A lot of people are going around really stressed and anxious these days. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America states that anxiety disorders are the most common mental illness in the U.S., affecting 40 million adults or 18.1 percent of the population. Many more may struggle with it as it’s common for people to try to deal with the issue without seeking help.
In a survey of stress at the workplace, investigators found that 40 percent of employees experienced persistent stress or excessive anxiety in their daily lives. More than half said stress affected their work performance and their relationships with coworkers and peers.
The American Psychological Association published a report in 2017 called “Stress in America: The State of Our Nation,” in which they stated that money and work remained common stressors for Americans. They also found that people were feeling the effects of stress more in their lives, with 45 percent struggling to get to sleep at night, 36 percent feeling nervous or anxious and 34 percent fighting chronic fatigue caused by stress.
Although there are many stress-relieving remedies available to us, including regular exercise, meditation, yoga, counseling, daily walks, journaling and more, one particular method has gained popularity during the past few years.
Called “floating,” or more formally, “flotation-REST (restricted environmental stimulation therapy),” it’s a form of sensory deprivation that is reputed to help people relax and shed all that stress and anxiety. The question is, does it work? Would it work well for you?
What Is Flotation-REST?
The idea of floating in a tank that blocks out all sensory input isn’t exactly new. The first one was invented in the 1950s by neuroscientist Dr. John Lilly, and then it was called a “sensory deprivation tank” or an “isolation tank.” Dr. Lilly was interested in finding out what would happen in the human brain if all sensory input was removed, so he built a large chamber that he filled with water, then he had study participants use a diving suit to submerge themselves.
After time in the tank, most participants reported feeling a deep sense of relaxation and calm while some said they experienced profound thoughts that led to personal epiphanies and self-discovery. After more studies showed similar results, Lilly worked to bring floating devices to the general public. That led to the design of floating devices that more closely resemble those we have today.
Now, a typical floating tank contains less than a foot of water and is filled with Epsom salts to the point that when a person lies down in the water, he or she floats effortlessly on the surface, without having to tread water or swim. This means having to submerge in the water is no longer necessary.
The tanks themselves come in different shapes and sizes, but the idea is the same — to suspend you in a gravity-free environment in a soundproof, lightproof space. Inside that space, all sources of sensory experience are cut off — sound, sight, smell, and touch. That’s why it’s also called “sensory deprivation.”
The therapy has become more and more popular recently. In 2016, Float Tank Solutions reported continued growth in the industry across the United States and Canada, with more centers opening than ever before.
What Are the Mental Benefits of Flotation-REST?
When people first think about trying floating, it’s usually because they want to lower their stress and/or anxiety levels. Reducing stress and promoting a sense of calm is one of the main benefits floating has to offer. As Dr. Lilly reported in his early studies on the sensory-deprivation tank, many modern-day users find that an hour in the “tank” helps them to experience stress relief at a higher level than other methods allow. In addition to all the testimonials, we have some studies showing the benefits, as well.
In a 2014 study, researchers studied 65 participants assigned either to a wait-list control group or a flotation tank treatment group. The treatment group participated in seven weeks of therapy, with a total of 12 flotation sessions. Results showed that after the study period was over, participants in the tank treatment group reported significantly decreased stress, depression, and anxiety while also improving their optimism levels and sleep quality. The control group reported no significant results.
The treatment seems to work not only for everyday stress and anxiety but more serious types as well. In a 2017 study, researchers had nine participants with diagnosed generalized anxiety disorder complete a 12-session treatment program with flotation-REST. Results showed that the participants experienced more relaxation, improved attitudes toward anxiety-coping strategies, improved connection with themselves and enhanced quality of life.
The researchers reported that the flotation-REST “positively affected symptoms and the core issue associated with GAD [generalized anxiety disorder] on an experiential level.”
In another study on persons suffering from a lot of stress and burnout, including symptoms of fatigue, researchers found that a 10-week combined treatment with a flotation tank resulted in significant decrease in depression and anxiety and an improved positive outlook on life.
Floating has also been found to help reduce levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, in the body. In 2004, researchers analyzed 27 studies on REST therapy and found that it not only had positive effects on well-being, but it lowered levels of cortisol and dropped blood pressure.
Floating therapy may help with other forms of stress and anxiety as well, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), attention deficit disorder (ADD) and autism. In a 2013 study, researchers tested regular floating during a period of 1.5 years in a patient suffering from several of these disorders and found that it helped improve quality of life and well-being and helped the patient adopt healthier behaviors. The patient herself reported feeling “good well like a new person….”
Might floating help you quit smoking? According to some studies, it may be worth a try. Researchers say that the profound relaxation and shift in consciousness that tends to occur with the treatment can help smokers more easily make changes in their habits and maintain those changes. “REST is a versatile, cost-effective treatment modality with demonstrated effectiveness in modifying some addictive behaviors and promising applications in others,” the researchers wrote.
What Are the Physical Benefits of Flotation-REST?
In addition to the mental and emotional benefits of floating therapy, there seem to be several physical ones too. The primary one is pain relief. You may have heard that if you have muscle or joint pain, it helps to soak in a tub with Epsom salts. Float therapy provides a similar remedy to these types of pain as you’re essentially floating in a tank nearly saturated with these salts.
In water, Epsom salts break down into magnesium and sulfate. While you’re soaking, it’s believed that your skin absorbs some of these minerals and that they then go to work helping to relax the muscles and reduce the brain’s sensation of pain.
People who try a float spa often report a general feeling of pain relief. Study results back them up. In 2007, researchers tested floating on 37 patients who were all diagnosed as having stress-related pain and muscle tension. One group received 12 treatments of flotation-REST while the other group received 33 treatments. After 12 sessions, participants experienced considerable improvements, and those weren’t substantially different after 33 treatments, so 12 seemed to do the trick. Participants also reported reduced stress, anxiety and depression and improved sleep.
In the 2014 study mentioned above, participants experienced reduced stress and anxiety with flotation-REST therapy, but they also experienced reduced pain and improved sleep quality. Earlier studies also indicated that people could ease the pain with this therapy. In one, patients with chronic pain who went through REST-assisted relaxation reported they were able to reduce their pain.
It makes sense, then, that the therapy may help people with fibromyalgia. Researchers in one study recruited 81 people with fibromyalgia and gave them three floating sessions. They then asked the participants several questions about their experiences. They found that REST therapy helped provide significant reductions in pain, muscle tension, stress, anxiety, and sadness while improving relaxation, well-being, energy, sleep and ease of movement.
Floaters also reported experiencing improved skin and hair softness from the salts and an overall better sense of physical well-being. The therapy may even help employees miss less work. In 2011, researchers tried it on employees suffering from a high-stress load and burnout and found that a 10-week program of flotation-REST helped decrease depression and increase positive outlook on life and reduced pain and the need for sick leave.
Potential Drawbacks to Flotation-REST Therapy
With all these benefits to the therapy, it seems that you couldn’t go wrong giving it a try. However, there are some potential drawbacks you should be aware of. These include the following:
- The salt may sting: If you have open scratches, cuts or other wounds, the salt will likely sting when you immerse yourself in the water. Spas usually advise you to shower and apply petroleum jelly to these areas to help prevent the salt from disturbing them, but it may be best to go when you are free of any scratches or wounds. That stinging sensation can be distracting and may reduce the benefits of the therapy. Technicians also advise you to try to keep the water out of your eyes as it can sting them as well.
- The isolation can be frightening: Once all the lights are off, the sounds are gone, and you’re floating in the tank, you may begin to experience some fear. We’re so used to having sensory input all the time that having it all disappear can be unsettling. Usually, you can get past the fear after a few minutes to enjoy the benefits, but you may want to be prepared to feel a little uncomfortable at first.
- Confined feeling: Being in a small tank all by yourself can feel confining to some people, particularly if you’re claustrophobic. Although you can get out at any time, it’s important to realize that space is big enough for you to lie down and float, but no bigger. If small spaces bother you, you may not enjoy the therapy or may prefer bigger floating tanks.
- Hallucinations: Some people report experiencing hallucinations in their time in the tank. This isn’t necessarily bad — it provides unique insights at times — but it can feel a little weird.
- Cleanliness: In some spas that aren’t run properly, the flotation tanks may not be as clean as they should be. Tanks that aren’t disinfected properly may increase the risk of fungal infections or other issues related to cleanliness. Make sure to check on the facilities’ guidelines and reputation. It’s also a good idea to shower after floating.
If you’d like to try floating, go for a shorter session at first — maybe only 30 minutes. An hour is the standard length of treatment, though there are longer sessions available, too. If you find the experience relaxing and calming, it may well be worth it to go now and then for the sake of your mental and physical health.
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