Floatation tanks (otherwise known as sensory deprivation tanks or isolation tanks) are pitch black, soundproof tanks filled with salt water at skin temperature. Effectively, they allow you to float without sensory input. They are used for all sorts of reasons. Athletes use them in order to benefit their training and facilitate recovery from injuries. Meanwhile, ordinary people find that they are a useful way to de-stress and relax, manage pain, boost creativity, and enter deep meditative and introspective states.
Sensory deprivation can lead to a kind of calmness and quiet that is hard to achieve any other way. It can also result in altered states of consciousness. And these two effects help to explain why floatation tanks offer relief to people suffering from mental health issues.
Calming the Mind
Many sufferers of anxiety are trying out floatation tanks, with very beneficial results. When you have an anxiety disorder, it’s difficult to control racing, stressful thoughts and catastrophic thinking. However, people with anxiety say that their mind slows down in the tank. Their anxious thoughts fizzle out.
While studies on the mental health benefits of floatation tanks are sparse, the evidence is building. A study published in February 2018 in PLOS One found that floatation tanks substantially reduce anxiety in the short-term. Moreover, the most severely anxious participants experienced the most significant effects. Participants also reported notable reductions in stress, depression, muscle tension, and pain, as well as increased serenity, happiness, and overall well-being.
A 2017 study revealed similar results. And a meta-analysis published in 2004 demonstrated that floatation tanks reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol and blood pressure. Since stress is a risk factor for both the onset and relapse of a mental illness, floating can, therefore, serve to protect well-being.
Speaking from my own personal experience in the tank, I can attest to these mental health benefits. Overthinking, overanalysing, and rumination are, unfortunately, all too familiar to me. They often feel like the default setting. But in the tank, after giving myself time to lie still and sink into a state of deep relaxation, the mind chatter lets up. I can finally enjoy some quiet and respite.
Floating is like an effortless form of meditation. It’s an anti-anxiety drug without the drug. In fact, researchers have discovered that these tanks affect the same brain regions that anti-anxiety drugs like Valium and Xanax do.
Some people have found floatation tanks so therapeutic that they were able to wean themselves off their anti-anxiety and antidepressant medication. Nevertheless, more research needs to be done to assess their efficacy in treating mental illness, especially in terms of long-term management and recovery. Floatation tanks may not carry the kind of unwanted side-effects and risks you get from anti-anxiety drugs (e.g. addiction), but how many floats a week would you need for long-lasting relief? And how cost effective is regular floating? After all, it can cost £50 a go.
My experience has been that, after the session, I feel incredibly relaxed and calm. This pleasant, feel-good afterglow then lasts for the remainder of the day (although some people report it lasting longer).
Floatation tanks could very well play a crucial role in your mental health toolkit, alongside medication, therapy, exercise, good diet, restful sleep, and so on.
The Therapeutic Potential of Altered States
The most interesting aspect of the floatation tank, for me, was not the de-stressing and relaxation I felt, but the way it allowed me to enter an altered state of consciousness. As the usual neurotic chatter slowed down, I could instead think in a much more imaginative, lateral, and novel kind of way. Without any conscious effort or intention setting, I would start to examine my personal life – as well as broader themes and ideas – from a new perspective, under a different light. I saw images and scenes in my mind’s eye that were vivid, emotionally charged, and highly meaningful.
Floating allowed me to enter a dream-like, lucid state in which I could explore problems – that would seem to spontaneously rise to the surface – in what felt like a wiser and more understanding manner. For example, I remember during one session re-visiting myself during my first year at university. During this time, I was severely depressed. I was struggling with isolation, hopelessness, and extremely distressing negative thoughts. My self-esteem had hit absolute rock bottom.
I don’t think I really came to terms with how much pain I was in. Yet in the floatation tank, I retrieved these memories and stood (as my current self) in the room where my 18-year-old self was suffering so much. I felt like giving my former self a big consoling hug and telling him that it’s alright. And that’s what I did. This was a very profound experience. It helped me to find a sense of self-compassion I didn’t know was available and use it to come to terms with the past.
These kinds of inner explorations were relieving. They felt genuinely therapeutic. However, instead of sitting in a quiet room talking to a therapist, I sort of became my own therapist and spoke to myself.
Transpersonal psychology is a school of psychology that concerns itself with altered states of consciousness. Practitioners believe that these states can offer healing potential. And I don’t see any reason to doubt that experiences in the tank can’t provide the same kind of wisdom, insight, and lessons that meditation or psychedelics may also elicit. John C. Lilly, the inventor of the floatation tank, would ingest substances like LSD and ketamine and then enter the tank. He found this allowed him to experience states of consciousness that were otherwise unachievable with the use of the tank or the drugs alone.
It would be fascinating to see research on floating combined with a particular psychedelic compound or form of psychotherapy. The floatation tank, much like meditation, may very well act as a synergistic agent in the therapeutic process.