IIt’s dark in here, and all I can hear is my breath. I’m floating in a sensory deprivation tank, which is like a bathtub in a silent, bright room. I close my eyes and take small sips of air, consciously filling my stomach before slowly releasing. Thoughts are racing of what I “should” or “couldn’t”. I cannot stop them from rising, but I do my best to pass them like clouds in the sky. You are here nowI say so myself.
If you struggle with generalized anxiety disorder like me, or experience situational anxiety, you know how difficult it can be to pause anxious thoughts. It’s scary to realize that you have little or no control over them; But perhaps more frightening is the fear that it will always be this way.
Over the past seven years, I’ve tried many methods to reduce my anxiety, including nightly meditation, yoga, spending time outside, and scheduling one day each week to relax. But it wasn’t until 2019, when I started working as an assistant in integrative physical therapy, that I first heard about floating in a sensory deprivation tank and its potential calming effects. Attached to this clinic is the Baker City Float Center, the first place in Northeast Oregon to offer a sensory deprivation tank. Having just graduated from college with a degree in Applied Health and Fitness, my passion for wellness was very much alive, and I was eager to try floating.
What exactly is a sensory deprivation tank, and how can it help with anxiety?
Floating in a sensory deprivation tank is a zero-gravity experience designed to calm the nervous system through Restricted Environmental Stimulation Therapy (REST), or an experience designed to activate as few of your senses as possible.
In general, float tanks for sensory deprivation come in a variety of shapes and sizes, including pods, rooms, and cabins, all filled with shallow water and about 1,000 pounds of Epsom salt (which increases the buoyancy of the water, making it easier to float). A float pod is a circular tank that you submerge yourself into with a lid that closes from above, while a float room is a dark room with an open tank like a bathtub (making it a more suitable option for anyone with claustrophobia).
Somewhere between the two is a float cabin, which I decided to try for myself. It’s essentially a roomy tank – big enough to stand in – with doors for entry and exit. In some places, such as Baker City, there are buttons inside the cabin to turn on an assortment of dimly colored lights or play soothing music or meditation.
In general, however, the environment inside a float pod, tank, or cabin is to be virtually light and soundless. This essentially “deprives” your sense of input, making it easy to lose track of where your body ends and the water begins. “While floating, your body calms, melts, and softens; it feels more expansive and flexible,” says physical therapist and certified lymphedema therapist Anne Nemec, PT, owner of Integrative Physical Therapy and Baker City Float Center. “It can be in the mind. You can [feel as though you] There’s more room and options.” Before trying floating for herself, Nemec invested in a DreamPod float cabin — a special type of sensory deprivation tank — to add to her physical therapy clinic because she believed it would affect her community. “Floating is on steroids. It’s like meditating,” she says.
In particular, Nemec touts the physiological changes that can occur during a float session, which in a 2014 pilot study was shown to help reduce stress and anxiety scores in healthy participants. Researchers believe that floating in a sensory deprivation tank can decrease sympathetic nervous system output (aka “fight or flight”) while increasing parasympathetic activity (aka “relax and digest”), which lowers heart rate and blood pressure, and slows breathing.
Because people with anxiety often have a greater sympathetic response to stress, it’s possible that a modality like floating—known to reduce activation—may have stronger, long-term benefits in people with anxiety.
In fact, a 2018 study comparing the effects of floating in a sensory deprivation tank between 50 people with various anxiety-related disorders and 30 non-anxious people found that the former group experienced significantly greater stress-reducing effects (and in that group, the float provided many people with more relief than any other technique they had tried before). And in a small 2016 study of people who did 12 floating sessions over several weeks, participants with generalized anxiety disorder experienced significant improvements in their baseline anxiety symptoms.
My experience floating in a sensory deprivation tank
Since I’ve tried everything else for my anxiety, which is still something I struggle with, I decided I’d give floating a try to see if it might ease my symptoms.
The first time I entered the tank, I had high expectations for myself and the experience. For example, I told myself the lights had to stay off, I couldn’t go outside, and I needed to make sure I practiced my breathing, meditated, prayed, and stretched while in the tank. As you can tell, I have a bad habit of turning leisure into work. (This is my concern for you.)
As a result, my first time floating wasn’t as beneficial as I suspected it might be. My mind continued to go a million miles an hour, and I kept worrying about the things I had to do – I still needed to answer that text! I should really start watching graduate programs!—when I get home.
The good news is, I went back…not once, but three times, motivated by the thought that I might benefit from some practice. Each time, I find that I can put less pressure on myself to be “perfect” during the float – it makes it much more relaxed.
That’s why Nemec says it’s important to approach the float without demanding too much of yourself. “It’s your float and time,” she says. “There’s no right way to swim; you can always get out when you need to, and you’re in complete control of how you want to spend your time.” For some people with anxiety, that’s easier said than done. It can be helpful to inquire about possible modifications available, she suggests. This means starting with short sessions and using sound, music or light to ease into the new environment.
For me, positive self-talk has been most helpful on my float journey. I’m starting to tell myself that it’s okay if I choose to light the tank or get out before time runs out. I practice mindful breathing when I can but also accept when my body naturally wants to breathe. I don’t intentionally pray or meditate while in the tank, but the experience often takes me away, mentally, somewhere, and when it does, it’s a welcome break from the inner turmoil my anxiety usually causes.
Having gotten out of the float tank the past two times, I’ve found a lot of peace of mind, ease throughout my day, and acceptance when I haven’t accomplished everything I hoped for.
Still, that doesn’t mean everyone (or everyone with anxiety) should start floating regularly. Perhaps being alone with your thoughts or sitting in any kind of closed space for just over an hour feels scary or uncomfortable. In these scenarios, it may be best to pass while floating, such as if you have any open wounds, tubes in your ears, a seizure disorder, or kidney or liver problems that can increase magnesium absorption from floating to dangerous levels. If any of the above apply to you, check with a doctor before scheduling a float session.
Otherwise, keep in mind that managing anxiety is all about finding what works best for you physically, emotionally, and financially through trial and error. Among the hundreds of coping strategies out there, floating in a sensory deprivation tank is one tip for managing the daily weight of anxious thoughts.
In my world, however, floating has helped me deal with my anxiety more effectively, along with yoga, writing, and spending time outdoors. If you’re like me, you may just find float and then really help lighten the load.