If you’ve been struggling with an overstimulated nervous system and are seeking a new way to nourish yourself, try floating.
It's late afternoon on a weekday and I arrive for my float therapy session checking the volume of my inner radio station—the one that reflects my anxiety levels from moment to moment. Sometimes it's so loud I can't hear anything else, and other times it's soft enough that I can put all those anxious thoughts into perspective. It's my fifth time floating, and I've begun to learn how to relax and enter into a meditative state. Sure, it's not perfect—as in meditation on dry land, I have to return again and again to my breath—but it's getting easier.
The Intrigue of Float Therapy
When I first heard about float therapy, I was immediately intrigued. My brain tends to be so full of thoughts and concerns most of the time that the idea of making space to let my body and mind relax in water carries deep appeal. To manage anxiety, I meditate, get regular massages, and talk to a therapist, but float therapy seemed like a good practice to add to the self-care mix. Perhaps floating could decrease external stimulation and give my brain a rest from perseverating about everything, from what I should make for dinner or how I should handle a thorny work situation to that low thrum of anxiety I deal with that doesn't seem linked to any particular cause.
Now in the float room, I shower thoroughly, stuff my ears with the provided squishy silicone plugs to protect them from the Epsom salts in the water (which helps you float), grab the bar above the tub (which is five feet by eight feet, with a water height of about 10 inches) and lower myself in, sitting first before relaxing backward. My head and neck are supported by a donut-shaped foam “pillow,” and my arms are overhead as I surrender to the buoyancy of the water and its salty silkiness.
The History of Float Therapy
Float therapy is a practice that invites us to relax both body and mind more deeply, according to Rebecca Sgambati, owner of Peak Performance Float and Wellness Center in Walnut Creek, California.
“To float, you need to be open and ready to receive,” Sgambati says. “Our world doesn't provide many opportunities for stillness and quiet, and we're not used to it. It takes some practice to learn how to let go of our busy brains in the float session.”
Floating has been around since the 1950s in a variety of iterations and has long been known as “sensory deprivation.” It was pioneered in 1954 by a psychiatrist named Dr. John Lilly, who received funding from the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health to develop a way to better understand the brain and consciousness.
In the early days, float tanks were vertical containers with hatches; people wore face masks and floated upright. Today, float centers typically offer large pods or orbs (these tend to measure about five feet by eight feet) with a lid that can be left open or closed, or float rooms with open tubs. Floaters now lie horizontally in the water, and clients can control whether there's instrumental music, soft lighting, or neither.
Floating is one aspect of the practice of sensory deprivation, according to Elisa Eastbrooks, manager of Reboot Float Spa in Oakland, California.
“Floating in itself, as some people do in pools or oceans, has benefits for relaxing the body and mind,” she says. “But float therapy uses a high concentration of Epsom salts so that anyone can float, even those who may not easily float in other bodies of water. The term also refers to an environment where sound, sight, touch, taste, and smell are intentionally neutralized.”
How Float Therapy Works for Anxiety
How does floating in an Epsom salt bath reduce anxiety? For one thing, the salt is magnesium-based, and having adequate amounts of this mineral in the body has been shown to reduce anxiety, Sgambati says. The combination of magnesium and reduced stimulus allows the brain to relax.
“Many people who have anxiety are deficient in magnesium,” Sgambati notes. “During a float, the body takes in the mineral while also being released from the significant demands gravity makes on our brains.”
Floating also helps our brains shift from the high frequency beta and gamma waves we tend to use in daily life to get tasks done to the alpha and eventually theta waves that allow us to release anxiety and connect to our senses. By lessening external stimuli, the float session can create space to engage with anxiety-soothing techniques, such as “self-havening“ (placing your hands gently on your chest or massaging your hands and face); tuning into and slowing your breath; visualizing yourself in nature or in the presence of a Higher Power; and releasing into acceptance of what actually is—including how anxiety ebbs and flows.
The Science Behind Float Therapy
Neuropsychologist Justin Feinstein, PhD, is a float advocate and president of the Float Research Collective. He helped develop a technique called Flotation-REST (Reduced Environmental Stimulation Therapy). A study he co-authored this year for the Journal of Mood and Anxiety Disorders found that the REST technique markedly reduced participants' anxiety and depression while also boosting their serenity—an effect that lasted 48 hours. The research also showed that those who participated in consistent REST sessions had lower baseline levels of anxiety during later ones.
“Floating leaves your nervous system in a state where the world feels more rewarding,” Feinstein said in a 2019 TEDxSalem talk. “A single one-hour float session induces a kind of reset for stressed and anxious nervous systems.”
What to Expect From Float Therapy
What can one expect from a float therapy session? You'll start with a thorough shower before getting into the tub. It's also a good idea to use ear plugs and have a dry face towel and a spray bottle of water nearby—you don't want Epsom salt in your eyes—as well as a foam pillow if you prefer extra support to keep your head level. (The facility should provide these props).
Sessions last from 60 to 90 minutes. At Peak Performance, the water is cleaned in between client sessions with a combination of ultraviolet light filtration and the addition of ozone and 35 percent food-grade hydrogen peroxide; ask the facility about its cleaning protocol before you book your float. The water is kept at the temperature of the human body, and contains 1,000 pounds of Epsom salts, which creates more buoyancy than the Dead Sea, Sgambati says. When the session is over, you'll shower again. It's good to drink plenty of water afterwards.
Eastbrooks cautions that those new to float therapy should manage their expectations for the first session.
“The most unrealistic expectation we've observed is clients expecting their first float to be representative of the peak float experience,” she says. “While some first-time floaters experience something close to the full potential of floating, most need several sessions to properly calibrate their minds and bodies to the experience.”
There's no doubt about it: Float therapy can be very effective for soothing anxiety, according to Eastbrooks. It's worked for her.
“Floating has played such an important role for my own personal health and wellness,” she says. “I believe it has replaced the medications I was taking for pain, anxiety, and muscle tension. My life has completely transformed due to my daily floats in ways I never could have imagined.”
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