Float your worries away? A sensory deprivation tank could help with that

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Float your worries away? A sensory deprivation tank could help with that
© Teraphim/Getty Images Float your worries away? A sensory deprivation tank could help with that

  • Sensory deprivation tanks create a sound- and light-free space that many find deeply relaxing.
  • Evidence suggests floating may help improve focus and relieve anxiety, depression, and pain.
  • If you’d like to try it yourself, ask nearby spas and wellness centers if they offer float sessions.

Sensory deprivation tanks, or float tanks, as they’re commonly called, are dark, soundproof tanks designed to create an environment devoid of sensation.

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A float tank is usually long enough to lie down in and tall enough to sit up in. They contain water at a shallow depth, heated to skin temperature and saturated with enough epsom salt that you’re completely buoyant in the water, able to float effortlessly. When the tank’s lid is closed, you lie in the tank with no sound, light, or sense of gravity.

You might wonder, why would anyone want to do that? Well, supporters of floating tanks believe the practice has many benefits for the nervous system, including helping relieve stress and anxiety.

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While float tanks were originally developed in the 1950s by researchers interested in sensory deprivation’s effect on the brain, it wasn’t until the 2000s that floating began to become popular among the general public. You can now find float tanks in many spas and wellness centers.

Beyond helping ease stress and anxiety, float tanks may offer other benefits, including improved sleep, pain relief, and more.

Benefits for mental and emotional well-being

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Floating in a sensory deprivation tank could help improve mental health and emotional well-being by:

Aiding mental clarity

The meditative experience of a float tank may help your focus. In fact, people who float regularly say it:

  • Helps declutter their mind
  • Creates space to calmly think
  • Helps them approach decisions in a more relaxed way

Relieving anxiety

A small 2016 study of 50 people with generalized anxiety disorder found that 12 float sessions reduced anxiety and sleep difficulties and improved emotional regulation. These benefits lasted through follow-up six months later.

“We have found that a single one-hour session of Floatation-REST is capable of inducing a strong reduction in state anxiety and a substantial improvement in mood,” says Justin Feinstein, PhD, a clinical neuropsychologist and director of the Float Research Collective.

In the 2018 study he led, 50 participants living with anxiety or stress reported a more serene and relaxed mood after floating, along with less stress, tension, and negative emotions.

Easing depression

A small 2014 study found that 12 float tank sessions in seven weeks significantly lowered stress levels and depression for the 37 participants.

The same 2016 study mentioned above also found that the 12 float sessions helped ease depression for participants who had both anxiety and depression. Reductions in depression did not hold through the follow-up period, though.

Note: More research is needed to explore how floating might have a more lasting impact on depression symptoms.

Promoting a meditative state

Feinstein says his 2018 study found the lack of outside sensation “actually enhances awareness for internal sensations such as the breath and heartbeat, making the float environment naturally conducive to meditative states.”

To put it another way, floating in a dark tank, with no sounds from the outside world to distract you, could make it easier to focus on the rhythm of your breath and heartbeat — something even long-time meditators often find challenging.

“Floating has the opportunity to turn somebody inward. It’s the grand accelerator of meditation because there’s no sight, no sound, no proprioception, or sense of balance or gravity. If the temperature is right, there’s this blending of where you experience yourself to end and the rest of the world to begin” says Dan Engle, MD, advisory board member for True Rest Float Spa.

Meditation itself can offer a number of benefits for overall health and well-being, including:

  • Improved ability to manage health symptoms, especially those related to stress
  • Increased self-awareness
  • Improved creativity
  • A sense of relaxation and peace
  • Reduced feelings of anxiety, stress, and unwanted emotions
  • Improved ability to stay present

Promoting athletic performance and recovery

Some elite athletes use float tanks to promote muscle recovery after exertion and to unplug from daily life.

According to a small 2019 study, a single float session appeared to help 19 participants increase sprinting speed, jumping height, and isometric strength while also decreasing post-exercise soreness. The participants who floated also had improved quality of sleep, an important component of athletic performance.

Offering pain relief

A few studies have found support for float therapy as a potential treatment for pain:

  • In a small 2005 study of 32 people living with stress-related muscular pain, 12 float sessions appeared to help reduce pain for up to four months after the treatment.
  • A small 2008 study of seven people found that float tanks may be beneficial as part of a treatment for whiplash, though more robust research may help support this finding.
  • A 2014 study with 37 participants found that 12 float tank sessions helped reduce stress-related muscle pain during the study. Some participants even said that muscle pain they had for years was nearly gone after the float tank sessions.

Benefiting heart health

Research suggests float tanks can be deeply relaxing, which may help lower blood pressure and reduce levels of cortisol.

Both outcomes can help improve heart health over time.

Improving sleep issues

A 2019 review of nine studies on floating found that each one reported beneficial effects on sleep quality, including:

  • Less time to fall asleep
  • Improved quality of sleep
  • Longer total time sleeping

That said, review authors also noted the need for specific high-quality studies on insomnia.

Are float tanks safe?

There are several possible concerns to address before entering a float tank:

  • Nausea: You might experience some nausea during a float, especially if you’re prone to motion sickness.
  • Claustrophobia: If you don’t like small spaces, the thought of being shut into a tank might not sound too appealing. Keep in mind that you’ll remain in control — you can leave the tank any time and even leave the lid open, if you prefer. Some tanks also include lights or relaxing music.
  • Hallucinations: Occasionally, the sensory deprivation of float tanks can cause hallucinations, but this isn’t common. People generally report seeing something nondescript, like colors or shapes, and describe the experience positively.

Note: If you can’t swim, you might worry about the potential for drowning, but rest assured: Drowning in a float tank is highly unlikely because the high salt content makes it impossible to sink.

It’s also best to avoid a float tank if you have:

  • Epilepsy
  • An infectious diseases or contagious skin conditions
  • Kidney or respiratory infection
  • Open wounds or skin ulcers

Check with your doctor before trying a float tank if you:

  • Are pregnant
  • Have asthma
  • Have a heart condition or low blood pressure
  • Are sensitive to magnesium, bromine, or chlorine
  • Have a skin condition, such as psoriasis or eczema

What to expect during a float session

At your first float, a float tank attendant will show you how to open and close the tank and suggest a comfortable position for your body in the water.

From there, the process generally goes as follows:

  • You’ll remove contacts if you’re wearing them and put in earplugs.
  • You’ll take a brief shower.
  • After getting in the tank, you’ll close the lid from the inside once you’re ready.
  • You’ll generally float for up to an hour, though float time can vary depending on where you go. Music or a sound will let you know when your time is up.
  • You’ll shower again to rinse off the salt.

A few tips to keep in mind:

  • The float tank space is completely private, and most people float without clothes on, but you can wear a swimsuit if you prefer.
  • You should not shave your body or face the day of floating because the high salt content can irritate freshly shaven skin.
  • Eating a small meal an hour and a half before floating will help minimize sounds of your stomach, which can be distracting while floating.

How to find a sensory deprivation tank near you

A simple internet search will help you find a facility that is regulated by the local health department.

The float staff should explain the float process clearly beforehand, so be sure to ask any questions you have before starting.

On average, float sessions cost around $75, though this price can vary depending on your location.

Insider’s takeaway

Float tanks offer a unique experience that could have benefits for physical and mental health. If you’re in search of a new approach to relaxation and self-care, a float may be just the thing to try.

Make the most of your float by taking time afterward to enjoy your relaxed state of mind — without rushing to the next part of your day.

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