What is Float Therapy?
Float therapy or flotation therapy is the practice of floating inside a darkened, quiet tank filled with warm water and magnesium sulfate (epsom salts). In a float tank — also called a sensory deprivation tank — you are cut off from virtually all external stimuli, which allows you to focus completely on the experience of being in your body. Many people find this helps them achieve a state of deep relaxation, supporting their mental, emotional, and physical wellness.
Float therapy is a powerful tool to relax and de-stress, as well as increase creativity. Many people who try float therapy find the experience restful, rejuvenating and even profound. Because virtually any health condition is made worse by stress, float therapy can be a useful treatment for a wide range of health issues. Studies have found that float therapy can reduce stress, depression, anxiety, and pain while increasing optimism and quality of sleep. Float therapy is often used to promote overall wellness.
Other names for float therapy include sensory deprivation therapy, isolation therapy, floatation therapy or restricted environmental stimulation therapy (REST).
How does float therapy work?
Float therapy helps you to achieve feelings of calm and deep relaxation by cutting you off from almost all external stimuli, including light, sound, and touch. The containers in which float therapy sessions take place, known as sensory deprivation tanks, sensory deprivation chambers, or float tanks, are designed to isolate you completely from the outside world.
The practice of floating and sensory deprivation tanks dates back to its initial development in 1954 by Dr. John C. Lilly, a neuropsychiatrist interested in the effects of sensory deprivation on the brain. Dr. Lilly explored the effects of cutting the body off from external stimuli on creativity and concentration. Dr. Lilly and other early float practitioners also investigated the spiritual and emotional benefits of float therapy with some using the practice to facilitate intense experiences of awakening and emotional release.
Over the last few decades, float therapy has become increasingly popular as a means of relaxing, especially for those suffering from high levels of stress. It is also being explored as a treatment for a range of health conditions that may be worsened by stress.
Contemporary research suggests that float therapy is an effective, noninvasive method for treating stress-related illnesses and pain. Studies have found that float therapy actually reduces the body’s stress response, lowering levels of the stress hormone, cortisol. A float session can activate the parasympathetic nervous system, the part of the central nervous system that calms the body down after a stressful experience.
Additional research has also confirmed Dr. Lilly’s early findings that float therapy can boost creativity. This may be due to the fact that float therapy can help your brain achieve a state of mind similar to what people experience in deep meditation—but without the time and effort that goes into a meditation practice. Over the course of a float session, your brain also begins producing higher levels of dopamine and endorphins (the neurotransmitters of happiness, well-being, and pain relief), while reducing your levels of cortisol—the main chemical component of stress. The feelings of well-being produced by a float session may last for days or even weeks afterward.
Float tanks are sealed, light- and soundproof tanks that are partially filled with epsom-salt infused water. The water is heated to the same temperature as your skin, which makes it difficult to feel any separation between your body and the water itself. Because of the epsom salts in the water, you float effortlessly on your back, without any danger of turning over or drowning.
During a float session, you typically spend 45 to 90 minutes inside the tank. There should be enough room in the tank to stretch out comfortably. If you are afraid of being in a small, dark enclosed space (a common fear), the tank can be left open, although most people find that they feel comfortable enough to close the tank after a few minutes. Some float centers also offer special float rooms that provide extra space and the ability to stand up, with at least six feet between the water and ceiling.
Float tanks are meant to make your body feel as comfortable as possible. The lack of noise or light helps your brain to calm down. Floaters may sometimes experience mild hallucinations, as their brains seek to fill the absence of external stimuli, however, these tend to fade.
What are the benefits of sensory deprivation and float therapy?
Float therapy is increasingly recognized as a treatment that can benefit your physical, mental and emotional health, as well as promote overall wellness.
Physical benefits of float therapy
The physical benefits of float therapy can include a major reduction in the body’s production of stress hormones, including cortisol and adrenaline. When excess stress hormones are produced, the body becomes distressed and problems such as stress-induced chronic pain, high blood pressure, endocrine system disturbances, and gastrointestinal issues arise. In other words, floating can help with any health condition exacerbated or caused by stress, including:
• Chronic pain
• Rheumatoid arthritis
• High blood pressure
• Slowed recovery from injury
• Circulation problems
The epsom salts in a float tank also treat magnesium deficiency. Epsom salts are a form of magnesium, a mineral essential to human health. However, many people don’t get enough magnesium through diet alone—indeed, magnesium deficiency is a common health concern. In a float session, your body absorbs magnesium through the skin, which helps to correct any magnesium deficiency.
Mental benefits of float therapy
The vast majority of people who experience a float session describe increased feelings of calm and well-being. Floaters also often find that they feel a sense of increased clarity and alertness, as well as a heightened sense of creativity, capacity to visualize, awareness and ability to meditate. Float therapy is recognized as a particularly effective treatment for the effects of stress on the mind as well as the body, and is also being explored as a treatment for addiction.
Emotional benefits of float therapy
If you are struggling with anxiety or depression, as well as more generalized emotional pain, a float session can be a useful way to feel more at ease in your own body. Because float therapy activates your body’s calming parasympathetic nervous system, it can bring you out of the heightened state of anxiety commonly known as fight, flight or freeze. Because there is nothing going on around you other than the nurturing sensation of floating in warm water, your body feels secure enough to relax and let go. This can help you process your emotions in a safe, comfortable space.
Float therapy and wellness
You don’t have to be suffering from any particular ailment to benefit from float therapy.
A randomized controlled pilot study conducted in New Zealand showed that float therapy yielded benefits for relatively healthy people. Stress, depression, anxiety, and pain were significantly decreased while optimism and sleep quality significantly increased for the float therapy group. No significant results were found for the control group.
For healthy people who just want to support their own wellness, a float session can nurture your body and provide stress relief before your stress becomes bad enough to cause health problems. Some people also experience a sense of spirituality or awakening during a float session or freed from the distractions of their everyday lives.
Side effects and safety
There are no real side effects to float therapy. However, some people struggle with claustrophobia or are otherwise uncomfortable with the thought of being enclosed in a float tank. This is normal, but float centers will work to make sure you feel safe and supported throughout the process. You always have control over the opening or closing the float tank. Most people find that their discomfort fades as the float session continues.
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7 reasons why you’re about to fall in love with floating
LA Times, 2016
Floating Away: The Science of Sensory Deprivation Therapy
Discovery Magazine, 2014
Beneficial effects of treatment with sensory isolation in float-tank as a preventive health-care intervention – a randomized controlled pilot trial
Anette Kjellgren and Jessica Westman
BMC Complementary & Alternative Medicine, 2014
Enhancement of scientific creativity by flotation rest (restricted environmental stimulation technique)
Suedfeld P, Metcalfe J, Bluck S.
Journal of Environmental Psychology, 1987