Tried floating in sensory deprivation tanks for anxiety

meIt’s dark in here, and all I can hear is my breathing. I’m floating in a sensory deprivation tank, which is basically like a bathtub in a quiet, lightless room. I close my eyes and take small sips of air, consciously filling my belly before slowly releasing it. Thoughts race about what you “should” or “could” be doing. I can’t stop them from arising, but I do my best to let them pass like clouds in the sky. you are here nowI tell myself.

If you struggle with general anxiety disorder like I do, or experience situational anxiety, then you know how difficult it can be to pause anxious thoughts. It’s scary to feel like you have little or no control over them; but perhaps even more terrifying is the fear that it will always be so.

For the past seven years, I have tried various remedies to relieve my anxiety, including nightly meditation, yoga, spending time outside, and scheduling a full day each week to rest. 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 possible calming effects. Attached to this clinic is the Baker City Float Center, the first space to offer a sensory deprivation tank in Northeast Oregon. 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 intended to calm the nervous system through restricted environmental stimulation therapy (REST), or an experience designed to activate as few of the senses as possible.

In general, flotation tanks for sensory deprivation come in a variety of shapes and sizes, including pods, rooms, and cabins, all of which are filled with shallow water and about 1,000 pounds of Epsom salt (which increases buoyancy of water, making floating effortless). A floating pod is a round tank you sink into with a lid that closes on you, while a floating room is a dark room with an open tub-like tank (making it a more suitable option for any room). person with claustrophobia).

Somewhere between the two is a floating cabin, which is the one I decided to try first hand. It’s essentially a roomy tank, big enough to stand in, with a door to get in and out of. In some places, like Baker City, there are buttons inside the cabin to rotate through a variety of dim colored lights, or even to play relaxing music or meditate.

Typically, however, the environment inside a floating capsule, tank, or cabin is meant to be virtually without light or sound. This essentially “deprives” your senses of input, making it easier to lose track of where your body ends and the water begins. “As you float, your body calms, melts and softens; it feels more spacious and sturdy,” says physical therapist and certified lymphedema therapist Anne Nemec, PT, owner of Integrative Physical Therapy and Baker City Float Center. “This can also happen in the mind. You may [feel as though you] have more space and options.” Before attempting to float herself, Nemec invested in a floating Dreampod cabin, a specific type of sensory deprivation tank, to add to her physical therapy clinic because of the unique impact she believed it would have on her community. “Floating is like meditating on steroids,” she says.

In particular, Nemec touts the physiological changes that can occur during a floatation session, which was shown to help reduce stress and anxiety scores in healthy participants in a 2014 pilot study. Researchers believe that floating in a deprivation tank sensory input can decrease sympathetic nervous system output (also known as “fight or flight”) while increasing parasympathetic activity (also known as “rest and digest”), which in turn lowers heart rate and blood pressure and slows the breathing.

Because people with anxiety often have a heightened sympathetic response to stress, it’s possible that a modality like floating, known to decrease that activation, could have even 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 people without anxiety found that the former group experienced significantly greater stress-reducing effects (and in that group, the float also provided more relief for most people than any of the other techniques they had previously tried). And in a small 2016 study of people who did 12 floating sessions over several weeks, participants with generalized anxiety disorder experienced significant improvement in anxiety symptoms from baseline.

My experience floating in a sensory deprivation tank

Since I have tried just about everything else for my anxiety, which is still something I struggle with, I decided I would try floating to see if it would ease my symptoms.

The first time I stepped into a tank, I had high expectations for myself and the experience. For example, I told myself that the lights had to stay off, I couldn’t go outside, and I needed to make sure I did my breathing exercises, meditated, prayed, and stretched while in the tank. As you can see, I have a bad habit of turning rest into work. (That’s my anxiety for you.)

As a result, the first time I floated was not as beneficial as I suspect it might have been. My mind kept racing at a million miles per hour, and I kept worrying about to-do’s – I still need to reply to that text! You really should start looking for graduate programs! As soon as I get home.

The good news is that I came back… not once, but three more times, motivated by the idea that I could reap the benefits with a little practice. Each time, I found that I could put less pressure on myself to be “perfect” in the float, making it much more relaxing.

That’s why Nemec says it’s important to approach a float without strict demands on oneself. “This is your float and your time,” she says. “There is no correct way to float; you can always go out when needed and you are in full control of how you would like your time to be.” For some people with anxiety, this is easier said than done. It may be helpful to ask about possible modifications available, she suggests. That might mean starting with shorter sessions and using sounds, music, or lighting to adjust to the new environment.

For me, positive self-talk has been the most helpful throughout my floatation journey. I started telling myself that it’s okay if I choose to have the lights on in the tank or get out before the timer runs out. I practice mindful breathing when I can, but I also accept when my body wants to breathe naturally. I don’t intentionally pray or meditate while in the tank, but I find that the experience often takes me, mentally, somewhere far away, and when that happens, it’s a welcome break from the inner turmoil that my anxiety usually causes.

Coming out of the float tank the last couple of times, I’ve also had more peace of mind, peace of mind throughout the day, and acceptance when I don’t finish everything I hoped to do.

Still, that doesn’t mean everyone (or even everyone with anxiety) should start floating regularly. Maybe being alone with your thoughts or just being in any type of closed space for more than an hour sounds scary or uncomfortable. In these scenarios, it may be best to stop floating, as would be the case if you have open wounds, ear tubes, a seizure disorder, or kidney or liver problems that could increase the absorption of magnesium from floating to dangerous levels. If any of the above apply to you, check with a doctor before scheduling a floatation session.

Otherwise, keep in mind that managing anxiety is about finding what works best for you physically, emotionally, and financially through trial and error. Of the hundreds of coping strategies out there, floating in a sensory deprivation tank is just one suggestion for managing the daily weight of anxious thoughts.

In my world, however, floating has helped me cope with my anxiety more effectively, along with yoga, writing, and spending time outdoors. If you’re like me, you might find that a float once in a while really helps lighten the load.

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