What’s It Like To Float In A Sensory Deprivation Tank? And Does Science Say You Should?

If you can’t find a minute of quiet in your day, it may be time to turn to the tank. Here’s why floating in dark silence might be a great option for you.

November 21, 2017
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HealthyWay

You get out of bed each day with your to-do list already running through your head. You drive to work in traffic, feeling overwhelmed by the number of people and amount of noise surrounding you. You help your boss, your kids, or your spouse get what they need, knowing all the while that they’ll be calling your name again before long. How often have you wished for just a few minutes to close your eyes and escape it all?

Women are busier than ever, balancing home, careers, and self-care in a way that can feel never ending. We are constantly bouncing from one activity to the next, and even our self-care activities, like the gym or hot yoga, can be rather intense for both our bodies and our minds.

Enter a new modality of self-care: the sensory deprivation tank. Now, sensory deprivation might sound scary and tanks can effortlessly conjure up the stuff of science fiction, but the truth is that sensory deprivation tanks provide the ideal environment for deeply relaxing experiences. You float in warm water that is salty enough to keep you effortlessly afloat. You can’t see or hear anything, and even your sense of touch is nullified as the water is heated to the same temperature as your body. Without the constant input from your senses, you have a chance to truly relax.

The idea of floating in a tank may sound a bit new age, but experts and users say that sensory deprivation and floating have real benefits.

If you’re like us, once you know everything about floating in a sensory deprivation tank—from what to expect during the experience to how you will feel after—you just might find yourself adding some float sessions to your holiday wish list.

What are sensory deprivation tanks?

When you hear the term sensory deprivation tank, you might envision military-looking pods or other scary situations. However, today’s tanks are much more welcoming than that. Many float tanks are found at spas or other health and wellness centers, where they are promoted as an important part of a self-care routine—just like visiting the sauna or getting a massage.

When you enter the tank, you’ll wind up sitting down like you would in a bath tub, then relaxing to float in the water, which will be about the same temperature as your skin. The water in the tanks is generally shallow—about 10 inches deep—but is filled with somewhere around 800 pounds of salt, which keeps you effortlessly floating near the surface even if you happen to fall asleep.

Once you’re floating in the warm, shallow water, you’ll be able to turn off the lights, which allows you to become fully immersed in a warm, dark, quiet space unlike anything that’s available to you in the day-to-day. If you’re not quite ready for the full experience, know that it’s often up to you to switch off the lights, and you may even be able to opt for music so you can ease into the idea of sensory deprivation.

There are three basic options for floating that are commonly available. One involves larger, heated open-air pools that fit one or two people. This is a great choice for someone who is concerned about claustrophobia since the pools aren’t covered, but are simply in a small room where there is little light or sound. However, since it’s harder to control light and sound in a larger space, these pools can’t guarantee the most comprehensive sensory deprivation experience.

Another option is a float room, where you have space to move around but are in an enclosed room that is about five feet by eight feet with an eight-foot-tall ceiling. Because the ceiling is high, you don’t need to worry about feeling completely closed in.

The final option is to go all out in a float tank or pod. These contraptions essentially look like large, covered bathtubs. Floaters have enough room to move around a bit and sit up, but once they close the hatch, they are entirely contained within the pod. This makes it easy to block out all noise and light, which could be exactly what you need—or more than a little overwhelming depending on how you relate to space.

Whether you opt for an open-air pool, a room, or a pod, most floats last for an hour, although different providers offer longer and shorter experiences. Some centers even offer special overnight floats that can last up to seven hours!

Where did the idea come from?

The benefits of sensory deprivation tanks were first introduced in the ‘50s by neuroscientist John Lilly. Lilly was interested in the idea of human consciousness and how people would react if they were deprived of input from their senses. To find out, he developed tanks that were a bit scary looking. When people entered them, they would wear masks that pumped in air for them to breathe while entirely blocking any light from reaching their eyes.

Lilly would have people spend time in the tanks and later write notes on what they experienced. During his own time in the tanks, Lilly reported experiencing interactions with other-worldly beings, perhaps spurred by his use of the tank in conjunction with the hallucinogenic drug lysergic acid diethylamide—also known as LSD.

Drugs aside, Lilly believed that the tanks provided a way for people to connect with themselves and tap into their inner consciousness.

“All the average person has to do is to get into the tank in the darkness and silence and float around until he realizes he is programming everything that is happening inside his head. You are free of the physical world at that point and anything can happen inside your head because everything is governed by the laws of thought rather than the laws of the external world. So you can go to the limits of your conceptions,” Lilly wrote of the experience.

What are the health benefits of floating in a tank?

Float tanks and the idea of sensory deprivation have come a long way since Lilly’s experiments. However, floating is still recognized as a way to escape from the day-to-day and benefit from deep relaxation, both during the float session and afterward. In fact, experts says that there are physical, psychological, and spiritual benefits to spending time floating in a sensory deprivation tank.

“What the float tank does is it resets the neuroendocrine system, the connection between the brain and the hormones,” says Dan Engle, MD, who is board certified in psychiatry and neurology and has written about the benefits of sensory deprivation tanks.

Engle explains that in our fast-paced lives we are constantly in fight or flight mode. This is because the constant stress that we are exposed to activates our sympathetic nervous system, which is associated with our natural responses to perceived threats. When our sympathetic nervous system is activated, we are likely to have a raised heart rate, higher blood pressure, and other physical indicators of stress. Throughout human history, activation of the sympathetic nervous system would have happened relatively rarely, but today it happens almost all the time.

“In our fast-paced culture, stress is in our lives almost constantly,” Engle says. “That stress causes chronic illness.”

One way to combat the activation of the sympathetic nervous system is to engage in deep relaxation. Being deeply relaxed is the opposite of being in fight or flight mode. Because of this, relaxation calms the sympathetic nervous system and activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which slows heart rate, lowers blood pressure, and resets the vagus nerve, which controls the heart, lungs, and digestive tract.

Floating in a tank is a great way to achieve this switch.

“In the tank, we switch from sympathetic tone to parasympathetic tone,” Engle says.

Engle estimates that about 80 percent of the stimuli our brain is normally exposed to is eliminated in the tank. Because of this, floating takes a huge amount of pressure off a person’s brain and frees them to connect with their inner thoughts.

“In the midst of that, there’s the invitation to go within to connect with the breath, find center, and discover your own way to navigate whatever the environment may be outside the tank,” he says.

Scientific studies support this. One study found that among healthy adults, stress, depression, anxiety, and pain were “significantly decreased” and overall optimism and sleep quality “significantly increased” after a series of floats.

The scientific benefits of meditation and mindfulness  when it comes to reducing stress and improving wellbeing have been well documented, and Engle says that those findings can be applied to floating in a sensory deprivation tank as well.

“A flotation is meditation on steroids,” he says.

He says most people who try floating, including those who have tried meditation but not enjoyed it, will see a big difference in their daily lives after floating, including feeling more calm and sleeping better.

“People who can’t meditate end up really liking the tank for the impact on their lives afterward,” he says.

Can you float away your pain?

Physical benefits that occur when your body switches from the sympathetic mode to parasympathetic mode include reduced blood pressure and lower heart rates. However, that’s just the beginning of the physical benefits of floating.

Many people say that floating helps control their pain, and studies have shown that floating in a sensory deprivation tank can improve pain levels for people living with fibromyalgia and other conditions that cause chronic pain.

Engle says this occurs because the environment in the tank mimics zero-gravity, taking all of the pressure off the muscles. In addition to that, by putting the nervous system into its parasympathetic mode, floating can help facilitate healing of the condition in addition to relieving pain, he says.

“A float calms the nervous system, helping do what pharmaceuticals are trying to do, and it’s healing the nervous system at the core versus putting a band-aid over it,” he says.

Jacqueline Lucero, owner of Revival Float & Wellness in Grass Valley, California, says that many of her clients report lower amounts of pain after their floats.

“The main benefits reported to us are a decrease in stress and anxiety, an increase in overall relaxation, and a significant amount of pain management,” she says. In fact, many chiropractors and physical therapists send their clients to float, and doctors will occasionally send in pregnant women who are feeling lots of aches and pains. The pain relief can last for days after a float session.

“Many people report the effects of the float lasting several hours or even days following their float,” Lucero says.

What will the experience of floating be like?

Wes Anderson, a Grass Valley, California, resident who works in media relations, floats regularly at Revival Float & Wellness. He tells HealthyWay he had heard about the benefits of sensory deprivation tanks, but was a bit apprehensive about trying it for himself.

“I had no idea what I wanted from the tank,” he says. “I struggle with anxiety, so I was hoping that I would actually float, that I would have my senses deafened or completely deprived, and that I would enjoy it.”

Now he has been floating regularly for about a year. He says that after a session in the tank he is calm and relaxed.

“Mentally it makes me happy. I just have a smirk for hours after. I feel centered. I move slower,” he says.

Anderson describes the experience of being in the tank like drifting off to sleep.

“For me, it’s similar to when you accidentally fall asleep in the sun during a warm afternoon when you didn’t plan to,” he says. “Or when the TV might be on and you’re struggling to stay awake and then out of nowhere it’s two hours later. Physically it is similar to a massage without the release of knots, but that same relaxation and reprieve from life stress.”

When you visit a spa or wellness center for a sensory deprivation float, you will likely be led to a private area near the tank where you can change (it’s your choice whether to float in a swimsuit or naked). You then get into the pool or pod, which is regularly cleaned using a high-tech water filtration system.

Many people worry about feeling claustrophobic while floating. If that’s a concern for you, choose a facility that has a pool or float room you can choose to float in rather than an enclosed pod. Engle says that it’s important to go with your comfort level, even if that means leaving the lights on or keeping the pod open initially. You’ll still get benefits, he says.

As for how often to float, experts including Engle tell HealthyWay the benefits of floating increase the more often you do it. Engle recommends starting with 10 sessions spread over three weeks. After that, he recommends slowly tapering down to floating about once a month.

We can all use a little extra relaxation—whether it’s physical or emotional—and tuning into ourselves while floating might inspire new insights that will give us the motivation we need to pursue our goals when we step out, dry off, and get moving again, so why not give it a try?

See what HealthyWay thought of the experience in the video below:

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