The mental benefits of floatation therapy

If you want to learn more about the proven medical benefits of floatation therapy, just Google "Restricted Environmental Stimulation Therapy" ("REST"). REST is the term the scientific community uses to refer to floating in an isolation tank. There are hundreds of peer-reviewed medical journal articles touting the benefits of floating with respect to all sorts of health problems, running the gambit from chronic pain and other musculoskeletal disorders, cardiovascular conditions, psychiatric disorders, autism, smoking, weightloss, and more.

Furthermore, the mental peace that can be obtained with the aid of regular floatation outweighs the numerous physical benefits for many floaters. There is no lack of scientific evidence in support of the mental benefits of floating. Several articles speak of the benefits of floating with respect to anxiety, addictive behaviors, and other mental disorders. One such article concluded:

The characteristics of the REST experience that make it effective in treating addictions are discussed as follows: (1) the induction of a general relaxation response, (2) substance misusers find serenity and relief by nonchemical means, (3) internal refocusing to concentrate on personal problems, (4) disruption of habits through removal of trigger cues and response possibilities, (5) increased feelings of control over addictive behaviors, and (6) enhanced learning processes. REST is a versatile, cost-effective treatment modality with demonstrated effectiveness in modifying some addictive behaviors and promising applications with others. 

Why would floating be useful in treating addiction? Perhaps understanding how addiction affects the brain would be helpful. In a recent article published online on the Public Library of Science, the mechanism for addiction is examined more closely. The author, Marc Lewis, sets for the proposition that addiction is associated with a dopamine response in the brain:

Specifically, the dopamine system is altered so that only the substance of choice is capable of triggering dopamine release to the nucleus accumbens (NAC), also referred to as the ventral striatum, while other potential rewards do so less and less. The NAC is responsible for goal-directed behaviour and for the motivation to pursue goals.

Lewis goes on to explain that "every experierience that has potent emotional content changes the NAC and its uptake of dopamine" and that these "[p]hysical changes in the brain are its only way to learn, to remember, and to develop." Thus, he concludes: 

addiction (whether to drugs, food, gambling, or whatever) doesn’t fit a specific physiological category. Rather, I see addiction as an extreme form of normality, if one can say such a thing. Perhaps more precisely: an extreme form of learning. No doubt addiction is a frightening, often horrible, state to endure, whether in oneself or in one’s loved ones. 

So Lewis essentially concludes that addiction acts on the brain in the same way as the mechanism for learning, albeit in an extreme form. It follows then that it might be useful to "unlearn" these behaviors in an environment that is particularly suited for learning: a floatation tank. 

Of interest, many of our floaters report that floating increases their ability to learn and study, and that they obtain a peaceful, calm mental state after floating. One reason might be because floating encourages the brain to shift into lower frequency brain waves like those of the Alpha and Theta states. These frequencies are associated with meditation, increased mental clarity, creativity, problem-solving, and learning.

If you are predominantly interested in the mental benefits of floating (as opposed to the physical benefits), it is generally recommended that you float once per week.

We would love to hear from you and about your experience with the mental benefits of floating. Please comment below and share your experience!

Resources:

Borrie, RA. "The use of restricted environmental stimulation therapy in treating addictive behaviors." Int J Addict. 1990-1991;25(7A-8A):995-1015.

Lewis, Marc, "Why Addiction is NOT a Brain Disease" PLOS blogs, <http://blogs.plos.org/mindthebrain/2012/11/12/why-addiction-is-not-a-brain-disease/> (visited March 31, 2014).

 

 

Claustrophobia -Why it Should Not Keep You from Floating

Claustrophobia is one of the most commonly-expressed fears associated with floating in one of our relaxation tanks. Let’s take a closer look at claustrophobia and why it shouldn’t keep you from floating.

Claustrophobia is generally defined as the fear of confined spaces. There are actually two separate components to claustrophobia: the fear of restriction and the fear of suffocation. The fear of restriction is the “fear of being trapped,” while the fear of suffocation is associated with a feeling of lack of air or asphyxiation.

With respect to our relaxation tanks, you are always completely safe and in complete control of your environment.

There is no reason to fear being trapped as the lid to the tank is easy to open and you are free to leave the environment at any time. Also, there is no reason to fear suffocation as fresh oxygen is pumped into the tank via an air tube, and the tank is not “air-tight.”

So, neither of the component fears associated with claustrophobia (the fear of restriction and the fear of suffocation), are valid, rational fears inside the relaxation tank.

At Total Zen, find that most often, the fear of floating is connected to a fear of the unknown rather than to clinical claustrophobia. It is important to remember that once you are inside the tank, all of the external influences disappear. Your mental chatter slows down, and you are in control of your mind.

You can choose which thoughts to “feed” and which thoughts to “starve.” If the thoughts drift to fear, instead of stimulating and feeding the thought, simply sit with it. Notice where it originates in your body. Try to be the observer of the fear, rather than the fear itself. If you sit inside the tank and concentrate on the feeling of claustrophobia, your experience will be much different than if you are open to a safe mind trip. You will almost certainly be surprised by your experience.

Notice and connect with the sensation of expansiveness inside the tank. Is it really small inside or actually really large? Can you really tell where the walls begin or end? Can you connect to the feeling of expanding outward?

Try not to judge your experience inside the tank on what you are feeling now. That is, instead of imagining what it might be like inside the tank, get into the tank and try it out. Then judge your experience.

You might even find that floating in the tank helps you to overcome your claustrophobia. There are numerous peer-reviewed medical journal articles that highlight the mental and psychological benefits of Restricted Environmental Stimulation Therapy (aka “REST,” the clinical term for floating). Floating is known to be an effective treatment for depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder, among other psychiatric conditions. Stay tuned as we will delve deeper into the mental benefits of floating in another article on this website soon.

In the meantime, give floating a try and let us know your thoughts! What was it like inside the tank? Was floating anything like how you imagined it? Leave a comment below.  

Chronic pain and floating

Let’s take a closer look at the benefits of floating with respect to chronic pain, particularly, pain associated with a structural abnormality like a herniated or bulging disc.

Remember: when you are inside the floatation tank, which is filled with 850 pounds of Epsom salt water, you are super­bouyant feel completely weightless. There is no pressure on your joints or on your spine like there is during normal waking (and sleeping) life. The result is that you are fully able to relax and you may feel relief in areas of your body that are normally painful.

In addition, Epsom salt is a compound of magnesium sulfate. Magnesium and sulfate both have healing properties, and can be absorbed through the skin. Epsom salt has been used for centuries to soothe pain and muscle strains, as well as to draw toxins from the body. Furthermore, there are countless peer ­reviewed studies that show a correlation between the use of floatation therapy and pain relief, even in people whose pain is associated with degenerative disc disease or herniated disks.

One such study found that floating was a “meaningful alternative for treating chronic whiplash disorder.” Another study found that the participant/floaters:

“exhibited lowered blood pressure, reduced pain, anxiety, depression, stress and negative affectivity, as well as increased optimism, energy and positive affectivity. The results were largely unaffected by the degree of attention ­placebo or diagnosis.”

The same study concluded that:

“flotation therapy is an effective, noninvasive method for treating stress-­related pain, and that the method is not more affected by placebo than by other methods currently used in pain treatment.The treatment of both burnout depression and pain related to muscle tension constitutes a major challenge for the patient as well as the care provider, an area in which great gains can be made if the treatment is effective. Flotation therapy may constitute an integral part of such treatment.”

How is it possible that floatation might help chronic pain, even when that chronic pain is associated with a structural abnormality, like a herniated disc? For a possible answer, let’s look at the research of Dr. John Sarno.

Dr. Sarno is a Professor of Clinical Rehabilitation Medicine at New York University School of Medicine, and Attending Physician at The Rusk Institute of Rehabilitation Medicine at New York University Medical Center. He has written several books about pain and postulates that pain is more associated with our body’s stress response than it is with a physiological defect.

In fact, Dr. Sarno cites to a study from the New England Journal of medicine where MRIs were performed on 98 people with no history of back pain. Only 36% of the participants had normal discs with no bulges, herniations, degeneration, etc. The study concluded that there is not a one­to-­one correlation between structural abnormalities and pain. Dr. Sarno believes that stress is the primary cause of pain. He says that stress causes a tensing up in the body and results in oxygen deprivation to a particular area when the brain alters blood flow to that area. He says that pain is caused by this deprivation of oxygen.

So how does this relate to floating?

Floating helps to oxygenate the body by encouraging vasodilation, which facilitates blood flow throughout the body and brain.

In addition, as discussed above, the body is able to fully relax and experience weightlessness, while also benefiting from the healing properties of Epsom Salt.

One floater's spouse was exasperated at how well floating worked to alleviate her husband's chronic hip pain due to degenerative disease. She was floored at how well one hour of floating helped her husband at a minimal cost as compared to years of other treatments and medications with side effects and exponentially greater cost.

So how often to float? If you are dealing with chronic pain or some other physical ailment that you seek to treat with floating, a general recommendation is to float twice per week.

If you suffer with pain, give floating a try. What do you have to lose? Be sure to tell us about your experience and feel free to comment below.

Resources:

Edebol, Hanna et. al., “Chronic Whiplash ­Associated Disorders and their treatment using floatation­ Restricted Environmental Stimulation Technique” Qual Health Res [2008, 18(4): 480­488.]

Bood, SA et. al, “Effects of flotation­restricted environmental stimulation technique on stress­related muscle pain: what makes the difference in therapy­­attention­placebo or the relaxation response?” Pain Research & Management : the Journal of the Canadian Pain Society [2005, 10(4):201­209]

“An Expert Interview With Dr. John Sarno, Part I: Back Pain Is a State of Mind” Medscape <http://www.medscape.com/viewarticle/478840#1> visited March 10, 2014. Hutchinsons, Michael, “The Book of Floating: Exploring the Private Sea”

 

Advanced Floating Tips

You’ve got your first float under your belt (hopefully armed with our floating tips) and you are ready for your next experience in the tank. Are you wondering what to "do" once you get in there? Here are some tools that might heighten your experience:   

1. Do a body scan. During your first float you probably figured out how to fully relax in the tank. It can be strange at first, to totally relax in the water. Daniel Finfer described it in his blog: 

"my body had adjusted to the sen­sa­tion [of floating], but I still felt tense in my neck and in my legs. That’s when I real­ized I was still actu­ally hold­ing myself up — to some capac­ity. I released every mus­cle in my body in one of the single-most refresh­ing instances I’ve ever had, and just really let go."

Once you are at the point that Daniel describes, where you fully let go and relax, you can play with scanning your body for any areas of tightness, constriction, or pain. Scan your body and really "feel" any areas that want extra attention. For example, if after relaxing in the tank you feel a constriction sensation in your neck, go into the feeling. Place all of your attention on it and allow it to be until it goes away. Then move to another area of your body, and so on. You can also do a body scan by starting with your toes and working your way up your entire body, putting energy and attention into fully relaxing each part of your body. 

2. Focus on your breath

You may have noticed during your first float that one of the only sounds you hear in the tank is your breath. One very simple way to meditate is to focus on your breath. Don't try to change it. Just place all of your attention on listening to the sound of, and feeling the sensations of, your breath. You may notice that your breath is shallow or deep, or that there is a coolness around the tip of your nostrils when you breathe in. Just keep your attention on your breath. Whenever you notice that your attention has wandered from the breath - maybe you start thinking about work or life stress or any other thought other than your breath - bring your attention back to your breathing.

Meditation is really just focusing the mind on one thing. There are countless examples of meditation techniques that all boil down to giving the "monkey mind" a bright shiny object to play with, so as to distract it from our normal pattern of obsessive thinking. Focusing on the breath is something simple for the mind to focus on. 

3. Expand outward

Another meditation technique that you might find useful once you are a seasoned floater, is the technique of "expanding outward" taught by Tibetan zen master. American yogi Richard Alpert (aka "Ram Dass") described it this way:

Many years ago I spent time with a Tibetan teacher, Trungpa Rinpoche. In an interview he suggested a meditation technique in which one expands one’s awareness outward. He suggested we do it together. So we sat facing each other and he said, “Just expand outward.” And I started to expand outward.

After about twenty seconds he said “Ram Dass, are you trying?” And I said, indignantly, “Yes!” He said, “Don’t try, just expand outward.” And it absolutely blew my mind. Really.

The technique is pretty ethereal, but give it a try and see if it doesn't connect with you. Or don't give it a try, just expand outward.  

yodaTry2.jpg


4. Gain new insight

Lots of floaters have experienced increased insight and clarity while in the tank. There are reports of increased athletic performance, development of complex theories, and drafting books while floating. Others report being able to easily find solutions to their life dramas while floating.

In her blog, Kelli Hastings described her experience:

I brought into my field of attention my life issues – two of them – one at a time. They both seemed completely trivial while in the vast infinite peace of the tank. The resounding answer I got to each issue was the same – everything is fine, everything will always be fine, just relax and stay in the flow – no need to worry over anything. There is nothing to do but to just be.

Try bringing a problem with you into the tank and see if the resolution doesn't become clear after "floating on it."

We would love to hear about your experience in the tank! Let us know if any of the above tools worked for you or about tools that you have tried while floating. 


Floating Tips

Are you ready to take the plunge? Here are the top five things to remember for your first float:

 

1.     Relax your neck.

In the tank, you are essentially weightless. Yet, you might find that you are still holding tension in your body, particularly in your neck. Try completely relaxing into the epsom salt water, which fully supports your body and neck; no extra effort is required from you. Try to sink into the water as if sinking into a pillow-top mattress.

 

2.    There is no reason to be claustrophobic.

Some floaters worry about claustrophobia before their first float. Yet, you are completely in control of your environment and you can easily exit of the tank at any time. Because it is pitch black inside, you easily lose track of the walls of the tank around you. If you connect with a feeling of expansiveness inside the tank, you may find that the inside of the tank feels infinitely large rather than closed-in; almost as if you were standing on the edge of the galaxy looking into the vastness of outer space.  

 

3.     Resist the urge to get out of the tank

Some floaters report that 20 or 30 minutes into their first float, they get a feeling of impatience or otherwise feel the urge to stop the float early. Of course, you can get out of the tank at any time. However, it is recommended that you try to resist the urge to stop your float short. Try to relax into the moment and notice where the feelings of anxiety or impatience arise in your body, rather than succumbing to the urge to get out.

 

4.    There are lots of options for your hands

While floating on your back in the tank (the preferred floating position), your hands are free to move to wherever is comfortable. Some floaters like to leave them by their sides, place them on their belly or chest, or cup them behind their neck. Experiment with what is comfortable for you.

 

5.     Be careful not to get water in your eyes.

If you get water in your eyes, it will sting. Because it stings if you get water in your eyes, avoid scratching your face or otherwise dripping water from your arms into your eyes.

It is recommended that if you get water in your eyes, that you get out of the tank, rinse your eyes in the shower, and then get back in.

 

Now you are ready for your first float! We would love to hear about your experience and how these tips worked for you. Feel free to comment below.