Float Therapy: A Supposedly Relaxing Thing I’ll Never Do Again

Photo shows a person with long hair wearing black tank-style swimsuit floating in sensory deprivation tank with eyes closedPoor sleep hygiene and a smartphone combine for interesting late-night acquisitions. The next morning begins with a head-scratching awareness of email receipts from digital purchases. I recently awoke to realize I had booked a 60-minute session of sensory deprivation inside an enclosed pod: “float therapy.”

Preparation

The realization that one is paying an agent or company to do nothing is both unsettling and acknowledges my privileged position in life. The most anxiety-provoking period of the float therapy experience was an attempt to find a parking spot in the downtown area where the center is located. These float experiences appear to be more prevalent in U.S. metro spots. Float tanks are increasingly sprouting amidst the urban sprawl of millennial progressive atmospheres offering new-age healing, technology sectors, and liberal ideology.

The Pitch for Relaxation

“Float therapy” is swiftly becoming a service positioned as a beginner’s introduction to the effects of meditation. The literature provided by the company offered reasons one should float. According to this ad copy, your brain starts to produce “theta waves” after 30 to 45 minutes in the deprivation tank. These therapeutic states are indicated in the brief window between being fully awake and sleeping. According to the company I visited, this meditative state enables the mind to establish “deep learning, healing, and growth.”

The weightlessness of the inactivity is recommended for stress relief, recovery from physical injury, as well as to conquer addictive behaviors and to eliminate chronic pain. Research involving a limited number of participants utilizing “restricted environmental stimulation therapy” (REST) has shown modest benefits related to decreased heart rate, lowered blood pressure, and self-reported reductions in stress. Additional claims suggest after a dozen or so floats, one’s sleep, levels of anxiety, and mood improve along with increased body comfort (i.e., increased overall relaxation). However, like psychedelics, roller-coasters, golf, or gardening, one’s experience depends on their disposition and expectation of the setting.

There are statements in the handouts that remind me of the early 20th century biochemical movement for psychotropic medication (i.e., antidepressants such as Prozac): “Floating naturally increases your dopamine and endorphin levels, boosting your mood and leaving you with a pleasant afterglow that can last for days afterward.”

In the Tank

After a detailed orientation that included instructions on music and lighting for the pod, placement of earplugs, showering instructions (before and after the float), as well as the potential for “deep meditative states,” I entered the pod-like chamber. The water was an embryonic 94.5 degrees (referred to as “skin-receptor neutral” in the brochure) and the air in the room reminded me of a recently used sauna.

The Falsity of “Mind-Body”

When the lights went out and the pod hatch was shut, the black darkness was the same whether my eyes were open or closed. The duality of concepts such as inner and outer, day or night, and awake or asleep disappeared within the zero-gravity chamber. The 900 pounds of pharmaceutical-grade Epsom salts holds your body effortlessly as you lie flat on your back with the water level resting just above the ears.

My ears were stuffed with a molded plug and I chose to go without music or lighting. The breath had an increased audibility amid the void of stimulation and because the room was insulated from noise. There is nothing to feel in terms of a body, and there are no senses to orient one’s mind to a boundary unless a shift induces a wave in the water. This stillness is a nice metaphor for cognitive disruptions and mind. Suzuki Roshi spoke to this decades ago: “Many sensations come, many thoughts or images arise, but they are just waves of your own mind. […] Usually we think of our mind as receiving impressions and experiences from outside, but that is not a true understanding of our mind.”

You are as vast as outer space or smaller than an isolated closet. This analysis is interrupted with the slightest movement. My body would shift and I would occasionally bump up against the border of the pod. It was impossible to discern whether thinking about spinning or spinning the body was at all different. Time was irrelevant without a background or object to orient oneself to.

Mindless behavior and sedentary, non-sunlit office dwellings have become our modern ecosystems. Float therapy defies this cultural norm and is presented as an antidote, but it does so within a capitalistic system generating the need for this antidote.

Singularity Effect

Why is doing a singular task so intolerable? Are we born with this aversion? I wondered in the tank. I can remember growing up as a young child and helping my father with his real estate business. He would often go door-to-door sending out flyers or other mailings to potential home buyers or sellers. My father would elicit my assistance in the redundant labeling of advertisements with personal address labels. Similarly, I would package hundreds of handouts into individual little baggies to be dropped onto doorsteps. This type of repetitive task is ripe for automation. I would sit down in front of the television with a tray and a stack of these rudimentary assignments.

The mindless work had to be met with some form of stimulation, or so my semi-formed prefrontal cortex had me believe at the time. I could not handle being alone with my thoughts without the distraction of another activity. If the TV was not available, I would cover my ears with the traditional soft-padded, over-the-entire-ear headphones. The classic Discman accessory was used as an attempt to drown out mental activity with sound. As an adolescent, I had no idea I was training myself to become exceptionally talented at performing more than one thing at a time. Consequently, however, it made my ability to do one thing at a time less effective. Reading comprehension was especially challenging for me because my attention would constantly wander. You may be thinking the same thought I routinely had: what did I just read? My mind wanted to be fed a juicy fantasy or a 32-bit Nintendo game rather than stale words on a page.

Out of the Tank

I literally came to my senses when the blue ultraviolet light illuminated the inside the pod. The subtle visual stimulation was a blinding shock to the system. I felt like a squinting infant awakening from a long nap. An automated, digitized female voice announced the conclusion of the session over the speakers. The self-cleaning process would begin in three minutes.

Many from One

If the 20th century was consumed by the acceptance of tobacco smoke, then the beginning of the 21st century will become known historically for our willingness to juggle multiple competing stimuli. Multitasking has become a new kind of cancerous addiction. The myth we are telling ourselves is that “to manage the chaos of daily life” one needs to do many activities at once in order to be more efficient. Smartphones enable us to listen to music while texting a friend and mindlessly observing a Facebook notification, sitting on the couch having a drink, watching an episode of HGTV. Splitting our attention merely erodes our ability to focus on a single activity because the mind demands more stimulation.

Western culture explicitly promotes multitasking (e.g., commerce, forms of technological innovation) and then prescribes passive consumer goods and services to relieve us from the stress of the culture. David Foster Wallace neurotically chronicled his conscious inner world after a week on a luxury mega-cruise ship in the Caribbean, an experience that was anything but fun for him. He contemplated when he previously had been innumerably pampered and could literally do nothing:

I know how long it’s been since I had every need met choicelessly from someplace outside me, without my having to ask. And that time I was floating, too, and the fluid was warm and salty, and if I was in any way conscious I’m sure I was dreadless, and was having a really good time, and would have sent postcards to everyone wishing they were here.

Mindless behavior and sedentary, non-sunlit office dwellings have become our modern ecosystems. Float therapy defies this cultural norm and is presented as an antidote, but it does so within a capitalistic system generating the need for this antidote. If relaxing in a void of emptiness must be scheduled and paid for, then I might not ever do it again.

References:

  1. Bood, Å.S., Sundequist, U., Kjellgren, A., Nordström, G., & Norlander, T. (2007). Effects of flotation REST (Restricted Environmental Stimulation Technique) on Stress Related Muscle Pain: Are 33 flotation sessions more effective than 12 sessions? Karlstad University, Sweden. Social Behavior and Personality, 35(2): 143-15.
  2. Suzuki, S., Dixon, T., Smith, H., & Baker, R. (1999). Zen mind, beginner’s mind. New York: Weatherhill.
  3. van Dierendonck, D., & Te Nijenhuis, J. (2005). Flotation restricted environmental stimulation therapy (REST) as a stress-management tool: A meta-analysis. Psychology & Health, 20(3): 405-412.
  4. Wallace, D. F. (1997). A supposedly fun thing I’ll never do again. New York: Little, Brown.

© Copyright 2017 GoodTherapy.org. All rights reserved. Permission to publish granted by Andrew Archer, LICSW, therapist in Mankato, Minnesota

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • 11 comments
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  • Teresa

    Teresa

    October 4th, 2017 at 10:23 AM

    While it sounds like a lovely idea, I concur that it might feel weird to me to pay for an experience like this when with a little clearer mind and space I could potentially do this on my own. We are all
    Looking for a little more zen in our lives but I think if I put my mind to it I wouldn’t need to pay for that overall experience.

  • Coleen

    Coleen

    July 12th, 2018 at 8:43 AM

    I thought the same..so when my friend got me a gift certificate for my Birthday, I went ahead and tried it. Let me just say that I have been floating once a month and it is something I truly look forward to. It’s amazing. I suffer from severe anxiety and PTSD and I absolutely love my sessions. It is the only time that my mind slows down and relaxes. I highly recommend.

  • Veronica

    Veronica

    August 24th, 2018 at 1:25 PM

    Just curious, Teresa, have you given it a try in the past 10 months?

  • Andrew Archer, LICSW

    Andrew Archer, LICSW

    October 4th, 2017 at 7:31 PM

    Thanks Teresa. I agree. It is kinda like the idea that Western society has around mindfulness. If we are ‘more mindful’ it just equates to a society that is more productive and achievement oriented. The image that comes to mind is an American sitting zazen with their smartphone meditation app atop an autonomous Uber while drinking a Starbuck’s cappuccino on their way to a demanding job.

  • Nick

    Nick

    October 5th, 2017 at 11:19 AM

    No mention of the current scientific studies on anxiety being done by the Laureate Institute for Brain Research in Tulsa, OK; no mention of the studies be done at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in conjunction with Ohio State University; no mention of the year-long fibromyalgia study. Just another blog post by somebody who tries a therapy ONCE hoping for who knows what, and is quick to poo-poo it without doing actual research into the new science and countless anecdotes from people using float tanks to treat PTSD, anxiety, depression, fibromylagia and other chronic pain symptoms and speeding recovery from sports and injuries. I had a great first float, but I would never think to write an article about it afterwards. Would you write an article about the first time you tried to ride a bike or practice yoga? “I kept falling off the bike and scraping my legs. What a waste of time and money. Don’t ride bikes, it’s snake oil”. “I couldn’t even touch my toes during yoga or bend over backwards. I didn’t get to any zen meditative states. I paid $15 for something I could have done in my backyard”. Yes, floating in a pool can be very relaxing and distressing, but science shows us that when we remove external stimuli, something that cannot be done anywhere but the environment of the float tank (soundproofing, lightproofing and keeping a perfect skin-neutral temperature being key), our brain is able to more easily shift into deep states of relaxation. I could go on trying to explain, but I’m not sure of your level of interest (seems low) since you wrote this article without giving an incredible therapy helping so many people a chance. I hope you do float a couple more times, without thinking about the article you plan to write about it, to discover why it’s helping so many others. Luckily, there are so many great, positive articles out there, written by people whom floated a few times prior to writing about it, that yours will hopefully get lost in the never-ending universe of the internet.

  • Brendan

    Brendan

    July 2nd, 2018 at 9:39 AM

    Well penned Nic. Float therapy is awesome. I love it and it’s helping me overcome various issues. Find the article almost “nasty”. But hey, everyone to their own.

  • Mark

    Mark

    October 5th, 2017 at 11:30 AM

    I was at a conference once where the founders of Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream were speaking on responsible capitalism. There were protesters in the audience who stood up and turned their back in protest because they still worked within a capitalistic framework. Hmmmmm.
    Floatation therapy allows people to achieve a very deep meditative state who may not be able to sit in lotus position. I have seen people’s lives changed by floating. There are people who have overcome eating disorders, anxiety, and insomnia by floating— without medication. The US government is using pods to train special ops forces and top athletes use them for improved focus and shorten recovery times. There is evidence that floatation therapy may help treat brain disorders like Alzheimers and CTE- without medication. Brain research centers are studying the effects of floating and finding surprising benefits on creativity, pain relief and axiety. This is a very effective tool that really works, (and an alternative to pills), and like It or not, we live in a capitalistic society. Centers who offer this beneficial therapy cannot do it for free. But wouldn’t that be nice. Ice cream isn’t free either.

  • Teresa

    Teresa

    October 5th, 2017 at 2:29 PM

    lol exactly!

  • Jeremy J.

    Jeremy J.

    October 5th, 2017 at 4:00 PM

    As a float center operator, I was a little confused by the article. Mr. Archer, the community that operates float centers gets together once a year for a float conference. I have attended twice myself. I can tell you that it would be difficult to find a group of individuals that are more high minded and well intentioned than these fine folks. We believe in the benefits of floatation therapy and offer a service to our communities. I can promise you, no one is getting rich as part of some capitalist scheme. Since this isn’t a highly profitable industry like pharmaceuticals, there are not a ton of large studies as you mentioned. What you may have noticed about the studies, is that they all showed benefits from floatation therapy without contraindications. So while we do have to charge for services so that we can pay the rent and electric bill, we are providing a way for people to get away and deal with anxiety and overstimulation that does come from our modern society. Personally, I fell in love with floating as a way to find mental peace. I have a very hyper active mind, so I have a hard time with meditation in a regular environment. By taking away all distractions, I have been able to achieve a level of mental peace that I had never experienced before, and prior to opening my own float center, I was happy to pay for that peace. For many of my clients it is so much more. I have had more than one person leave the tank room in tears because their float session offered them relief from fibromyalgia or other chronic pain issues. Their hour in the tank may have been the first time in years that they were not experiencing constant pain. We understand that floating is not for everyone, but I would encourage you to try another float session. It is such a new experience for most people that they do not become fully relaxed in the first session. That usually comes during their second or third session. I am sure the first time you tried Yoga it did not blow your mind. As you acknowledge in your piece, overstimulation is becoming an issue for many people, and if a parent needs to go to a float center to obtain a moment of peace, or an anxiety sufferer decides to use their float sessions as a way to treat their anxiety instead of taking a pill, I think that is pretty awesome.

  • Ben

    Ben

    October 5th, 2017 at 5:09 PM

    “Mindless behavior and sedentary, non-sunlit office dwellings have become our modern ecosystems. Float therapy defies this cultural norm and is presented as an antidote, but it does so within a capitalistic system generating the need for this antidote.”

    So in other words, there is an antidote to this modern culture we all live in, but because float centers also exist within this culture one shouldn’t even try to make yourself better. Something about this article seems dubious.

  • Sharon Glassburn, LMFT

    Sharon Glassburn, LMFT

    October 6th, 2017 at 12:49 PM

    Love your writing style, here and in the past. Thanks so much for this critique!

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