Flotation Therapy

Flotation therapy, also known as Sensory Deprivation or R.E.S.T., can certainly seem extremely strange at first to someone who has not had the opportunity to experience its wonderful benefits first hand.  In a world where we are perpetually exposed to things that stimulate all five of our senses, constant feeling and processing are just facts of life.  However, its amazing how much getting away from all that – or at least as much of that as possible – can help us emotionally, mentally, and physically.  It’s far more than simply taking a warm bath; flotation therapy can change your life in many ways.

History of Flotation Therapy

The father of flotation therapy, John C. Lilly, was a neurophysiologist working with the National Institute of Mental Health in 1953 when he developed the first isolation tank. This first tank was dark, soundproof, and full of salt water, and was designed to help subjects float for long periods of time in isolation from their senses and the world.  Lilly volunteered to be the first subject to be studied, along with a colleague, and so began flotation therapy.  He spent many years studying it and promoting it, but due to the fact it is rather unusual, it really did not get the foothold it truly deserved at that time.

By the 1970s, though, some scientists were beginning to realize the benefits of this type of therapy and more studies began.  Unfortunately, the term “sensory deprivation” that Lilly used for it developed a somewhat negative connotation over the two preceding decades, partially due to misinterpretation of earlier results, and also due to incorrect descriptions of it in several introductory psychology textbooks.  Two scientists, Drs. Peter Suedfeld and Roderick Borrie, upon realizing its many benefits, chose to sort of re-name and re-brand it as R.E.S.T., an acronym for Restricted Environmental Stimulation Technique, and this is what it is known as in scientific circles today.

Along with a second type of R.E.S.T. in which subjects lie on a bed in a darkened, silent room, alone, for up to twenty-four hours, Suedfeld and Borrie discovered through their research that removing outside, sensory stimulation can truly have great effects on an individual.  Through their independent research, they found that floatation may enhance creativity and performance in a way similar to meditation or sleep.  According to one study, our brains require resting states like these to rehearse recently acquired skills and consolidate newly gained knowledge for storage.  Suedfeld and Borrie felt that R.E.S.T. was a much clearer and less threatening sounding acronym to describe the methods they were using to stimulate this sort of brain activity, and since then, most scientists have accepted it as a more fitting name for it when conducting their own studies as well.

What to Expect

Today, floatation therapy is available to everyone, not just those individuals who are participating in scientific studies.  It has become popular at spas and health clubs, and facilities that exist specifically for floating are popping up all over the United States and the world.   When you arrive for your appointment, you will be asked if this is your first float, and if it is, someone will be happy to walk you through how to proceed.  You will be lead to a private room, be asked to undress, and in many cases, shower first.   You will insert earplugs, step into a “pod” or “cabin,” and close the door behind you.  Inside, you will find approximately ten inches of water, heated to 93 degrees Fahrenheit, and mixed with a large quantity of Epsom salts.  The temperature is intended to match your skin temperature, and the Epsom salts are there to help you float easily, comfortably, and weightlessly.   Simply lie back, and float; you will find it quite easy to do so, and due to the water and air temperature, you will soon forget you are even wet.   The lights will go out, leaving you in complete silence and darkness, and time will seemingly slip away, as you settle more and more into a completely relaxed state.  Most floats last either sixty or ninety minutes, but some more experienced practitioners choose to stay inside the pod for up to four hours or more.

How Does Flotation Therapy Help?

The benefits of flotation therapy are numerous and many of them have been proven through scientific studies.   Anyone who has floated before will tell you that they leave their float sessions feeling relaxed in both the mind and body.  The silence, darkness, and temperature all work together to put your mind at ease, and the floating itself, combined with the therapeutic benefits of soaking in Epsom salts, results in next-level relaxation of muscles and joints.   In the 1980s, a series of experiments by a group of research psychologists at the Medical College of Ohio found that R.E.S.T. caused the blood pressure and stress-related hormones to drop not only during sessions, but also remained at reduced levels long afterwards as well.  A later study in 2005 found that flotation was even more effective at reducing stress than other popular methods like relaxation exercises or relaxing on a couch or bed.  Further experimentation involving R.E.S.T. found that it can be effective in helping those who suffer from a variety of ailments including headaches, insomnia, and rheumatoid arthritis, and even chronic pain.  In one study of subjects experiencing consistently high levels of pain, researchers found that patients reported lower levels of perceived pain, better sleep, less anxiety, and higher levels of reported happiness overall after floating.   These benefits certainly help individuals who are suffering, and can be extremely beneficial to those who aren’t, as well.

Flotation Therapy & Recovery

Flotation therapy can be an extremely helpful tool for individuals in recovery for many reasons.  Along with other alternative therapies like meditation, visualization, yoga, and breathing exercises, participating in regular float sessions can help to treat addictions.  Floating is natural and holistic, but at the same time can affect the brain and body in so many positive ways.  It helps the body maintain internal homeostasis, and produces endorphins in the body, which can help relieve symptoms of withdrawal and also promote feelings of happiness and pleasure in a safe, and substance-free way.  This shift in biochemistry fulfills our innate need for pleasure, which can help those in recovery to avoid seeking out this pleasure in less healthy ways; the need for pleasure is satisfied, thereby reducing the desire to look for it through other external methods.  And, spending time in a float tank can also help individuals find mental clarity, raise their motivation, and lower their levels of fear, anxiety, and depression – all things that can certainly help on anyone’s recovery journey.  A 2003 study that focused specifically on the effects of flotation on individuals with substance abuse problems found that it allows participants to focus internally on personal problems, helps them to remove trigger cues and changes response possibilities, and gives participants increased feelings of control over their addictive behaviors, as well.  The increased awareness of our internal state promoted by removing outside stimuli can help us turn inward to solve problems, since there are no external, immediate problems to solve while in the tank.

Flotation therapy is amazing and is not surprisingly rising rapidly in popularity.  Today, it is easy to find a facility that offers it in all major cities and increasingly in smaller towns as well.  Once you have tried it once, you will want to go back again and again.  Each experience is the same from a physical standpoint, but continued experiences will lead to more and more fantastic results.  It may not be for everyone, but it is certainly worth trying, and it can be a great support for all, especially for individuals working on their recovery, and it can certainly lead to a much more fulfilling, introspective, and healthy life ahead.