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Floatation therapy could be a side-effect-free way to treat anxiety

When I was a baby, the nap was a concept I had little regard for. There was too much going on in the world during the day that descending into darkness again for an hour or so was something I did only begrudgingly. Since adolescence, the rare instances in which I nap or even take time to consciously “relax” have mostly occurred only while sick. I’ve got things to do, people to talk to, magazines to read, and museum art to look at and pretend I understand. There’s no time for a rest, only scintillating stimulation. So when I was asked to try and write about floatation therapy — lying in a completely dark, totally silent and highly salient tank of water one mid-afternoon for an hour — I wasn’t sure I’d take to it.

Floatation therapy happens in a sensory deprivation tank, atop a few-inch-deep sheet of water heated to skin temperature, saturated with Epsom salt causing you to float. As you float in a silent darkness, the brain is supposed to enter into a far more relaxed state. This type of treatment — also referred to as restricted environmental stimulation therapy, or “REST” — has been around for over 50 years. However, it’s gained popularity more recently, with celebrity endorsements from the likes of Joe Rogan, the podcaster and comedian; athletes Steph Curry and Tom Brady; the actor Jessica Pimentel, and others. (John Lennon even engaged in floatation therapy shortly before his death.)

Scientific evidence supporting its benefits have also emerged, fairly recently. In one 2014 study of floatation therapy, published in the journal BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine, stress, depression, anxiety, and pain “significantly decreased” among 65 REST subjects, “whereas optimism and sleep quality significantly increased.” They also reported a “significant correlation between mindfulness in daily life and degree of altered states of consciousness” during their time in the tank.

This all sounded good to me. I have a moderate anxiety disorder, of which I’ve treated with talk therapy the past five years, and have engaged in tête-à-têtes with depression. Thanks to therapy, things on those fronts have improved dramatically, but I’m still a worrier, who has trouble staying present, and not ready for a discharge just yet.

Andrew Archer, a mental health counselor, tried floatation therapy a couple years ago, in part because it seemed to fall in line with what he’d learned about mindfulness through his studies of zen Buddhism. “When I got out of the tank, I felt like I had been on a meditation retreat,” he tells Mic, adding that he’s been on many such retreats. “It’s a very relaxing experience, and I can see the benefits of it.”

But Archer does retain some skepticism about floatation therapy. “I can [also] see the benefits of people getting out and taking a walk in nature, without having to pay $60 or $70 to do nothing,” he says. (My session was provided gratis for the purpose of this story, but prices for hour-long sessions of nothing are a bit higher in New York City, where I’m located. Sessions are usually in the $100to$125 range.)

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Floatation therapy could also serve as a natural call back to each of our origins, when we felt more protected than at any other point in our existence. “Psychologically, I wonder if the positive effects stem in part from being in a womb-like environment,” says Nancy Sherman, an Illinois-based therapist and clinical coordinator at Bradley University. “Dark, quiet, floating in the liquid promote development in the womb. It seems that returning to this type of state could produce ‘emotional’ growth in adults, particularly the ability to achieve deep relaxation.”

My floatation therapy session was in Midtown Manhattan — not quite the world’s bastion of relaxation — at Floating Lotus. To get there, I had to take one of the city’s many beleaguered subway lines, which is almost always unnerving to me, including that day, because, you know, I had an appointment. I was eager to get started but that feeling was tempered by thoughts that all this floating in darkness during the day might be a crock.

At Floating Lotus, I was asked to shower in order to remove any dirt, oils, or other residue from my body, so as to limit tank contamination. (In case you’re wondering, like I was, if you pee in this pool, or, worse, drop a dookie, there’s a $2,000 cleanup fee.) I slid inside the tank, which measured about 6 by 8 feet, giving me some space to drift a bit. After closing the door behind me, all the lights dimmed. I was in total darkness — and immediately uncomfortable.

I was hesitant to lay my head straight back on the water for fear of fluid going into my ears. Quickly, my neck started to get stiff and, thinking there might be earplugs on the counter located near the shower, I opened the tank door again. But the floodlights didn’t turn back on, so I abandoned hope of procuring earplugs as I didn’t want to slip on the floor and kill myself after not drying off with the towel I wouldn’t be able to find.

I tried again to relax in the tank, laying my head a little further back. Of course, water did not rush into my submerged ears, just like it doesn’t when I — an idiot — go to the beach or swim in a pool. However, the longer it took for me to relax, the more worried I got that I wouldn’t at all, and that an hour in that tank would feel like a lifetime.

I could hear some faint talking sounds and the whirring of what could have been an HVAC, which ticked me off because the experience was now not as advertised. Then, I backed off that stance, thinking to myself, “Well, it is the middle of New York City; this is probably the best floatation therapy that just about anyone could offer under the circumstances.” Plus, I had the great fortune of looking forward to writing a story about how I couldn’t chill out in a place specifically designed for people to chill out in.

Floatation therapy was, so far, not helping my anxiety.

I flopped around a little bit, sat up and even splashed some water on my face to try and calm myself down. But the salt water stung my eyes a little bit and I had to reach around for the purified water spray bottle, placed inside the tank for just such an occasion.

Finally, thinking I still had around 40 minutes left in the tank, I focused on making the most of it. Those earlier noises ceased, and I dedicated myself to lying down in the water and just feeling myself breath, like the gracious attendant had instructed me to do (my therapist has also told me to “slow down” and breathe when dealing with a panic attack or just worrisome thoughts in general).

I was finally successful, and my body stayed pretty still as I lightly drifted for the remaining time in the session, which wasn’t nearly as long as I’d thought it was. The flood lights came on quicker than I wanted them to, and I lamented what must have been the 30-plus minutes I spent in the tank freaking out for no reason.

Yakov Oskanov / Shutterstock

As I got up to leave the tank, I had sweet difficulty doing so because muscles throughout my body were defiantly relaxed. That helped ease my mind, and I thought floatation therapy could be something I’d enjoy now that I knew what I’d be getting myself into. Like many people living with anxiety, staying in the moment, looking inward, and catastrophizing the unknown is a struggle for me — which is what the tank is there to get you to do. After getting out of the tank intact, if there’s a next time I’m sure it won’t be so bad.

It made me reflect, however, on how unique the experience of anxiety is for each person who manages it. “The best of therapies don’t work for everybody,” says Harry Croft, a psychiatrist who specializes in post-traumatic stress syndrome. He observes that even what experts deem the best of mental illness medications generally don’t work for much more than 60% of patients, and that specialists “are always looking for something that may improve outcomes, even if it’s something that just supplements other therapies.”

“So I would assume floatation is good,” Croft continues. “The question then becomes, ‘Is it worth the cost?’ If you’ve got money to spend, who cares? Spend it. It doesn’t hurt you.” The lack of side effects of float therapy has indeed been a draw for a lot of people.

Again, a treatment regardless of what it is, should be catered to each individual. Many people might respond better to medications than I did when I was prescribed them a couple years back, for example. Though I’ve decided to use talk therapy exclusively in my treatment, I cast no judgements on those who would prefer to employ medicinal means — nor should I.

If nothing else, this try at floatation therapy has shown me the types of conditions I need to establish for myself to practice mindfulness and meditation, and maybe someday reap their rewards. For today, that mindfulness came in a dip in a sensory deprivation tank, after which, when I turned the corner looking again for my subway stop, I passed in front of Trump Tower.

Back to reality.