For me, anxiety is the big one — the real pressing problem for the largest number of people, that can be most helped by floating. By far the best review of the subject I know of is the video below by Justin Feinstein of CalTech. You can just watch it if you like (it’s half an hour and quite accessible), or continue with my discussion below.
“Floating provides a window into the lowest reaches of our brain: a window that allows us to see the rhythm of our life, a window that allows us to literally feel the flow of sentience completely untethered from the external world. … [Anxiety is] a rhythm that constantly outpaces the beat of life itself, and importantly it’s a rhythm that can be slowed down by floating.”
The Western world is suffering something of an epidemic of anxiety in the early 21st century. When you include its many varieties (generalized anxiety, panic disorder, social anxiety, PTSD, OCD, and phobias), it is actually the most common psychiatric condition, nearly twice as common as depression, and is experienced by around 40 million Americans. Over the course of life, 25% of people may be expected to have a diagnosable case at some point, but only one third receive treatment.
What is anxiety? At heart, it is a future state experienced in the present moment, inducing physiological stress and arousal. You can be lying, safe, warm, and well-fed in your comfortable bed — when a stray thought of tomorrow’s tasks will hijack your brain. Suddenly, your body is reacting as if you were facing a sabertooth tiger.
No tiger is present — not even the boss whose deadline sparked the attack of worry. Anxiety is fundamentally about predictions of the future. It is also a creature of the verbal mind. Keeping yourself in the present and in your body is an effective response to anxiety, and floating is great at doing both of these.
Anxiety in itself is not a bad thing — being able to foresee the future, and to feel urgency to avoid bad consequences, are both tremendously valuable abilities. They only become problems when the physiological stress and arousal become too frequent and begin burning so much of the brain and body’s resources that you cannot relax. The body can become stuck in the aroused state, and the anxiety can drive compulsive behaviours in a futile attempt to solve problems that aren’t actually present.
The world we live in is one of constant connectivity and continual input. Lack of downtime may be driving the epidemic of anxiety.
“Anxiety culminates in behavioral avoidance, limiting one’s life by closing the door on countless opportunities.”
How does floating help?
Most importantly, floating triggers the physiological relaxation response. This can directly resolve the physiological arousal of an attack of anxiety, and can help take you out of a verbal mode, stilling the chatter in your head.
Further, floating quiets large portions of the brain. In particularly, all of these functions receive very little input while in a float tank, and get to rest:
- vision (since it’s dark)
- hearing (…and quiet)
- touch (the water is still)
- proprioception (since you no longer have to balance against gravity)
- motor control (you’re not moving)
- verbal control (…and not talking)
- thermal sensation and regulation (since the tank is already at body temperature).
That accounts for the majority of the cerebral cortex. With all of that quieted, it becomes possible to “hear” the deeper, older parts of the brain, and the foundations of emotion and consciousness.
Past this point, science yet can do little more than speculate. But many other traditions of thought have experiences to share.
Combining floating with meditation techniques seems likely to be especially useful with regard to reducing anxiety: in particular, attending to the breath, and remaining non-reactive. Feinstein observes, “often times when you’re in a deep meditative state, the time when you feel the most profound sense of self is when you’re completely still, and when your attention is completely captured by the breath.”
“People who have anxiety talk a lot about this pressure, this pressure of life that they feel on top of them. Getting into a tank is an immediate relief of this pressure.”
All of this said, there’s still one particular worry often expressed by anxious people with regard to floating, and it’s about the tanks themselves! From the outside, many people think they look claustrophobic. This is totally understandable, but it’s important to note that most of the people who worry about this, stop worrying once they actually get into a tank. For one, the tank is actually much bigger on the inside than you might think, and you can sit up and move around easily. (This is especially true of our Float Room models, in which you can actually stand right up.) If you want, you can also leave the door cracked or wide open with a light on — some people find that helpful. The key to remember is you’re in total control of the experience. Total darkness is actually more likely to feel infinite than enclosing.
There have been many studies of floating and its effect on anxiety, though many more have used healthy subjects (27 studies) than have used clinically anxious or depressed subjects (6 studies). On healthy subjects, there is a respectable body of work showing
- reduction of self-reported stress and anxiety,
- decrease in blood pressure and heart rate, and
- decrease in cortisol and other stress hormones.
In 2005, a meta-analysis reviewed these benefits, and showed flotation REST produced a large effect size.
The most significant studies of floating’s effect on subjects already suffering from clinical psychological conditions are the Bood et al studies of patients with “stress-related pain and burnout depression”. In a series of papers, the research group at the Human Performance Lab at Karlstad, Sweden, tracked self-reported levels of anxiety, and showed a ~30% reduction after 12 float sessions. These benefits were sustained for 4 months after the end of treatment.
In 1990, Koula et al treated patients with generalized anxiety with a series of 7 float sessions, and found significant improvement in symptoms when assessed 7 months later.
In 1993, Barabasz found that 1-6 float sessions were able to cure bouts of flying phobia in 4 pilots.
As usual with float studies, a certain amount of caution is called for, as the sample sizes are all quite small, and the controls and randomization are lacking. Nevertheless, the results observed are quite striking.
Perhaps not least, we have done a case study here at Float Boston of a subject with PTSD and major depression.
“I remained happy, and carried with me the positive feeling into the next two days. It was almost a ‘celebratory’ feeling. One that has not been produced by any other medications, therapies, or methods of dealing with the individual diagnoses I live with. I didn’t feel the need for the anti-anxiety medications for nearly two days. Which, in my current state, almost never happens.” —Andrew