My deep dive into the world of float therapy

Lying in a tank of salt-saturated water is relaxing for some. Me? I panicked.

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flotation therapy
Illlustration, Casie Billington.

An early morning chat with a seriously Zen yogi at my local juicery is what sucked me into the world of floating. We started chatting about the cognitive dissonance we were both experiencing as a result of the aggressively upbeat bhangra blasting in the little shop at 7 a.m., so it was only natural that within five minutes we’d move on to the subject of my anxiety and quest to find calm.

He was repping a potential solution right on his T-shirt — a branded one from his employer, Float Toronto. He gave me such an impassioned speech about the physical, mental, and emotional benefits of the floating — Relieves stress! Eases muscle pain! Enhances athletic performance! — that I decided to give it a try.

I went for my first session a week later. I was led to a room with a shower and soundproof tank that looked like a coffin. I climbed into it awkwardly and crouched in the slightly slimy solution — 10 inches or so of water finely tuned to body temperature, saturated with hundreds of pounds of epsom salts, which are supposed to make you feel weightless.

I started by sitting cross-legged. After a few minutes, I laid my body out, but held onto the floor of the tank — I couldn’t let go and just float. I spent 15 excruciatingly long minutes trying to escape the outer world and discover Zen within, and then I gave up. The guy working the counter seemed surprised when I came out early, so I asked him if this was a common experience. “Not really,” he said.

What was I missing? Everything I’d heard and read about floating described it as transcendental. People are flocking to it: In the past five years, 80 commercial float centres have opened in Canada. So why hadn’t it worked for me? I decided to find out more about how and why flotation therapy works.

The first tank was built in 1954 by American neuroscientist John C. Lilly, who wrote about it in his 1977 book, The Deep Self. Floating was a natural extension of Lilly’s interest in sensory deprivation. Early experiments in that field sprung from a basic curiosity among scientists: What are the psychological effects of profound stimulus reduction?

Initially, psychology textbooks characterized sensory deprivation as anxiety-inducing at best and equivalent to torture at worst. But in the case of flotation, the opposite was found to be true. In fact, floatation was found to provide stress relief. Lilly shared detailed anecdotal reports from his own and others’ experience in the tank, which prompted other researchers to document the effects of floating on stress levels in a systematic fashion.

Peter Suedfeld was one of them. Now a professor emeritus at the University of British Columbia, Suedfeld began studying sensory deprivation in chambers (dark soundproof rooms) in 1960 as a graduate student at Princeton, shifting his interest to flotation tanks in the 1970s.

“[Researchers] started taking physiological measures of stress and then started looking at various kinds of dysfunctions related to stress, like tension headaches, muscle pain, and insomnia,” says Suedfeld. “[They] generally found that on all of those measures, while [people] were in the tank they didn’t have those symptoms.”

Anette Kjellgren, professor of psychology at Karlstad University in Sweden, immediately realized the potential of floating when she tried in 1997 at the University of Örebro, where the tank operator forgot about her, leaving her in there for more than four hours. Rather than panicking about being left in the tank, Kjellgren revelled in the extended float. “The experience was very deep,” she says. She believes floating provides something beyond just stress relief, something more akin to the “recovery of the whole system.”

Kjellgren has studied the impact of floating on stress-related pain, as an intervention for generalized anxiety disorder, its effects in combination with psychotherapy, and even as part of a preventive mental health–care regime to protect against burnout syndrome. “Many illnesses are due to stress overload at work or in the private sphere,” Kjellgren says. “Floating can act as a ‘vaccination’ against these stressors.”

A 2005 meta-analysis of 27 related studies found that floating does in fact help with stress management, with physiological effects that include lowering blood pressure and cortisol levels, and reducing heart rate and muscle tension. Much of the existing research is small-scale, with some relying on subjective measures, which is why both Kjellgren and Suedfeld are excited to see the results of neuropsychologist Justin Feinstein’s research. Working out of the Tulsa-based Laureate Institute for Brain Research, Feinstein is brain-mapping the impacts of floating, which includes comparing brain activity before and after floating as well as measuring brainwaves during a float.

With no known negative side effects, Kjellgren argues floating should be part of public health care. (The cost can range from $40 to $80 per float in Canada.) To really benefit from flotation therapy, Kjellgren says multiple floats are necessary, ideally 10 to 12 within the first month or so, followed up by “maintenance” floats.

“It’s like doing one workout or one meditation session,” explains Mike Zaremba, owner of the Vancouver-based chain Float House. “You’re not going to experience the benefits from doing one practice. You have to practise it.”

Zaremba started floating in 2010, after he discovered a YouTube clip of comedian and UFC commentator Joe Rogan preaching its benefits. Rogan is largely credited for the current resurgence in floating. Celebrities like Robin Williams and John Lennon popularized floating in the 1980s, but the HIV/AIDS epidemic (among other factors) led to a sharp commercial decline.

Following a single float in someone’s basement tank, Zaremba decided to install one in his condo. After spending $10,000 and clearing out the local Costco’s Epsom salt supply, he started floating regularly. He also started to “host” floats to pay for the cost, guiding people through the experience by letting them know what to expect and how to get the most out of their time in the tank. Zaremba partnered with his brother to open Float House in Vancouver in May 2013, and has since expanded to six locations. After I told Zaremba about my own freakout in the tank, he encouraged me to try again. “It takes time to learn how to let go,” he reassured me.

And so, armed with tips on how to ease my anxiety — requesting music, leaving the tank open, climbing in and out of it — I returned to float. I tried a late session this time, 11 p.m., and sat in the waiting room with two chatty women. Familiarity made the room less intimidating — this time, it felt cozy and warm. I showered, dimmed the lights, climbed into the tank and was able to let go and float within minutes. The sensation was like nothing I’ve felt before — I almost forgot about my body. My mind travelled in weird new directions, from wondering what it would be like to live as a dolphin to feeling like I was floating on a rooftop pool, the glow of the room’s blue lights transforming into Van Gogh’s “Starry Night.” (All my visions were water-related; apparently, I’m not very creative.) I was so relaxed, I thought I might even nod off.

After an hour, I climbed back out, showered, and settled in the post-float lounge. For once, I wasn’t in a hurry to be somewhere. I felt calmer, lighter, and rested. I could still feel the anxiety in my chest, but it was a lot quieter. The peace of mind lasted a few days and I found myself longing for it again after a few weeks. I may not float 10 times a month, but I’ll definitely be back.

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