The Growing Discipline of Sensory Deprivation Therapy
"Sensory deprivation is actually best described as sensory neutral," said Beth Jones, a float therapy expert, the owner of the Float Spa in North Carolina and founder of Mindset Always Wins. "Most modern float tanks are designed to provide this environment, vastly reducing sensory input that our brains need to process from the space around us."
Jones added that the majority of float therapy vessels are customizable. The user has access to light and sound controls, allowing them to create an environment tailored to their unique level of comfort.
However, the terms "sensory deprivation" and "sensory neutral" are often used interchangeably.
"Float tanks—also known as flotation-REST [restricted environmental stimulation therapy] or sensory deprivation therapy—[are] a modality of complementary and alternative medicine, and has been used to treat chronic pain associated with muscle tension, depression, anxiety and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder [ADHD]," said Brooke Stubbs, M.D., a physician in Austin, Texas.
What float therapy feels like
"When we step out of the constant sensory bombardment of our modern world, this immensely peaceful and still environment can take a little getting used to," Jones said. "We have to trust that our brains will adapt and slow down, and they always do if we are allowed the time and space."
The body and the brain aren't used to so little stimulus, so a person's first float therapy session is usually exploratory, which gives them time to process the situation.
At most float therapy locations, treatment involves a flotation tank filled with a saltwater solution strong enough for you to float in, using more than 800 pounds of Epsom salts. The water is heated to your regular body temperature. Depending on the spa or treatment center, there are controls for turning off lights and adjusting the sound inside the float room. Places that offer true sensory deprivation float tanks have no lights and no sound of any kind.
Flotation therapy is a way to reduce stress and increase the production of 'happy hormones,' such as dopamine, endorphins, oxytocin and serotonin, all of which boost libido.
While in the float tank, your body feels weightless. There's nothing in the environment for your eyes to focus on or your brain to process. Many people say they feel a pre-sleep state of consciousness.
It is recommended that float therapy is carried out naked so clothing does not cause distracting sensations. Some people prefer to float with their hands by their sides with their legs crossed, while others prefer a spread-eagle position. A floating pillow can be used for your head.
When sensory input is drastically reduced, the brain is naturally coaxed into a deeply restful and meditative state, even if you don't practice traditional meditation. This state is referred to as theta, during which the speed of the brain waves slows, Jones explained.
"During this state, our brains have the immense power to take control of their own recovery, reducing anxiety, stress, symptoms of depression, post-traumatic stress and burnout," Jones added.
The benefits and side effects
Jones said the main benefits of float therapy are some level of reduced stress, reduced pain and better sleep. She recommended a minimum of three sessions before making a judgment call about the power of the treatment. Stubbs listed benefits including an increase in creativity and optimism, and possibly improved athletic performance.
Mild itchiness due to saltwater irritation and dry mouth due to dehydration are the most commonly reported side effects, Stubbs said.
"Patients have reported hallucinations—which can be disturbing and potentially harmful in a psychotic or schizophrenic patient population—but oftentimes these hallucinations have been reported as positive experiences," Stubbs explained. "Patients with claustrophobia or anxiety can also experience panic if not able to adjust to the environment. This is something to consider but can be easily mitigated by exiting the tank."
Flotation therapy is a way to reduce stress and increase the production of "happy hormones," such as dopamine, endorphins, oxytocin and serotonin, all of which boost libido. Regular "floaters" also report a significantly improved quality of sleep.
Spa relaxation or medical treatment?
"Our minds are extremely powerful," Stubbs said, echoing Jones. "You also have to believe this could work. If you do, then it probably will. This is the placebo effect that has been demonstrated since the second World War. In my opinion, sensory deprivation/flotation-REST could improve the environment for mindfulness and/or could enhance the experience of mindfulness in someone who was already seasoned in meditative practice."
When it comes to determining whether float therapy is a medical treatment or a spa treatment, Jones explained that it's truly in a category of its own.
"The Float Research Collective started by Dr. Justin Feinstein is working to provide more and more data on why float therapy is so effective clinically from a mental health standpoint," Jones said.
While float therapy has been pushed more into the spa arena over the past few years, doctors are beginning to recommend it for certain ailments.
"The suggested 'dose' in contemporary studies is 12 45-minute sessions, twice a week over six weeks to gain an effect for chronic pain relief," Stubbs said. "This suggests that there is a dose-response. The effect is also short term, and the therapy needs to be maintained to continue receiving the benefit."
Who are good candidates for float therapy?
Sensory deprivation therapy can improve pain and mental health in many ways, according to Stubbs. Some treatments require fees, while others are free.
"I don't know if it would work for everyone, but it could work for some people," she explained. "I believe it is dependent on mindset. I don't think you could disprove its benefits based on subjective results, and the side effects are minimal, therefore, I think it will be around to stay. If people don't want to pay the money, however, I do believe they could imitate the setting to a lesser degree in their own environments in order to achieve a similar state of relaxation."
Stubbs said all the elements that research measures—pain, happiness, optimism and so on—are highly subjective experiences.
'It's profound for reducing stress and anxiety'
"However, I never want to discount a modality that seems to improve someone's quality of life," she added. "Personally, for the time and money, I could just as easily meditate in a pool or bathtub with the lights off. These studies seem to help more with people who rank very highly on the depressive or pain symptoms scale, so I might recommend this for specific patients who have tried multiple modalities without relief."
Jones explained that some physical mobility is required to enter and exit the float tank, but anyone who can get into and out of a standard bathtub is usually fine in a float tank.
"Aside from that, everyone in our modern world would benefit immensely from regular floating," she said. "It's profound for reducing stress and anxiety, but is also great for promoting better sleep, increasing focus and energy, problem-solving, and increasing mental clarity and creativity."
As always, keep your doctor informed if you intend to make substantial changes to your daily regimen. Float therapy may not suit everyone, especially anyone who suffers from certain diagnoses, such as claustrophobia, an extreme or irrational fear of confined places.