Deep touch pressure (DTP) has been used for many years as a form of treatment in children and adults who have autism, sensory processing disorder, ADHD or some other form of sensory sensitivity.
Many people instinctively use deep touch pressure to help soothe someone in distress or agitation in the form of a hug or a gentle rub without being told to.
Now this instinctive reaction is being backed up by scientific research. There are also some helpful tools emerging to aid the application of deep pressure on demand to help kids and adults at any time throughout the day.
What Is Deep Touch Pressure?
Deep Touch Pressure is a therapy where pressure via touch or weight is used to help someone who may be feeling stressed, anxious or overloaded.
It can be applied in two ways:
- Through touch by hugging, skin brushing or squeezing
- By wearing a weighted item of clothing, such as a vest or blanket
Examples Of Where Deep Touch Pressure Can Be Used
Deep touch pressure can be used when your child is feeling overloaded because there is too much sensory stimuli around. Using a classroom as an example, the lights might be too bright, there may be too many colours or images on the walls and background noise could be at its loudest. All this can lead to sensory overload, which is where deep touch pressure comes in.
Deep touch pressure could also be used in a scenario where a child is feeling anxious about an exam or about an upcoming sports day
Deep touch pressure is a lifesaver for parent to use on kids (or themselves!) where there is difficulty in getting to sleep. Sometimes children or adults with ADHD, sensory processing disorders, Asperger’s, or any where on the Autistic Spectrum or simply being stressed and anxious have trouble getting to sleep. And they wake often in the night. Deep touch pressure can give them a sense of calm and relaxation and help them get to sleep more quickly and stay relaxed throughout the night.
Why Does Deep Touch Pressure Work?
When the body is under stress or feeling agitated and overwhelmed, it switches into high alert mode-the“fight or flight” response from the sympathetic nervous system. Cortisol (the stress hormone) is released and this results is rising heart rate and blood pressure, sweating hands, difficulty concentrating and difficulty getting to sleep.
People with autism spectrum disorders, sensory processing disorder and ADHD spend the majority of their time in this mode. It is difficult for them to relax. Stress and agitation and overwhelm are never very far away.
Actually most people living in today’s modern society live the majority of their time with the sympathetic nervous system on high alert and cortisol running rampant throughout their body. This is not helped by being constantly connected to the world, work and social pressures via phone and internet. It also does not help with potential abundance of coffee, lack of sleep and lack of time spent in nature.
The parasympathetic nervous system (PSNS), when activated, brings a sense of calm and peace to the mind and body.
The heart rate slows, muscles relax, and circulation improves. The body produces endorphins, which are the “happy” hormones that make you feel amazing after a good run.
When deep touch pressure is applied to the body, the parasympathetic nervous system takes over and releases dopamine and serotonin, the “feel-good” neurotransmitters of the brain. These hormones help with motivation, impulse control, attention, memory, social behavior, sleep, and digestion.
It is also known to stimulate parts of the brain that are responsible for sleep and the production of melatonin.
How To Effectively Apply Deep Touch Pressure Therapy
If you are around your loved one at the time of their stress or anxiety, a deep hug can work wonders. It sounds so simple but it is so effective- and costs nothing.
Another method is a reassuring firm touch. Place your hands on their shoulders. Even a light touch is ok if your child does not like hugs or being squeezed.
Taking this to another level is massage. There are many different types of massage available from light touch to deep pressure. Nearly everyone has experienced some form of relaxing massage and knows how soothing it can be.
Some people simply do not like being touched. They do not like hugs and cannot stand massage. Here is where weighted clothing works wonders. Weighted vests, jackets and blankets can apply constant pressure and help provide that soothing sense of ease and relaxation.
Weighted lap pads are extremely portable for school, travel, homework or watching TV to ease fidgeting, decrease stress and improve concentration.
Weighted vests come in all different shapes and weights. You may need to try a few types and weights to find the one that best suits you or your child.
There is also a variation of the weighted vest which is the compression vest. This is a vest creating a similar effect to a hug by applying some compression in the form of a stretchy material like neoprene.
At night to help sleep or to relax before bedtime, weighted blankets have become very popular with people suffering autism, sensory processing disorder or insomnia. Another version some children love is laying on a couch or floor while mom or dad presses a pillow or cushion over their body, or getting tightly wrapped up in a blanket.
Children with autism sometimes self initiate going to the blanket themselves for comfort throughout the day if they start to feel stressed or overwhelmed
Another option to try is the Wilbarger Brushing Protocol which involves the parent or therapist using a special brush to massage the child multiple times a day for 2-5 minutes..
What Benefits Should I Expect With Deep Touch Pressure
As with everything in healthcare, there is no guarantee that it will work for everyone, but it does work for most people. You may need to experiment a little with the weight or the pressure you use.You may also need to experiment a little with the length of time or the frequency you choose.
One child may respond immediately, another may resist then crave it over the course of a week. Another may hate skin brushing or hugs but love a weighted vest or blanket.
If something simple like deep touch pressure saves some meltdowns, tantrums and can aid someone getting to sleep faster, it is worth trying for sure. You may observe benefits within a few minutes to a few hours.
These might include:
- Improved focus
- Better concentration
- Increased happiness
- Improved calmness
- Decreased anxiety
- Improved mood
- Improved communicativeness
- Lower incidence of seizures
- Decreased self harm
- Decreased meltdowns
- Lowered Hypersensitivity to touch
Research In The Field Of Deep Touch Pressure
There have been a number of studies that look at the effects of deep touch pressure, dating back to the original work in 1970s of occupational therapist and neuroscientist Dr. Anna Jean Ayres, who was a pioneer in the field of Sensory Integration theory and framework. In recent decades, Temple Grandin PhD has contributed significant insight, her own research, and development of the “Hug Machine” for Deep Touch Pressure therapy
She made popular the famous squeeze machine which applies deep pressure to large areas of the body. She used it to calm her own anxiety and panic attacks. She used it for 15 minutes twice a day and felt it calmed her anxiety and helped her feel more in control.
It is quite expensive to own one, $1K-2K, so some patients go to a clinic to have it a couple of times a week as therapy. This has been documented in the Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychopharmacology Vol2, No.1 1992, Mary Ann Liebert, Inc, Publishers)
There are also similar observations of calming and relaxation from deep touch pressure from the animal kingdom.
For example cattle waiting in line for veterinary attention were calmer when pressure was applied to large portions of their body.
Forced holding and firm pressure (done gently and quietly) is used to tame wild horses making them calmer and more relaxed.
Forced holding is similar to holding therapy for autistic children (Welch, 1983).
Gentler methods of holding therapy are also effective for increasing eye contact and interest in autistic children.
A 2011 study published in the Journal of Medical and Biological Engineering (Hsin-Yung Chen et. al. (2011), Physiological Effects of Deep Touch Pressure on Anxiety Alleviation) found the physiological effects of Deep Touch Pressure (medical data like heart rate, blood pressure, etc) corresponded with the participants’ reportedly lower anxiety levels following weighted blanket use.
The study’s data validated a change in nervous system activity after deep touch pressure (weighted blanket) was introduced. Since people who experience sensory overstimulation experience real physiological symptoms, this study supports that deep touch pressure can help regulate those medical changes.
In a 2008 study published in Occupational Therapy in Mental Health, use of a 30-lb weighted blanket (deep touch pressure) resulted in adult participants reporting lower anxiety (63%), lower physiological data (blood pressure, pulse rate, pulse oximetry), and positive calming effects (78%).
Weighted blanket use in mental health settings, proactively and in crisis situations, had a calming effect that was reported to lower stress and provide a coping strategy in times of anxiety. The use of weighted blankets has been expanded to include people with mental health diagnoses like post-traumatic stress disorder, ADHD, anxiety, sensory processing disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder.
Deep touch pressure is well known to help normal babies thrive. Those who are institutionalised or premature, require deep touch pressure for normal development. Babies who are not picked up regularly stroked, patted and hugged often get Failure to Thrive syndrome. Everybody seems to do better with touch, and deep pressure.
Who Benefits Most From Deep Touch Pressure Therapy?
Children and adults alike are finding deep touch pressure therapy to be helpful to self-regulate. People who benefit the most from Deep Touch Pressure include those diagnosed with:
- Attention Deficit Disorder (ADHD),
- Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD),
- Psychiatric disorders (mood disorder, depression, anxiety, dementia, post-traumatic stress disorder),
- Sensory Processing Disorder (SPD).
It seems like most people (and newborns and animals) benefit and enjoy the positives that deep touch pressure can give them. It is especially so with people who suffer with sensory issues but as most of us regularly experience overwhelm, stress and anxiety, we can all benefit.
See where you can get more touch and pressure into your life. If you have a child with these conditions, it is worth a try with a blanket or a vest in addition to regular hugs, stroking and deep touch pressure.
Keep a diary and monitor what happens.
If you have difficult going to sleep yourself or cant concentrate at work, why not try a lap pad or a weighted blanket.
With no known side effects, why not?