Get Tanked


By Mary Carpenter

AT BETHESDA’S HOPE Floats, hallways painted in watery aqua shades lead to private rooms spacious enough for a shower with sumptuous towels, shampoos and candles—and the flotation tank that looks like a giant coffin with a front door that, once closed, leaves you in total darkness. Inside, salty water about a foot deep is kept at average skin temperature, around 94 degrees.

On a recent Saturday morning, DC public school teacher P.D. found flotation a trial-and-error affair, needing to get out of the tank three times: first for a head pillow, then to wash salt from his eyes, and a third time to get ear plugs, despite having been reminded several times about these at check-in. Like many people, P.S. might benefit from more than an initial session to achieve deep relaxation.

“Float tanks have become very popular over the last couple of years,” according to a recent WebMD piece. And as numbers of floatation centers have been on the rise around the world, so have average numbers of sessions for each user per year, with one source noting a rise from two sessions/year in 2015 to five in 2019.

Today’s clients are “stressed-out city dwellers—in contrast to aging hippies in the 1990s and aughts—seeking to get away from their devices,” according to Phyllis Fong in Men’s Journal.  Beyond relieving stress, depression and anxiety, the tanks now appear also to help children diagnosed with autism and veterans struggling with PTSD—with clinical changes generally ascribed to the combination of sensory deprivation and magnesium sulfate (Epsom salt).

With most Americans deficient in magnesium, Epsom salt is the best way to up the levels—with each Hope Floats tank containing 850 pounds.  According to the National Academy of Sciences, low magnesium levels may contribute to heart disease, arthritis, digestive maladies and chronic fatigue.

People who are a good fit for flotation therapy are those who have been under a lot of stress…the more stress you’re under, the [better] fit for the float tank,” Florida integrative medicine specialist Leland Stillman told Forbes. “You can relax completely because you don’t need to use any of your postural muscles to maintain your body’s structure or posture…the only muscles working are the respiratory muscles, and to a certain extent, your neck and abdominal muscles.”

“Sensory deprivation”—recently updated to Reduced Environmental Stimulus Therapy (Flotation REST)—started with work done at the National Institutes of Health in the 1950s on flotation therapy’s “sensory reduction to promote relaxation and healing,” according to Hope Floats brochures. That work, spearheaded by John Lilly, focused on psychedelic experiences and other mental effects of sensory deprivation as depicted in the 1980 film Altered States. (“Chamber REST” refers to similar complete sensory deprivation without water.)

Don’t call it “sensory deprivation,” writes Nick Youssef in Brooklyn magazine.“The float industry (which is a real thing!) no longer uses that phrase due to the torture undertones those words evoke.” A popular alternative is getting tanked.

Floating increases the brain’s production of theta waves “usually achievable only after years of deep meditation practice,” writes Fong. And according to Michael Hutchison in The Book of Floating, theta waves create feelings of conscious drowsiness usually experienced in the twilight state between waking and sleep—offering access to unconscious material, reverie, free association, sudden insight, creative inspiration.”

Cognitive effects including “an openness of mind” led to improved performance on tests of creativity, as well as a reduction in memory loss” in research by Peter Suedfeld at Princeton and the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.  Also, post-floatation behavioral modifications have helped people quit smoking, curb overeating and “partially overcome a powerful fear of snakes.”

Health benefits can also include reduction of chronic pain, insomnia and the effects of stress. And while the studies are small, research has shown flotation to decrease anxiety, improve sleep quality and aid in muscle recovery. Flotation can also lower blood pressure—the reason people whose pressure is normally low need to be careful in float tanks.

“After what felt like a very long time, I finally spaced out to some kind of zen-ness for five or ten minutes, or so it seemed,” wrote DMV-based health writer CM on MyLittleBird. “And while I did not emerge feeling in full harmony with the universe, or physically reborn, I did feel good, and as though my normally revving brain had had a nice nap. I’m tempted to do it again because I’m sure I could get quite good at it, the relaxing thing, if I just work at it a little harder.”

P.D. emerged “very relaxed,” with his muscle tension noticeably reduced along with his usual levels of stress and anxiety—but wasn’t sure it was worth the time, driving the 20 minutes or so there and back, to float again. That’s my feeling as well, although two flotation experiences cleared my mind and soothed my body. And even if I had a tank in my house, I’m not sure how often I would get inside when a short nap followed by tea with a book works very well.

—Mary Carpenter regularly reports on topical subjects in health and medicine.


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