by therapists to ease anxiety and regulate sensory processing for people with psychiatric or autism spectrum disorders
A faculty-student research team at Slippery Rock University is testing the popular product on a different population that is susceptible to anxiety: college students. Kim Keeley, associate professor of exercise and rehabilitative sciences, and two doctoral students from her Scholarship in Occupational Therapy class are conducting a study to see how the use of weighted blankets affects the anxiety levels of college students.
Weighted blankets are similar to regular blankets only thicker and heavier, and weigh from 5 to 20 pounds. As a general rule of thumb, it is suggested that users choose a blanket that represents 10% of their body weight. For example, a person that weighs 150 pounds would want a 15-pound weighted blanket.
"There's a lot of research that found that weighted blankets are helpful for individuals with anxiety and those with autism spectrum disorders, but not specifically related to college students with anxiety," Keeley said. "Anxiety is increasing for individuals 16 to 23 years old, and that's an issue many colleges and universities are trying to tackle in order to help students become or remain successful. It's all related to retention and decreasing any mental health concerns. We thought, 'There's a gap in the literature; let's try to connect some of these dots.'"
The idea for the study was developed by Doctor of Occupational Therapy students Jennifer Paullin, from Chesterland, Ohio, and Connor Vincke, from Oakley, Michigan. As students in Keeley's research class working in groups to create study proposals, Paullin and Vincke realized their idea could be applied at SRU.
"We decided to take it a step further by carrying out the research with the help of Dr. Keeley," Paullin said. "We're hoping to see if consistent use of weighted blankets throughout the semester will actually decrease the stress levels and anxiety for college students."
Paullin, who uses a weighted blanket to keep from moving in her sleep, previously witnessed the clinical benefits of the blankets when she worked as an autism specialist at the Monarch Center for Autism in Cleveland. During her time there, people with ASD were given weighted blankets in a quiet, sensory-friendly room when they showed signs of agitation.
"We would use them for compression therapy, so if someone was anxious or getting worked up, we noticed the weighted blankets had a calming effect," said Paullin, who earned a bachelor's degree in psychology from John Carroll University in 2017. "When they showed behaviors like screaming or hand flapping, (the weighted blankets) prevented them from having to be restrained."
As aspiring occupational therapists, Paullin and Vincke recognized how weighted blankets can be beneficial to other populations as well.
"There are many people who have anxiety in the world," Vincke said. "Some may use medications or other means to relieve their anxiety, which could have potentially negative side effects, and there are many people who just do not have a coping mechanism. What interested us about this topic is the popularity of weighted blankets and that college years tend to be a period during which individuals can show higher levels of anxiety."
The SRU researchers received a $4,300 Faculty-Study Research Grant from the University, which will be used to purchase blankets, subscriptions to surveys that measure anxiety levels, as well as travel expenses for the researchers to present their findings at state and regional occupational therapy conferences.
The researchers will recruit at least 30 SRU students to use the blankets for six hours of sleep at least four nights per week for eight weeks. Participants will begin by taking the State-Trait Anxiety Inventory for Adults, a 40-question psychometric measurement, to establish a baseline, and then take a shorter Hamilton Anxiety Rating Scale each week, before concluding the study by retaking the STAI-AD.
"We're looking for how they feel the next day after sleeping (with the blanket) and then more cumulatively over the eight weeks," Keeley said.
"This research experience will definitely help us professionally after we graduate and go into the clinical field," Paullin said. "Not everyone gets to participate in research, so I think that conducing this study will help to set us apart from other occupational therapists."
Vincke, who earned his bachelor's degree in exercise science from Grand Valley State University in 2014, said the study will help him better treat future clients who require occupational therapy, as well as gain a better understanding of the research process for future studies.
The researchers are also hoping the study results will benefit others, especially with the recent popularity of weighted blankets.
"A lot of people got them for Christmas as gifts, so this is on a lot of people's minds," Keeley said. "Then when you look at the rising statistics in terms of anxiety diagnoses, that also means that use of pharmacological aids is increasing, and there are a lot of people who just don't want to take medicine. Not that (weighted blankets) would ever replace medicine, but perhaps this could be part of the treatment protocol that would go along with therapy and medication. We're hoping that this will be something that can be in the toolbox for helping to decrease anxiety for college students so they can get back to just being students."
SRU full-time, residential students who are interested in participating as subjects in the study can contact Keeley at firstname.lastname@example.org or 724.738.2621. Participants must weigh between 100-200 pounds and meet other criteria including a minimum GPA. Students experiencing at least mild to moderate anxiety, which will be determined during an initial screening, are preferred.
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