I Tried Float Therapy to Slow the Eff Down
From improved sleep to pain management, this growing trend promises a lot. But does it deliver?
Back before the world insisted on it, I was already practicing a form of self-isolation—namely, floating naked, alone, in an enclosed tank filled with Epsom salt in the pitch dark. This wasn’t some new beauty fad that I signed up for (although Epsom salt is great for healing the skin). This was, in fact, a health and wellness practice known as float therapy, sometimes referred to by its geekier alias, Restricted Environmental Stimulation Therapy (REST).
The practice, aimed at helping people find their inner calm, is predicated on the idea that less—much, much less—is more. As such, participants climb into a “sensory-deprivation tank,” a small pool or pod filled with a solution of purified water and magnesium sulfate (aka salt) that allows users to float weightlessly for the better part of an hour. During your float, there is no light and no sound (although many pods have capabilities for both if you get too freaked out). Needless to say, cell phones are not allowed. “Getting rid of all sensory input allows the ‘constantly-make-sure-you’re-not-dying’ part of the brain chill out for a second, letting the creative, relaxed part of your brain come out and play,” explains Gloria Morris, founder and president of Float Sixty, one of the leading float centers in the U.S.
Counter to what you might think, float therapy isn’t just geared toward yogis and those in touch with mindful living. In fact, the majority of clients are just the opposite: High-strung Type A-ers looking for a way to calm the eff down. Leading up to my first float experience, I was experiencing major burnout—that creeping feeling of too much screen-time, too many emails, not enough hours in the day, not enough sleep and an overheated brain. I needed help. A friend suggested float therapy. I was intrigued, if skeptical. Would it work? Here’s what I found out.
The Roots of Float Therapy
As someone who writes about wellness, I thought I’d tried just about everything out there. I had a lot of questions about float therapy. How does it actually help? Will I feel trapped? Will I fall asleep and drown? You know, just the usual concerns.
I did some research to get clued up. The first floatation tank was created by academic John C. Lilly in 1954 while working for the National Institute for Mental Health. Hoping to understand the human mind’s response to total sensory deprivation, he suited-up his test subjects in diving gear and submerged them in blackout tanks. Many reported experiencing intense relaxation and calm, while others had epiphanies of self-realization and discovery. The concept re-emerged in the ’70s, with ties to the rise in psychedelic drug use.
Today, float centers are most closely aligned to the health and wellness community. Scientific studies tout benefits ranging from better sleep to less stress. “Without the constant pressure of analyzing the world around you, your body lowers its levels of cortisol, the main chemical component of stress,” says Morris. “Your brain also releases elevated levels of dopamine and endorphins, the neurotransmitters of happiness and natural painkillers.”
Meanwhile, the anti-gravity effects of 1000 pounds of Epsom salt dissolved in a foot of water (it’s scientifically impossible to sink, even if you try) can reduce muscle tension, ease back and neck pain and allow for spinal cord and joint decompression. And because the saline solution is heated to the same temperature as your skin’s surface, you lose track of where your body ends and the water begins, providing a sense of deep relaxation.
Learning to Let Go
I arrived at my first float session suitably equipped with a month’s worth of anxieties and stress, not to mention a lousy night’s sleep. Upon arrival, I received earplugs to reduce sound and keep water out of my ears, along with instructions to put petroleum jelly on any cuts or scrapes to avoid stinging from the salt. Then I removed my clothes and put them in my bag, showered and slipped on pool shoes before walking over to the water.
Like most float centers, Float Sixty offers different setups based on personal preference. I opted for a tiny room with an open pool in it. Other options include the space-age-looking pod (with closable lid), an extra large float pool (great if you’re not a small space enthusiast) or the Samadhi Tank, a coffin-like 4’ x 8’ water tank.
As I climbed in, the water felt soothingly warm and strangely thick. After a little while, the low-level lights began to dim, fading to total darkness. Disorientation kicked in, as did a stinging saltwater-in-the-eye moment, remedied by a fresh-water spray kept on the side of the pool. Realizing I was clenching nearly all my muscles, I took a few minutes to fully concentrate on letting the tension go. Once I did, an intense feeling of pure weightlessness washed through me.
Meanwhile, my mind hadn’t received the sit-down memo and started to race along its usual highway, speeding though five thoughts at once, making random decisions about what I was going to have for dinner and other mind soup trivia. Drawing on my experience with meditation, I focused on observing my thoughts and releasing them. Gradually, the mental checklist started to slow and I was off, floating somewhere in a strange, dark void. Other than the occasional bump into a side of the pool to remind me I was contained, I had a feeling of total expansiveness. I couldn’t feel my arms and legs—just a oneness with the water.
Benefits That Linger
In the hours that followed my float therapy, I felt light and invigorated, like I’d just finished a long run. That night, I had the best sleep I’d had in a long time. Looking forward to my second float, I felt comfortable with the drill and knew what to expect. Afterward, the feeling of lightness and calm lasted a little longer than the first time. It happened again with the third and fourth sessions, too.
I’m still waiting on my fifth session, though—with all that’s going on right now, my float therapy has been put on hold. Curiously, weeks after my last visit, I am still sleeping better than ever. I feel more rested when I wake, and there’s been a decrease in mind fog, too. I’ve also noticed less postural aches and pains and have been able to get back into running and outpace my previous times. Is all this good stuff is purely due to floating? Or is it because I’m home more now with less frantic rushing around the city? I can’t say for sure, of course, but these changes only began when my float therapy started. And that’s reason enough for me to say I’m ready for more sessions, whenever “normal life” returns.