If you’re familiar with the arguments of using sensory cues to calm the mind, you’ve probably heard whispers of compression clothing for autism and other mental disorders. (And if you haven’t, that’s okay – that’s why we’re here!) While the science on using compression clothing for anxiety isn’t up to date yet, there’s enough data on compression clothing to get an idea of what it does to the body.
Without further ado, let’s dive in.
What is Compression Clothing?
In broad terms, compression clothing is any garment that fits tight to the skin. Such garments may be worn on any part of the body, from hat to socks, and can serve different purposes. Typically, compression clothing is made of elastic materials that stretch and tightens up to the body. It’s this tightening or compression effect that is said to produce the desired benefits.
There are several reasons people use compression clothing. For instance, both men and women use tight-fitting clothing to shape their bodies. Many athletes use such garments on their calves, arms, or even a full-body suit when training or competing to enhance their performance. Not to mention, moderately compressing sportswear is also often used to help accelerate recovery from an injury.
There are also medical compression garments, such as socks, that doctors may recommend for improving blood circulation in the body. (In fact, compression garments have been used to treat varicose veins since the 1440s!) Today, compression bandages often appear in burn wards to minimize damage to the body and enhance healthy skin regeneration while minimizing unwanted scar tissue.
How Does Compression Clothing Affect the Body?
Depending on the garment's placement and tightness, compression clothing can have different effects on the body. Let’s explore each of these, as they may hold the key to whether or not you should use compression clothing for anxiety.
Compression Clothing for Medical Use
Circulation problems are one of the most common reasons to use compression garments. For instance, those with varicose veins often use compression stockings to improve blood circulation. By creating an enclosed system around the affected limb, the veins are forced to shrink in size, which sends blood back to the heart. The principle works similarly for edema or the swelling of body tissues due to increased blood or water presence.
Compression clothing is also used to treat burn victims. Hypertrophic scars, which are harder and look different than normal pinkish scar tissue, often form as severe burns heal. Depending on the location, these scars may hinder limb movement or cause pain in moving, which can impact daily life. While the science on the subject is watery at best, it’s thought that compression works to reduce collagen formation, increase collagen breakdown, and deny scar tissue the blood and oxygen it needs to form.
Additionally, compression garments have emerged as a supportive treatment preceding or following injury or surgery. In these cases, knitted orthopedic supports, are they’re known, are meant primarily to hold parts of the body in their intended place and shape. Such garments include back, calf, and shoulder braces, as well as joint supports.
Compression Clothing for Sports Use
If you’ve ever seen a race, football game, or basketball tournament, you’ve likely seen at least one athlete wearing compression clothing. There are two basic principles that make compression helpful in the sports arena.
The first is that compressing muscle mass can increase blood flow (see varicose veins above). In doing so, an athlete may see better performance as more oxygen flows through their body simply by the mechanism of speed.
The second is that compressing parts of the body can slim muscle tone. In turn, this reduces drag in high-speed sports. While cutting down an inch there or a centimeter here may not seem like a lot, reducing muscle tone from head to toe may have a slight impact on performance. (Of course, some research also suggests that this effect could be psychological).
Additionally, compression sportswear is thought to:
- Enhance neurotransmission and mechanics on a cellular level
- Boosts lactate (acid) removal
- Increase oxygen supply
- Reduce recovery and healing time after intense activity
- Minimize post-exercise trauma, including muscle tears, soreness, and swelling
Is Compression Clothing Helpful for Anxiety?
Unfortunately, there are no studies on the effect of compression clothing for anxiety. However, that hasn’t stopped dozens of clothing brands and hundreds of therapists recommending that children and adults with certain mental disorders, including anxiety and autism, try out compression or weighted therapy. So, is there any stock to the rumors that compression clothing can help?
Research on Weighted Blankets
Well, yes and no. If we look at the research on weighted blankets, some evidence indicates “grounding” the body with a weighted blanket during sleep can synchronize cortisol patterns with your sleep cycle. (Cortisol is the hormone responsible for stress, which can lead to anxiety). Additionally, other research suggests that using a weighted blanket to “ground” is a safe, effective way to calm anxious tendencies.
However, just because the evidence is there for weighted blankets doesn’t mean that compression clothing has the same effect. After all, sleeping beneath a heavy layer of fabric and wearing tight-fitting clothing is not the same thing.
Autism and Deep Pressure Stimulation
That’s where the science on autism comes in handy. While autism and anxiety are not the same mental disorder by leaps and bounds, they can both produce a feeling of being overwhelmed. Some research into the effect of compression clothing on autism suggests that, for some individuals, deep pressure – such as wearing a full-body compression suit – can calm the mind and body. However, whether this research can be applied to predict positive outcomes in using compression clothing for anxiety is still nebulous.
So, is Compression Clothing Good for Anxiety?
Unfortunately, there’s not enough data to give a definitive answer on the topic. While research into autism and compression clothing shows some promising results, it would be irresponsible to assume that the results translate over for a different mental disorder. Furthermore, while weighted blankets have proven effective at reducing anxiety in adults, there are too many variables between sleeping under a heavy blanket and wearing tight-fitting clothing all day to draw solid conclusions.