Research confirms that flotation therapy can reduce pain, lower depression, and soothe anxiety. It can also improve our sleep.
Flotation therapy is just what it sounds like: Therapeutic floating in a tank of water or in nature. But there is more to it than this.
The water should be at the right temperature with some salt content to allow for good floating suspension. And in order to provide the best healing results, stressful sensory stimuli should be removed from the tank and surroundings.
This latter point is called “sensory isolation.” And it is an integral component of flotation therapy. Sometimes soothing music – typically with no lyrics – is added to increase relaxation.
First applied in 1954 by Dr. John Lilly, a neuropsychologist, the floating sensory isolation chamber was tested for its ability to mimic sleep. Flotation therapy has come along way since, but the isolation element is implemented in most systems for good reason.
Just imagine, for example, if you were floating – say in a swimming pool on a mattress. Someone yells from over the fence that they were being robbed. Are you feeling very relaxed as you floated? You’d probably become more stressed and anxious due to the fact that you could not respond immediately – as you were floating!
Flotation is real therapy
Today we find scattered around Europe and the Americas, a few flotation therapy businesses. Most of these have dedicated sensory isolation chambers to float in. Some of these simply include the flotation tank having an enclosure that seals off the client – while providing enough air and ambiance – from the rest of the environment.
Flotation therapy is being used by many, including elite athletes to increase their performance. And there is very good reasons for this new therapy – it works.
Passers-by to these centers – including myself – often wonder if the therapy really makes a difference upon ones health. Yes, it actually does.
Clinical research proves flotation therapy works
New research from Sweden’s Human Performance Laboratory at Karlstad University says yes – in fact, flotation therapy may actually be have significant effects upon our health.
The researchers tested 65 people. They were randomly divided and given either flotation therapy treatment or were put on a waiting list as a control group.
The flotation group was given seven weeks of a flotation program, which added up to 12 flotation sessions. Their flotation sessions were done with three flotation therapy centers. The centers each utilized the flotation tanks with sensory isolation. Each of the sessions were 45 minutes long, followed by a half-hour to shower and relax.
The subjects were tested for stress levels, energy levels, anxiety and depression, as well as pain, stress and sleep quality. They were also tested for other psychological measures such as optimism and mindfulness.
Compared with the control group, those who were given flotation therapy had significantly reduced levels of pain, anxiety, depression and stress. The flotation group also experienced significantly better sleep quality than the control group after completing the flotation therapy.
For example, the flotation group’s average depression scores went from 4.42 to 2.25 – close to half – during the twelve week period, while the control group’s average depression scores went from 4.00 points to 4.30 points during the twelve weeks.
Stress levels went from 1.86 to 0.95 – over half – during the twelve weeks, while the control group’s stress levels stayed about the same.
Anxiety levels among the flotation group went from 7.92 to 4.28 during the testing period, while the control group’s levels were also about the same.
The control group’s sleep quality also remained about the same, while the sleep quality of the flotation group went up from a 23.72 score to a 29.69 score – a significant increase.
Pain levels among the flotation group also went down significantly, as mentioned. The worst pain went from 64.29 down to 39.70 in the flotation group, and the normal pain went from 27.32 to 15.00 among the flotation group. The control group also reported slightly reduced pain, but reductions were about a third of the flotation group.
Stress and the relaxation response
The research highlights what is referred to as the relaxation response – a relief of stress found when someone achieves deep relaxation. This contrasts with what is referred to in stress medicine as the fight-or-flight response.
The fight-or-flight response stimulates the release of cortisol, ACTH and epinephrine, and a dramatic change in many of the body’s parasympathetic operations such as digestion – which slows – and heart rate – which speeds up. The fight-or-flight response also reduces the body’s focus upon healing – which means the body does not repair itself the way it should.
This often coincides with reduced sleep. Sleep is typically reduced when a person has significant stress.
Stress also reduces our serotonin and dopamine levels, which lead to greater levels of long term anxiety and depression.
When this fight-or-flight response takes place in the body over an extended period, the body increases levels of oxidation – which can produce free radicals and reduced healing and repair. Sleep is a necessary part of healing – as the body does much of its repair work while we sleep.
Flotation therapy mimics sleep
As mentioned with Dr. Lilly’s research, one of the reasons flotation therapy may be so beneficial is that it puts much of the body into suspension. That is, the body can completely relax, which is also what takes place when we drift into deep sleep.
This of course allows the body to conduct repairs and healing strategies. These include hiking up the immune response and clearing toxins.
Flotation therapy lets the mind drift
Allowing the mind to drift is also one of the things we do when we sleep. This allows the mind and brain to consolidate memories and reflect upon issues – and often solve problems.
This is good for the mind – as well as anxiety, stress and depression – because it allows us to resolve things that we might be stressed over. This problem-solving element is also one of the characteristics of sleeping.
Of course – actually falling asleep in the flotation tank is not unheard of. Just ask a flotation therapist.
Can we get the same benefit by just floating?
Certainly, flotation therapy doesn’t necessarily require a complex float tank with sensory isolation. But it certainly helps. The water has to be kept at a certain temperature – not too hot and not too cold – to encourage complete relaxation. This means the temperature must be kept close to but a little less than body temperature – something that may be difficult to do in a home flotation setup.
That said, there are some places in the world where floating can be done in nature – such as in the Dead Sea or on some tropical beaches. The Dead Sea has a greater salt content, however, allowing for better suspension.
Many flotation therapy centers achieve the ability to float – leaving the face above water to breathe – with Epsom salts – though other chemicals are also used in some tank setups.
The isolation float chamber blocks out excitable sensory stimuli, and this might be hard to create at home. Especially if we have people, cell phones, computers and other sources of external stress surrounding us.
I surf, and sometimes I will lay back flat on my board in the water and simply float on the board – though I have to keep one eye out for the next set wave. And in the past I have laid on a mattress in a private pool. So I can attest that these and other low cost floating strategies can also be very productive in terms of reducing stress.
So if you have available any means of floating – completely suspending the body in water at the right temperature, with a minimum of interruptions – give it a shot. Or give a flotation therapy center a try if you pass by one. You’re sure to find yourself floating away to a new frame of mind – and better health.
Kjellgren A, Westman J. Beneficial effects of treatment with sensory isolation in flotation-tank as a preventive health-care intervention – a randomized controlled pilot trial. BMC Complement Altern Med. 2014 Oct 25;14:417. doi: 10.1186/1472-6882-14-417.
Case Adams is a California Naturopath and a Board Certified Alternative Medicine Practitioner with a PhD in Natural Health Sciences, and diplomas in Homeopathy, Aromatherapy, Bach Flower Remedies, Blood Chemistry, Clinical Nutritional Counseling and Colon Hydrotherapy. He has authored 26 books on natural healing strategies.