Float Tank 101: Is This Stress Relieving Water Therapy Health Hype Or Healing Tool?

By: Dr. Axe | Food Is Medicine

Whether referred to as sensory deprivation tanks, float tanks or simply “floating,” deprivation therapy treatments diminish nearly all sights, sounds, smells and touch, earning a reputation for naturally easing many ailments. Floaters report sensory deprivation tank benefits include insomnia cures and relief from chronic pain, anxiety, depression and even addiction. Perhaps the beauty in all of this is that these reported benefits are possible without a doctor’s visit, breaking a sweat or filling any prescriptions.

What does floating in a deprivation tank do — or feel like? Proponents of floating told the The New York Times that a session can make you practically feel like an astronaut, saying “it’s something you can never experience otherwise.” (1) Sensory deprivation tank float centers are popping up all over the United States and Europe, especially in urban areas where the demand for holistic healing surges. According to annual official Float Tank Industry reports, the U.S. was home to more than 300 float centers in 2015, up from about 85 in 2011.

Related Article: 5 Weird (And Effective!) Stress Relieving Tips You’ve Never Heard Of

Although the benefits of float tanks only recently garnered lots of buzz, they’ve actually been around since the 1950s and used in Europe on-and-off since the 70s. (2) At the time of sensory deprivation tank creation, psychoanalytic researchers and neuroscientists used the tanks mainly to test effects on things like creativity, connection to others and concentration.

Some report that float tanks can actually bring about a “psychedelic experience.” Over the last few decades, esoteric communities promote floating as a way to promote “spiritual awakeness,” emotional breakthroughs and enhanced clarity of mind. While these benefits are difficult to prove, recent research published in the Journal of Complimentary & Behavioral Medicine now suggests that sensory deprivation may actually work by reducing the body’s stress response, inducing deep relaxation and quieting mental chatter. (3) A slew of research is now showing that “floatation therapy” is an effective, noninvasive method for treating stress-related illnesses and pain, more so than a placebo or even many other methods currently used in complimentary medicine.

What Is a Sensory Deprivation Tank?

Sensory deprivation is achieved through floating in a type of isolation tank that cuts off all sources of sensory experience: sound, sight, smell and touch. Another way floating is referred to in research studies is “Restricted Environmental Stimulation Technique,” or floating-REST.

Float tanks that are used for inducing sensory deprivation are filled with water that is almost the exact same temperature as the floater’s body, along with high amounts of Epsom salt (made from magnesium sulphate). The salts allow you to remain restfully floating at the water’s surface in complete silence and stillness. During the entire session, floaters generally feel light and peaceful, without needing to exert any effort to stay afloat.

As you’ll learn below, flotation-REST’s positive effects impact physiology, including lowering levels of cortisol, lowering blood pressure and promoting positive feelings of well-being. Studies show that increased mindfulness and decreased stress during float session reduce markers of bodily distress syndrome (BDS). Researchers often use the term “BDS” to describe negative physiological changes that take place when someone is under a lot of stress. These BDS signs are now tied to things like fibromyalgia symptoms, chronic fatigue syndrome and somatization disorder. (4)

How Does a Sensory Deprivation Tank Work?

Sensory deprivation tanks help induce a deep state of relaxation (also called a “relaxation response” or RR) by turning down the body’s “fight or flight” stress response. Evoking a natural relaxation response is considered an effective remedy for stress-related symptoms because it activates the parasympathetic nervous system, while at the same time decreasing activity of the sympathetic nervous system. Essentially, floating helps lower cortisol levels and calm the nervous system, bringing the immune and hormonal systems back into balance.

These beneficial effects help lower the heart rate, normalize blood pressure levels, restore a normal breathing rate (respiratory frequency) and normalize digestive functions. (5)

In stressful or busy situations, we’re best able to induce a relaxation response by decreasing sensory input and bodily movements as much as possible. During a floating session, nearly all incoming stimuli and sensations are reduced or completely eliminated. There is no music playing, no guided meditation or directions and nothing else to hear besides your own breath. There are no lights — tanks are kept very dark. Floaters don’t even feel water on the skin because it’s heated to nearly exact skin temperature. Time in a sensory deprivation tank is similar to solo or guided meditation in that the mind tends to become very peaceful, allowing stress to melt away.

Regarding the logistics of sensory deprivation tanks, here’s what you can expect if you decide to try a floating session:

  • The deprivation tanks themselves are big enough to fit your body when lying down flat, but don’t leave too much room for moving around. Most are about the size of a “large coffin,” which can leave some people feeling confined and uneasy.
  • Tanks hold about 10 inches of water and about 1,000 pounds of dissolved Epsom salt. The salt is what allows the floater to stay elevated during the session without needing to swim or tread.
  • Most people choose to float for about 45 minutes to 2 hours. However, some go for even longer, up to 8 hours as they sleep in the float overnight. People have the option to leave the tank early if they feel uneasy. However most experts suggest that you try to wait out the duration of at least your first session to experience and embrace all of the different feelings that may come up.
  • The cost of sessions depend on the type of facility you visit. Most 1 -to 2-hour sessions will cost you anywhere from $30 to $150. Many places offer float packages, helping to keep costs down in exchange for committing to a certain number of floats up front.
  • In case you’re wondering, floating for 1 to 2 hours in a salt tank isn’t bad for your skin, and you won’t get wrinkly or cold. The water stays the same temperature as your body, adding to the “deprivation” feeling. Most say that their hair and skin feels soft afterwards, not dried out like you may expect.

Who Do Float Tanks Work For?

Floating enthusiasts told The New York Times that anyone looking to “stretch their artistic, spiritual and even athletic boundaries” can benefit from floating. After reviewing participants’ reports regarding floating’s effects, researchers even concluded this:

“Many of the participants had been using a range of different methods to reduce pain, stress and other individual health issues prior to floating. Medicines, yoga, massage and physiotherapy were some of the treatments mentioned, and never had they so successfully been relieved from pain, tension, stress, etc.”

Those looking for more of a scientifically-supported reason to try floating will be happy to know it’s backed up by much ongoing reason. Although there’s still lots to learn regarding the physiological effects of sensory deprivation, floating is believed to potentially help alleviate all sorts of stress-related problems like:

  • Mood related disorders and symptoms of depression or anxiety
  • Addictions or symptoms of withdrawal
  • Headaches
  • Low immune function
  • “Burnout” and frequent sick days among employees
  • Chronic fatigue and low energy
  • Jet lag
  • Trouble focusing, restlessness, distractions or brain-fog
  • Chronic pain and muscle tension, often tied to high stress levels
  • Difficulty sleeping or insomnia

Related Article: 5 Ways To End Your Relationship With Stress

Top Sensory Deprivation Tank Benefits

1. More “Mindfulness” & Reduced Stress

The 2014 Journal of Complimentary & Behavioral Medicine study mentioned above, which tested the effects of sensory deprivation on markers of quality of life in 65 adult patients as part of a cooperative-health project, found a significant correlation between “altered states of consciousness during the relaxation in the flotation tank” and “mindfulness in daily life.”

Scientists randomized study participants to either a wait-list control group or a flotation tank treatment group. The sensory deprivation tank group participated in a seven-week flotation program, consisting of a total of 12 float sessions. After being tested for measures of psychological and physiological well-being — including variables like stress, energy, depression, anxiety, optimism, pain, sleep quality and mindfulness — results showed significant reductions in:

  • Stress responses
  • Depression symptoms
  • Anxiety
  • Pain

Scientists also observed improvements in general optimism, sleep quality and “mindful presence” (or awareness) during the study.

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  1. krista1@iinet.net.au' Daniel says:

    Descriptive words such as deprivation and coffin like are not very helpful as they may invoke quite a negative response in some people. It is best to have two to three 45 minute sessions to start with and then assess what value it is for you. Further to this the person has full control over their environment at all times. Most tanks are able to have the door partially or fully opened – this may be helpful for someone who is a bit anxious, especially the first session. Obviously the amount of external stimulation is not as reduced but the floater will be more relaxed anyway. A float room is self enclosed with a shower and usually a toilet. This provides maximum privacy and security. Its not recommended but you can float with bathers on. Anything that reduces the anxiety about the first experience can only be a benefit to the floater. Lastly, not a lot happens in the session, muscle twitches and jerks while the body is settling into some deep relaxation. When the body and water become the same temperature then its like floating in outer space, no pressure on the body anywhere – there is nothing else like it. Best to take it easy after a float and enjoy being very relaxed, usually a vey deep sleep after a float and increased energy levels and mental clarity. Many floaters say its like having a weeks holiday. Every session is unique to each person. Enjoy. I have been floating for nearly 30 years.

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