Flotation tank therapy has been gaining popularity as way to relieve stress and muscle tension. So should you swap your next massage for a float session?
If you’re never tried flotation tank therapy — also known as float therapy, floating, or sensory deprivation — this might sound like the easiest game of “Would You Rather” ever.
Would you rather spend 90 minutes getting a deep-tissue massage…
… spend 90 minutes floating in a soundproof tank of water in the pitch dark?
Before you answer, I fully acknowledge that flotation tank therapy encompasses pretty much everyone’s childhood fears: the dark, water, being in the dark…in water.
But as someone who was (and still is) afraid of those things, I can tell you that floating is just as good as a massage. (Say what?!)
What Is Flotation Tank Therapy?
Back in the day, floating took place in sensory deprivation tanks for science experiments, not for relaxation. Research on the effects and benefits of sensory deprivation have been ongoing since the ’50s, starting with the work of neuroscientist John C. Lilly. He created the original sensory deprivation tank and preferred dropping acid before he floated. (Don’t do that.)
In the ’70s, Dr. Peter Suedfeld and Dr. Roderick Borrie came up with the less ominous descriptor “Restricted Environmental Stimulation Therapy,” or REST. Far from being some hippy-dippy, way-out-there fringe subject, there are numerous studies on REST and its effect on hypertension, chronic pain, addictive behaviors, weight loss, and more.
Nowadays, people use flotation tank therapy for a variety of reasons, and its popularity is growing rapidly, with float studios throughout the country.
What Does Floating Feel Like?
There are two common types of tanks or pods: the “clamshell,” which looks like a gigantic plastic egg with a hinged top, and the walk-in tanks for all you claustrophobic types.
Once you’re in the tank, floating in hundreds of pounds of Epsom salts dissolved in hot water creates a trippy, yet soothing experience. The salts keep you bobbing on the surface, and body-temperature water helps you lose any sense of being “in” water. The effect can be disorientating at first, but then you actually feel like you’re floating in space.
It took me awhile to truly relax on my very first float; I worried about getting saltwater up my nose, bumping into the walls, being trapped in the tank (none of which happened). But once I got settled, the complete lack of sound, light, and distractions was hypnotic. After awhile, I’m pretty sure I fell asleep. While floating in water. Beat that, deep-tissue massage!
8 Reasons to Try Flotation Tank Therapy
1. You’ll get much-needed “me time.”
How many times have you been told how important it is to make time for yourself? Probably a lot. And how many times have you been interrupted by phone calls or texts or doorbells or kids when you try to do just that?
Floating really is getting away from it all. After all, it’s hard for someone to demand something of you if you’re floating in a closed tank of water.
2. You’re in control.
Floating is all about you. You control everything about your float: lights, no lights, music, no music. If you want to get up and walk around in the middle of your session, you can. If you want to paddle around in circles, you can. It’s all you.
3. It’s fun!
Floating is fun. I tend to sink right to the bottom of any body of water that I get into, so the sensation of floating on water is pretty groovy. It can take a few minutes for your body to relax into the water, but once you do, you feel absolutely weightless.
4. Flotation tank therapy can be therapeutic.
Floating may be physically and mentally therapeutic. Preliminary studies suggest it may help with a host of issues, from insomnia to headaches. Other studies have shown that float therapy may help reduce stress-related pain and anxiety.
More and more alternative therapies like cupping and cryotherapy are going mainstream. And elite athletes like Olympic gymnast Aly Raisman and the entire Golden State Warriors lineup are fans of floating to recover physically and mentally.
But you don’t have to be a professional athlete to reap the benefits. “Floating eliminates muscle soreness, reduces my joint pain, and relieves pressure in my head,” says Jeff Ono, founder of Pause float studio in Los Angeles. “As I age, the amount of time I spend hunched over a desk is growing, so I carry a lot of discomfort in my back. Floating releases this tension.”
5. It turns your brain “off.”
Okay, this one is clearly not a science-backed claim, but I wasn’t thinking about anything when I was in the tank. Not about my to-do lists, what to make for dinner, how much those new tires are going to cost — nothing. It was glorious to just be.
(Although, technically, thinking about the fact you’re “not thinking” is, well, thinking — but you get my drift.)
6. It can spark creativity.
Small studies show that participants displayed more creativity after a REST session. “When I come out of the pod and read, I absorb everything,” Ono says. “Creatively, it enhances my imagination as well as my memory.”
7. Flotation tank therapy may benefit your skin.
Floating will turn your skin as smooth as a baby’s butt. Maybe that’s a bit of a bold claim — but research has shown that magnesium salts like those used in flotation tanks may enhance skin hydration. And anecdotally, I can attest to the fact that my skin and hair were silky smooth post-float.
8. You decide what purpose it serves.
Flotation tank therapy is what you make of it. That’s the beauty of float therapy: Some people float for physical recovery, while others float for a meditative or spiritual experience. But if that’s not what you’re into, you can float simply to relax, relieve stress, and take some time for yourself.
Floating may not be for everyone, but in an increasingly plugged-in, turned-on world, it’s more important than ever to find different ways to give your body and your brain a break to recharge.
3 Float Mistakes You Do Not Want to Make
- Don’t shave, get a tattoo, or otherwise have unhealed scratches or cuts. Saltwater in an open wound = bad.
- Don’t drink lots of liquids beforehand. (Enough said.)
- Do not, I repeat, do not rub your eyes once you’re in the tank. Seriously. Saltwater in your eyeballs is almost as painful as saltwater in an open wound.
Studio images courtesy of Pause Studio.