“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
“Andrew” is a real person, though that’s not his real name. Over the last two years he’s been clinically diagnosed with Treatment-Resistant Major Depressive Disorder, PTSD, and Anxiety Disorder. He has worked with trauma therapists and all the resources in the Boston area, including MGH and McLean hospital. He’s even gone so far as to participate in clinical studies at MGH for current drug trials that are being studied for his particular diagnosis. To date, nothing has significantly improved his quality of life, and is left with very few options short of electroconvulsive therapy.
He contacted us, wanting to know if he could try floating before committing to anything so drastic as ECT. Sara and I gave it a little thought and said, you know what, helping someone like this is exactly why we want to open FLOAT. We offered a series of three floats over three weeks, if he would write up his experiences before and after so that we could share them here.
[After my third float] I felt calm and happy, an experience I can’t remember having in a long time. So much so that I was unfamiliar with it, and didn’t know what to do with the positive happy feeling. I know how to take care of myself in the dark troubling times, but over the last few years, have lost the innate knowledge of how to feel happy, and what to do with that time.
This is an anecdote – one person’s experience, and no kind of clinically controlled trial. Please interpret with caution. Still we were thrilled with the results, and are excited to share them here.
One of our guest floaters, Joshua, came out of the tank with an interesting comment that he had found the sense of relaxation he obtained to be quite different than his experience of massage or yoga. We asked him what he meant, and he wrote us a great discussion. With his permission, we’re sharing it here:
Many people compare floating to the relaxation available from meditation or yoga. In quick simple terms, I found floating to be the exact opposite of these two techniques. In floating, the mind follows the body. In yoga and meditation, the body follows the mind.
I also experienced a marked difference in the type of “quiet mind” that the other two techniques produce. Having said that, once familiar with the experience of floating, even when going back to meditation it became easier to “get there” and easier to “stay there”.
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.”
Many scientific studies have attempted to quantify this effect. Does it have measurable biochemical effects? Does everyone experience it? If a person has tension headaches, for instance, does this relaxation effect actually help them? And if so, how long does the effect last?
One study done recently in Sweden says the answer is yes, and the effects seem to last for months.
“The simple act of floating in warm salty water is the most relaxing experience on Earth.” That’s the motto of Floataway, one of the pioneers of the float industry.
A float tank, or float pod, is a small, enclosed pool usually just big enough for one person to lie down in. The water is less than a foot deep, but has so much Epsom salt dissolved in it that it’s more dense than the Dead Sea — each tank contains 800 to 1000 lbs of salt! You float effortlessly, even in such a shallow depth. Epsom salt is used to provide buoyancy, rather than normal sea salt, to avoid the itchy wrinkly pruny effect that comes with long immersion in the ocean. The high concentration of salt does sting quite sharply if it gets in your eyes or nose, but it’s easy to float with your face out of the water, and a freshwater rinse is provided to clean up if you touch your face without thinking.
The pool is heated to skin temperature, so you get neither hot nor cold, and it’s enclosed to block out as much light and sound from the outside world as possible. The roof is high enough that you can still sit up comfortably, but otherwise you are snug in the most womblike possible environment.
With the sounds of the outside world removed, you are left with your own breathing, and heartbeat, and the occasional splash if you move around.
What does this do? There are fairly profound physiological and psychological effects.
You float effortlessly, so the body is relieved of any need to balance itself against gravity or keep any tension in the limbs. You can relax completely. Also, unlike lying on a bed, none of your tissues are compressed, allowing blood to flow freely.
Epsom salt baths have a long history in spas, where they are thought to help soften skin and relieve muscle tension. Scientifically, Epsom salt is magnesium sulfate, and many people also believe that the magnesium can be absorbed through the skin. Magnesium is known to be important in a long list of critical biochemical reactions, and it is common for people to be deficient.
The float tank is designed as a reduced stimulation environment. In fact, that’s the accepted scientific term: Reduced Environmental Stimulation Technique, or REST. Inputs to the cerebral cortex are dampened or eliminated: vision, hearing, touch, proprioception, motor movement and verbal control, thermal sensation and regulation. With the noise of all that normal activity dampened, you can become much more able to hear your inner world. The sensation is somewhat like falling asleep, except that you can sustain that floating state for extended lengths of time. Some people report going so deep that they have visions, mild auditory hallucinations, and out-of-body experiences.
One way to think of it is that flotation provides the most conducive possible environment for meditation. Most people are able to access a trance state within a few sessions, sometimes even the first time, with no training or practice whatsoever.
Whether you experience any altered consciousness or not, the float tank environment is extraordinarily relaxing. Our society is suffering something of a stress epidemic, and stress is recognized as a risk factor for every leading cause of death. More than two dozen studies have shown flotation significantly reduces anxiety, eases depression, helps sleep, and decreases blood pressure. Investigation is ongoing to its use as a therapy for PTSD.
The flotation state also seems to have benefits for creativity and mental focusing. Various studies have shown improvements to memory, idea generation, competitive performance (such as target rifle shooting), and lasting behavioural changes such as losing weight or quitting smoking.
Note: this essay includes a whole lot of comments about “various studies” without links to the science. I am working through the research, and will update each topic as I get to it.
Some people have concerns that they will experience claustrophobia in a tank, but this is rare. It’s bigger than you think — big enough to sit up in easily — and you are not locked in. The door is very light, and does not even have a latch. Some people find it helpful to leave the door ajar, or fully open. That’s okay. There’s no pressure.
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