It was three, maybe four in the morning and I couldn't get back to sleep. As a sufferer of anxiety and depression, topped off by moderate sleep apnea, this wasn't exactly unexplored territory. I'd woken up some minutes earlier because my CPAP machine's mask slid ever-so-slightly off the side of my face, generating an obnoxious whooshing noise.
This thing is supposed to help me sleep, not wake me up, I thought to myself, frustrated.
After fitting it back into place, I tried to relax. But because I'd already enjoyed roughly five hours' worth of sleep and my body was feeling slightly refreshed, I was almost able to take on the challenges of the day… almost.
Lying awake on my back, my left side, and then my right, absorbing the pumped air and trying hard not to disturb my slumbering girlfriend next to me, falling back to sleep was fast becoming a lost cause. My anxiety meter was being coaxed into a code red.
Then, my forearm brushed against the upholstered throw pillow my girlfriend sometimes hugs while sleeping. She had drifted off with the pillow in her arms earlier that evening, but through the natural course of the night on our queen-size bed, she'd discarded it into the scant space between us. I wanted to see what the pillow-hugging experience was all about.
I rolled over to my right side again, and buried the pillow in my chest, clutching it with both arms. Immediately, I was far less tense and much more comfortable. I lost my battle to fatigue, and fell asleep within another minute or two.
The next afternoon, the internet told me that people who hug pillows at night value strong personal connections and look to recreate that sensation during sleep, their most vulnerable state. In other words, they miss someone. On the more troubling side of the spectrum, I discovered a forum or two that suggested people who hug their pillows at night are actually feeling disconnected from their partner and prefer a solitary state. The pillow then functions as a protective wall from intimacy. A study I found said that sleeping more than an inch away from your partner could indicate unhappiness in the relationship.
"That's psychological hodgepodge," says Stephanie Silberman, a Florida-based licensed clinical psychologist, board-certified in sleep treatment. "I think every individual is going to be different. You should never classify all these people who hug pillows as poor, lonely souls or have avoidant personalities."
Silberman, who's run a sleep psychology practice for 14 years, focuses on the behavioral and cognitive components of sleep disorders, in addition to the physical causes, which she says all come into play when determining why adults might hug pillows. Silberman says those with sleep apnea will experience fewer apneic episodes if they sleep on their sides. "So sleeping while hugging a pillow or a body pillow might help with support" she notes. She asserts body pillows are also great for pregnant women, who are advised to sleep on their sides, as well. Plus, pillow-hugging provides extra covering, producing a boost in warmth.
Touching on a more psychological element of the pillow-hugging theory, Silberman points out: "People are very routine-oriented. If they do things in a typical way and they grab a pillow every night, it's very comforting to them." A pillow is an object that she says can be "an environmental cue" that reminds the brain it's bedtime and should start to settle down. Silberman also adds that pillow-hugging can provide a sense of safety and security, which will assist the anxiety sufferer—who has difficulty staying present and recognizing the true nature of their environment—in relaxing.
Silberman suspects, too, that pillow-hugging for many could stem from childhood when we typically prefer the fetal position while sleeping, and may hold onto a stuffed animal, a blanket or similarly soft objects. "We don't want to be alone," she says. Of the pillow presence, she observes: "It's a constant that, as adults, we can like as well, and there's nothing wrong with that."
For babies, sleeping is an extra-challenging part of the day when they are letting go from their caretaker that has been at constant work to relax them, most frequently by holding them close to their bodies. Therefore, soft objects from the environment—and touching or holding them—can remind a baby of the sensation of being soothed. Apparently it could work for at least somewhat mature adults like myself, I'm learning.
"A lot of people have trouble falling asleep because they can't self-soothe," says Bonnie Allie, a New York-based child psychotherapist. "They can't let go of the fears of the day, and at night that gets more intensified."
To help guide a young child who is exploring an uptick in autonomy, and feeling natural anxiety about being left alone, like at bedtime, Allie says a parent can introduce a "transitional object" to them. A transitional object is an item offered to the child by the caretaker, facilitating an association for the baby between that object and the caretaker. Thus, the presence of that object reminds the child that their caretaker is somehow still "with them," comforting them, or at the very least close by and able to protect them.
Three years into therapy, I'm recognizing that I have trouble feeling "safe," which contributes heavily to my nighttime anxiety. "It's all because of your brothers," my mother says over the phone, clearly deflecting. But it turns out she actually had a point.
When I was 22 months old, my mother gave birth to twin boys, and, needless to say, she became rather preoccupied with their needs.
After hearing that bit of my personal history, Allie says, "Ah-ha. You got bumped. Big time." She adds the presence of my brothers must have made my transition as a more autonomous toddler " very tough," as my mother had to focus much more on their needs than mine. "The feeling of loss and betrayal [then, as a 22-month-old] is huge," Allie says.
It seems that I might have to take a little more time at night to remind myself that I'm safe in my bedroom, because, some 36 years ago, my—understandably—energy-depleted mother struggled to help me cope with my surrounding environment alone while sleeping. Until a self-assurance of safety becomes a habit, and hopefully then some serenity the norm, I'll keep clutching my extra pillow, as I have for a few weeks now, sleeping more soundly through the night.
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