Slate describes it as “the closest you can get to a drug-induced experience without the drugs.” Researchers have discussed its ability to bring on “profound relaxation and increased well-being”. And there have been plentiful papers talking about its positive effects on everything, from depression to blood pressure.
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They are talking about flotation therapy – a form of sensory deprivation in which clients float in a small, dark chamber of saltwater for an hour. This may sound like something out of a horror movie rather than therapy, but the science is clear: removing yourself from all possible distractions and stressors, including the pull of gravity, can have remarkable meditative effects on your mind and healing effects on your body.
How Does It Work?
In flotation therapy, an enclosed 8 x 5 chamber is filled with about a foot of lukewarm water containing between 850-1,000 pounds of dissolved Epsom salt. This solution is even saltier than the water of the Dead Sea, ensuring that even people who normally can’t float in a pool will be buoyed up by the density of the water.
When you enter the chamber, usually wearing earplugs to block out sound and keep saltwater from getting into your ears, the darkness, silence, and serene floating sensation give you a pleasant, womb-like experience of sensory deprivation. Flotation therapy sessions can last between one and two hours.
Flotation relaxes both your body and mind, helping you to shut out the constant clamor of voices in your own mind and enter a state of serenity. This “twilight state” is similar to falling asleep or being utterly engrossed in a wonderful piece of music, or even hypnosis, and it’s what most devotees of meditation strive for.
This state is a great way to relieve stress in itself, but studies show that it has positive effects even after the twilight state has ended and the client has left the flotation tank. People emerging from flotation tanks report a greater sense of relaxation than people who use meditative techniques like controlled breathing or guided imagery, and their blood pressure is lower as well.
In another scientific study, patients with depression reported decreased depressive symptoms after flotation therapy, and they also had a more relaxed and positive outlook on life.
Michael Crichton reportedly used float tanks when he had writer’s block, and with good reason. According to a paper published by Stanford, the “twilight state” of flotation therapy can have positive effects on creativity as well.
When in the twilight state, your subconscious is less inhibited, making you less likely to dismiss ideas before they’re fully formed and more likely to connect two ideas together in new and interesting ways.
Think of the way you always have creative lightning bolts just before you fall asleep. Flotation therapy gives you the same dreamy almost-asleep feeling, but you don’t need to worry about being awake until three in the morning if you follow your thoughts where they take you.
Whether it’s because you feel less pain when you’re relaxed, or because the zero-gravity environment reduces the push and pull on your joints and muscles, or both, flotation therapy has scientifically proven effects on pain management. The same people who reported lower levels of depression after floating also said that they felt less stress-related muscle pain.
In another study, men exercised until their muscles cramped, then rested either passively or in a flotation tank; the floaters not only reported feeling less pain, but also had lower levels of blood lactate, the substance that causes the burning sensation in overworked muscles.
Even people with severe, chronic neck and back pain and chronic whiplash (restricted environmental stimulation technique) have reported improvements after flotation therapy, indicating that it has promise for people who suffer from much worse than everyday aches and pains.
You’ve probably heard about hypnosis therapy to stop smoking. That hypnagogic “twilight state” effect of flotation is similar to the one produced by hypnosis, making it a remarkably effective way to treat addictions.
One study showed that people who used a combination of flotation and hypnosis were more likely to reduce their levels of smoking or quit entirely. It’s even an anti-addiction method with a celebrity endorsement: according to a 1988 biography, John Lennon kicked his heroin habit by floating because the sensation was so much like getting high that he didn’t need drugs anymore.
“Heroin-like” is one of the stranger endorsements for a form of therapy, but John Lennon and Slate seem to agree that flotation therapy gives you all the pleasure of a high without the negative side effects – and with a lot of positive ones to boot.