About Floating: Sensory Deprivation and Flotation R.E.S.T.

No longer dismissed as a hippie fad, float therapy is gaining ground as a scientifically-backed method of therapy for a host of common conditions. In 2011, there were 85 float centers in the United States. Now there are more than 300 nationwide in 2015. People turn to floatation therapy for a host of reasons including pain, anxiety, burnout, and high-blood pressure. According to neuropsychologist Justin Feinstein, floating could even replace medication for anxiety as he noticed in his current study, “Essentially what we found in the preliminary data is that the amygdala is shutting off post-float. It’s nice to see that that can be done in a way that doesn’t require medication.” He is one of the researchers bringing sensory deprivation tanks, or floating, into the light.

Float Therapy is the practice of lying in a saltwater solution in a tank devoid of external stimulation. This method yields multiple benefits like stress reduction, enhanced creativity, help in sleeping, treatment of chronic pain, and muscle soreness. The saltwater solution is made from Epsom salts which are rich in magnesium, a mineral in which most people find themselves deficient. Some believe that floating gives them the quiet and space they need to soften their minds and easily find answers to problems that have been causing them stress. Whatever the reason, floating is taking off.

What is Sensory Deprivation?

Sensory Deprivation is the removal of outside stimuli such as sound, light, and touch in a tank that is filled with roughly 850-1000 pounds of Epsom salt and water to achieve maximum buoyancy. The tank is heated to 95 degrees Fahrenheit, which is nearly body temperature for ultimate floating comfort. No exertion is needed to float, so floaters can trust the saltwater solution to hold them up.

Sensory Deprivation Pods, or what is known today as “Floating” resulted from a 1950s experiment to measure “the effects of restricted environmental stimulation on mental and physical functions.” This first experiment did not include a saltwater solution, but instead, kept students in cramped quarters with their hearing and vision impaired resulting in deteriorated conditions. A few years later, Dr. John Lilly developed the Floatation Restricted Environmental Stimulation Technique. Using this technique, a person was suspended in water and light and sound were almost entirely restricted. Dr. Lilly continued to work on his experiment throughout the 60s and 70s. He found that the external stimuli he restricted (light, sound, touch) made up 90% of the central nervous system’s workload.

This evolved into the friendlier and more assuring name, REST (restricted environmental stimulation technique) when Dr. Roderick Borrie, partially due to the evolution of the therapy, and also to remove the negative connotations of the words “sensory deprivation” from the treatment based on a distorted definition of the term used to torture prisoners in Korean war camps. REST has two major mediums; chamber REST, in which a person lays in a dark, soundproof room, and flotation REST, wherein the person lies in liquid in a sound and lightproof tank.

How Does it Work?

Sensory deprivation tanks help create an environment for deep relaxation by reducing overstimulation and inhibiting the body’s stress response. This activates the parasympathetic nervous system, reducing stress and activity in the sympathetic nervous system. This also lowers the stress hormone, cortisol, in the body. This then brings the immune and endocrine systems into balance.

In everyday life, we are constantly bombarded, in body and mind, with overstimulation. By decreasing sensory input and lying weightless in a floating pod, the body can actually relax and restore. Floating is more comfortable than any Tempur Pedic mattress because it allows the body to rest without any of its pressure points being touched or disturbed. Floating has also been shown to increase the depth of meditation one can access so they can manifest all the benefits associated with deep meditation like lower blood pressure, brain preservation, improves concentration and focus, reduces anxiety, and can even help with addiction.

What to Expect When Floating

Logistically, you can expect the following as part of your floating experience:

  • You can choose between traditional closed float pods that act as a womb or cocoon, encapsulating your float experience, or large open pools that allow for greater movement, exceptionally tall individuals and those concerned with claustrophobia.
  • Most tanks hold 10 inches of water and 1,000 -1,500 pounds of dissolved Epsom salt, so you will not drown in the tank and can safely fall asleep. We also provide earplugs, ointment for scrapes and cuts, shower products and even a flotation pillow if you want additional neck support..
  • We ask that you shower before your float, and that you float “in your skin”.
  • Our float sessions are 60 minutes, and you can schedule two in a row to float as long as 2.5 hours. There are some people, especially endurance athletes, who will spend eight hours or more in the tank at a time. It is encouraged that you stay for the entire duration of your float. Your first few experiences will bring up many feelings, so give yourself ample time to reflect and process.
  • After you finish floating, immediate benefits include soft skin, relaxed body, calm mind and an increased sense of well-being. For the next day or so you’ll likely notice a reduction of pain and inflammation, and an exceptional night’s sleep after floating. A practice of floating will increase these effects and allow them to sustain longer, providing consistent benefits.
  • Cost is variable and dependent upon geographic location and facility. The cost ranges from $30 to $150; however, many centers offer new client specials. Memberships can also defray the expenditure for those committed to floatation as a regular therapy. There are also other deals like Groupon, but always be sure to check reviews to ensure you have a high-quality experience.
  • Contrary to the beliefs of some, the salt in the floatation device does not dry out the skin or accelerate aging. Many people say their skin feels soft afterward and some even report it helps with skin conditions like body acne.

The first few floats might be a challenge as you work hard to quiet your mind. Some people also feel a little panicked at first, so many centers have floatation pods and pools with a calming blue light that can be turned off or auto-shuts off after 10 minutes to allow new floaters to get comfortable during the first few minutes of their float. Some people do report mild hallucinations and a change in their sound sensitivity as well, but the effects are usually pleasant.

Who Benefits?

Floating is a universal option to anyone suffering from debilitating maladies or simply needs to relax and recharge. Pods are no longer restrictive and with the dawn of open pods and float rooms to accommodate all body types. Everyone from overworked moms to soldiers with PTSD have been shown to benefit significantly by floating.

Floating is especially beneficial for those who experience chronic pain, anxiety, burnout, and have high-stress levels. Everyone from older children to senior citizens can float, including pregnant women.

Top Four Floating Benefits

Additional studies are needed to continue to back up the anecdotal benefits made by advocates of floating. However, there are many advantages. Here are a few that are the most scientifically proven.

Mindfulness and Reduced Stress

According to the American Medical Association, 60% of all human illnesses can be derived from stress. Justin Feinstein, Ph.D. is the director of the only float lab in the US, The Float Clinic and Research Center at the Laureate Institute for Brain Research. Through his studies, he is finding positive scientific data that floating does decrease stress and increase mindful meditation: “Our preliminary analyses are showing that the stress circuits of the brain are shutting off post-float.” The near-zero gravity state of the float tank allows the body to relax and because it reduces the outside minutia, people can look inward and practice mindful meditation. With the removal of outside stimuli, floaters focus on what is in the pod with them, most notably, their heartbeat and their breathe. Many people who have difficulty meditating find it much easier in a pod.

Reduced Anxiety and Depression

Anxiety affects about 40 million adults in the US and depression affects nearly 15 million adults each year. Often treated with medication and talk therapy, float therapy is a new methodology that is gaining ground. In a 2001 study conducted by the Journal of Canadian Pain Society, it was found that floatation sessions decreased anxiety and depression and increased optimism. In a 2014 study, 65 participants were randomized into a wait-list control group or a floatation tank treatment group who received twelve floatation session over seven weeks. The control group has a rise in depression; whereas the flotation group saw a nearly 50% decrease in depression. It was then concluded that floatation is successful in reducing stress and depression symptoms.

Improved Creativity and Productivity

Many people say they use sensory deprivation to recharge their batteries and access their creative mind. In a 1987 study conducted by the University of British Columbia, five psychology professors participated in six, one-hour float sessions and six, 90-minute sessions sitting alone in their office. After each session, professors would dictate research ideas into a tape recorder. Findings showed that the research ideas post-float session were more creative than the office sessions. It indicates that “These findings support the prediction that REST would facilitate high-level creative behavior and positive affect.” In another study of 40 university students, one hour of floating resulted in increased scores on a standardized test specifically used to measure creativity.

Reduction in Pain

The magnesium in the Epsom salt eases muscle, joint, and low back pain, as well as increase circulation and reduce blood pressure. In a 2006 study involving seventy patients, 54 of which who had stress-related pain, found that after twelve floatation-REST treatments pain, stress, anxiety, and depression decreased. Optimism or positive attitude, sleep quality, and prolactin increased and stayed increase for up to four months after treatment. It was determined that floatation-REST is an effective way to treat stress-related pain.

Fibromyalgia, a disease which is characterized by widespread pain and fatigue, has a new friend in floating. In his paper, “The Effects of Flotation REST on the symptoms of Fibromyalgia,” Dr. Borrie found that study participants diagnosed with fibromyalgia experienced, “Significant reductions in pain, muscle tension, stress, anxiety, and sadness, as well as significant increases in relaxation, feelings of well-being, energy, and ease of movement,” after only three sessions. These subjects also experienced better sleep quality.

Precautions to Consider When Floating

While most people will benefit and enjoy the experience of floating, it is not necessarily for everyone. The experience could be driven by your facility. Sometimes going to “cut cost” facilities can result in an unsatisfying and even unsanitary experience. Be sure to check the facilities’ guidelines for cleanliness and hygiene. Be certain you choose a facility that values sanitation, hygiene, and has high unbiased reviews from clientele.

Those who have claustrophobia may have difficulty relaxing in a float tank; however, there are options available to help with this fear. They may choose to leave the pod lid open during their float, or they may find a facility that offers a floating room which is similar to a private mini-pool without a covering of any kind.

Be sure not to shave two to three hours before entering a float tank because the salt is sure to sting. Remove contacts and be sure not to let salt get in the eyes. Also, avoid caffeine before floating because it may interfere with your ability to relax.

Sensory deprivation in a floatation tank as a treatment option is gaining traction not only holistically, but scientifically as well. Floating has been shown to decrease stress and pain while increasing creativity and mindful meditation. Be sure to pick a high-quality floating center to have the very best experience possible.