Float therapy, also known as flotation therapy or isolation therapy, is an experience that can calm the mind, enhance creativity and athletic performance, and improve cardiovascular health. During a float therapy session, clients immerse themselves in a shallow float tank or float pod with water that is between 90 and 95 degrees Fahrenheit. The water is treated with roughly one ton of Epsom salts, enabling the client to float with no effort.
Invented by a psychiatrist in the 1950s, float therapy sessions are designed to create sensory deprivation in a specialized float tank, allowing the user to fully relax and unplug from the busyness of modern life. An hour is often the minimum recommended length for a float pod session. Most float pod settings allow individuals to choose from a variety of minimal lighting options. More advanced users might wish to opt for no lighting at all in order to maximize their relaxation. Listening to soft, meditative music during a float tank session can enhance the client’s stress relief.
Scientists have studied the benefits of float therapy for several decades, and the results show promise in the treatment of both mental and physical health issues. Whether you’re exploring float therapy to relieve stress or are hoping to use it to ease pain or manage heart health, this guide will help you learn all about what to expect in your float pod and the many ways in which float therapy could help you and your loved ones.
How Can Flotation Therapy Help Individuals With Mental Health Conditions?
Immersion in a sensory deprivation tank is often recommended by many psychiatrists, and it is reported to help with everything from acute episodes of stress to long-term conditions such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or depression. Studies suggest that it may even have powerful benefits in terms of treating alcohol and substance use disorders.
Let’s take a closer look at the research into float therapy and its use in the treatment of specific mental health conditions.
Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD)
Post-traumatic stress disorder is a type of anxiety disorder that develops in some individuals who have been exposed to trauma such as war or serious accidents, and a complex form of the condition can be caused by emotional abuse. Patients typically experience flashbacks or frightening dreams, and they often replay the traumatic incident over and over in their mind. They may avoid people or places that remind them of the trauma, too.
A case study published in a scientific journal examined the experience of a female patient with PTSD and the changes in her mental health that occurred after she attended several float therapy sessions in a sensory deprivation tank. The woman reported feeling completely safe while in the float tank and also spoke of a release from tension that enabled her to deeply relax. Since patients with PTSD generally have trouble feeling safe at any time, the woman’s experience of total safety in the float pod is all the more remarkable. At the conclusion of her isolation therapy sessions in the float tank, the woman noted that she felt more confident and was able to have a more positive perspective on life. She also reported an increase in her energy levels.
Many personal accounts taken directly from PTSD patients who have had isolation therapy in a float tank are moving testaments to the promise of flotation therapy in treating this debilitating condition. A young veteran living in Texas tried sensory deprivation in a float tank and reported that it helped him overcome three years of trauma in a relatively short time. With the help of the isolation therapy provided in the float pod, he was able to stop taking his prescription antidepressant, and he started feeling excited about learning and began to enjoy the positive aspects of life more fully.
After witnessing several traumatic events in 2015, an Australian soldier with PTSD experienced nightmares, severe anxiety, sleep difficulties, and distress. Counseling and medication did not ease his symptoms, so he turned to float therapy. After just three flotation therapy sessions in a sensory deprivation tank, he experienced a reduction in his anxiety, and after three months of float therapy, his night sweats subsided. He reported that he was able to enter a more confident and comfortable state of mind through using the isolation therapy.
Other individuals living with PTSD have noted that their sensory deprivation experiences in the float tank helped them feel more in control of their thoughts and gave them an inner peace that drastically reduced their insomnia and frightening dreams.
Anxiety disorders are the most common type of mental health condition in the United States, and over 40 million Americans live with some type of anxiety condition on a daily basis.
Patients with anxiety may experience:
- elevated heart rate
- rapid breathing
They might also notice that they have an impending sense of doom when they are not actually under any threat, and other symptoms such as a dry mouth, numbness, cold hands and feet, and muscle tension have been observed.
Currently, patients with anxiety conditions are treated with medication and counseling. Some of the medications used during treatment can have unpleasant or serious side effects. It can take significant time and effort on the part of the patient and counselor in order to see lasting benefits from counseling treatment.
Research from the 2000s conducted by Justin Feinstein, a neuropsychologist, suggests that flotation therapy may be as effective for the treatment of anxiety as prescription medication. In his study, he carried out functional MRI scans on each participant before and after their flotation therapy session in a large sensory deprivation tank. Subjects also had their brain waves monitored with EEG sensors. After three sessions in the float tank, the study results indicated that both lorazepam (an anti-anxiety prescription medicine) and flotation therapy were equally effective in shutting down the activity of the amygdala, an area of the brain responsible for anxiety. Unlike the medication, the flotation therapy did not cause any side effects.
An older study conducted in the 1990s by Thomas Fine examined blood samples taken from subjects before and after eight sessions of flotation therapy in a float pod. During the study, each sensory deprivation session in the float tank lasted 40 minutes. The blood analysis showed a 22 percent decrease in the subject’s levels of cortisol (a stress hormone) after their sensory deprivation sessions.
More recently, a Swedish study carried out at Karlstad University and published in 2016 investigated the benefits of float pod sessions over a four-month period. The patients in the study group struggled with various anxiety disorders. At the conclusion of the research, scientists found that 37 percent of the individuals treated with sensory deprivation and isolation therapy were able to reach complete remission. The majority of isolation therapy participants also reported improvements in their sleep quality and their ability to regulate emotions. Their mood became more positive, too.
Depression is a serious mental health condition that causes overwhelming feelings of sadness, hopelessness, and guilt. Individuals often report insomnia and feelings of fatigue, low energy or frustration, and they generally lose interest in activities they once enjoyed. Many patients struggle with depression for months or even years, and some will have multiple episodes of the condition throughout their lives.
Patients with severe forms of depression may struggle to get out of bed, and they may have to take time off of work or school as they manage their condition. Some patients with depression may have an anxiety condition at the same time. As with most mental health conditions, current treatment for depression consists of prescription medication and counseling. For patients with the most severe symptoms that have been resistant to other treatments, electro-convulsive therapy may be considered.
A 2018 study conducted by Justin Feinstein explored the potential benefits of sensory deprivation for patients with depression and related mental health issues such as anxiety and agoraphobia. A group of 50 subjects with depression and anxiety participated in a single 60-minute session that used a therapy known as flotation-REST (Reduced Environmental Stimulation Therapy). After the therapy, patients showed statistically significant improvements in mood and increased feelings of happiness and serenity. They reported higher energy levels, and 37 percent of the participants felt that flotation therapy made them feel more relaxed than they had with any other treatment. All 50 subjects enjoyed the sessions so much that they requested a second session.
Anecdotal evidence also illustrates the promise of flotation therapy as an alternative treatment for depression. A patient who was considering electro-convulsive therapy for his treatment-resistant major depressive disorder decided to try sensory deprivation in a float pod before choosing to undergo electro-convulsive therapy. He attended three sessions in a sensory deprivation tank over a period of three weeks. By the third sensory deprivation session in the float pod, he reported feeling calm and truly happy for the first time in years. He said that he experienced loss of his immediate anxieties while in the sensory deprivation tank, and he noted a feeling of general well being after his sessions that continued for up to two days after the floats. For him, the feeling of well being felt similar to the sense of peace that he normally only felt after taking medication.
Psychiatrists have stated that many of their depressed patients report improvements in their symptoms after spending time in a sensory deprivation tank. Eager to try the sensory deprivation tank experience for themselves, several psychiatrists have completed flotation therapy sessions at the suggestion of their patients. They reported feelings of inner peace and deep tranquility following their sensory deprivation tank appointments.
What Physical Conditions Can Flotation Therapy Help?
Just as it can help boost mental health, flotation therapy has also been shown to enhance physical health. Let’s look at some of the most compelling evidence for these therapeutic benefits.
Fibromyalgia and Chronic Pain
Fibromyalgia is a condition in which patients have constant, dull pain over large areas of the body. In addition, patients often experience disruptions in their sleep, and they typically develop stiffness, tenderness in the muscles, and an increased sensitivity to temperature, odors, sounds, and light. Individuals with fibromyalgia frequently notice that they feel fatigued, and they could also develop “fibro fog,” a symptom in which it becomes difficult for the patient to focus and concentrate on tasks.
Many fibromyalgia patients also have conditions such as headaches and depression. Current treatment options for fibromyalgia include pain relievers, antidepressants, and anticonvulsants, and patients might need physical therapy, occupational therapy, or counseling. Doctors recommend that fibromyalgia patients do everything they can to reduce their stress levels and get sufficient sleep.
A small study presented in Sweden in 2012 followed 81 patients with fibromyalgia as they participated in three flotation therapy sessions in a sensory deprivation tank. The research was conducted by Roderick Borrie, Tamara Russell, and Stefan Schneider. Questionnaires completed by the 81 participants before and after the sensory deprivation sessions showed that they all experienced an increased sense of wellbeing and an immediate reduction in their pain levels.
Significantly, the subject’s pain levels dropped overall during the course of the three float therapy sessions. Their pain levels when they entered the float pod for their second session were lower than they had been when they entered the tank in their first session, and their pain levels at the beginning of the third session were lower than when they had entered the float tank at their second session.
Chronic pain is defined as any type of pain that lasts for more than three months, and it can include back, neck, and joint pain. Many chronic pain patients also have fatigue, anxiety, and depression, and the condition can have a negative impact on work, school, and daily activities. Most individuals with chronic pain are treated by a pain specialist. Treatment options normally consist of pain relievers and other medications, and clinicians frequently recommend relaxation therapy, stress reduction, and sufficient sleep.
A study conducted by Roderick Borrie and Thomas Fine examined the effects of flotation therapy on a group of patients who had been living with chronic pain. In the experiment, the float therapy treatment group received between one and 16 sessions in a float pod. At the conclusion of the study, the participants in the treatment group experienced an average reduction in overall pain levels of 31.3 percent. Patients with upper back pain were particularly helped by float therapy, and they reported a 63.6 percent reduction in pain levels. Patients with chronic pain in the legs also noted a 15.3 percent drop in their pain levels.
The researchers who carried out the above study on chronic pain patients noted that flotation therapy helped in reducing muscle tension and pain in a short time and provided immediate, short-term relief for the affected patients. The study authors also stated that the float therapy helped the patients to relax and could form an important part of the relaxation therapy recommended by doctors for chronic pain patients.
Since many chronic pain patients have tried numerous treatments and are often skeptical that their pain can be effectively managed, experiencing an immediate reduction in their pain and tension through float therapy could help these patients increase their motivation for complying with and completing a treatment plan.
Autism is a neurological condition that is often diagnosed in childhood. It affects an estimated one in every 59 Americans, and it can cause individuals to have challenges in social situations.
Symptoms can vary widely, and patients may have behavioral changes or learning difficulties. Some patients are nonverbal, and individuals with autism might also be hypersensitive to certain lights, noises, or textures. In particular, bright lights or loud noises could cause sensory overload for them. Autistic patients may prefer to spend time alone instead of with others, and they might display hypersensitivity to touch.
Some individuals with autism may have:
Patients with autism usually participate in intensive therapy sessions. Depending on the patient’s individual needs, therapy may include physical therapy, behavioral therapy, occupational therapy, and social skills therapy.
Multiple scientific studies have shown that flotation therapy is a promising intervention for autistic patients. A small study of eight children with autism who were between the ages of 5 and 11 noted that sensory deprivation sessions in a darkened room produced marked improvements in behavior and increased cognitive functioning in these individuals.
A case study of flotation therapy as a treatment for autism was carried out at Sweden’s Karlstad University by Anette Kjellgren and Hanna Edebol. Published in 2013, the case study involved an adult female participant who had been diagnosed with atypical autism, anxiety, depression, and PTSD. The woman participated in approximately 75 floatation therapy sessions over a period of 18 months. After just one month of float sessions, she was able to come off all of the medications she had been prescribed.
In interviews conducted at the conclusion of the study and during follow-up appointments two years later, the woman reported that float therapy made her feel like “a new person.” She stated that the positive effects of floating had carried over into her daily life, and she reported better sleep, less tension, and a much more positive outlook on life. She believed float therapy greatly reduced her depression, and she credited it with helping her quit smoking. At her follow-up appointment two years after the study, she was still doing flotation therapy sessions at least once a month, and she was not on any prescription medication. She stated that flotation therapy was “the best thing she had ever tried” for her symptoms, and she loved that it had no side effects.
Anecdotal evidence from autistic patients and from parents of children with autism reports similar benefits to those seen in the studies. Those who participate in float therapy report drastic reductions in their anxiety levels, and they say that the sessions in the float tank help them feel more positive about their lives. The benefits of float therapy for this patient population are so promising that many schools for autistic children are now providing float therapy for their students.
Overweight and Obesity
With 70.7 percent of the U.S. population now in the overweight or obese category, many members of the public are looking for alternative treatment options and lifestyle modifications that could help them achieve lasting weight loss. Scientists believe that flotation therapy may help these individuals make positive changes in their lives, and anecdotal accounts from several patients who struggled with their weight also support the benefits of floating for weight reduction.
A study carried out in the 1980s and published in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine followed 48 female subjects who were between the ages of 22 and 55. Each subject was at least 25 percent overweight. The participants were enrolled in a weight reduction program that featured 24-hour periods of sensory deprivation combined with motivational messages intended to improve self-control. During the periods of sensory deprivation, the participants spent their time lying on a bed in a darkened room with no auditory stimuli, an experience that is very similar to the sensory deprivation experienced in a float tank.
After the conclusion of the study, researchers reported statistically significant weight loss in the treatment group. The subjects received six months of follow-up care. Across this period, the study authors noted that the motivational messages were particularly effective for weight loss in the first two months, and the isolation therapy had the strongest effect on weight loss during the last four months of the follow-up period.
Researchers believe that flotation therapy mainly benefits individuals who are seeking to lose weight by making it easier for them to reprogram their minds in a healthy way. During time in a float tank, participants often report that they enter a meditative state, and individuals are naturally more receptive to positive change during this time. The deeply relaxed state that individuals are able to access during their float sessions could be a valuable tool for initiating self-hypnosis, a practice that has helped many patients with successful weight reduction.
Many anecdotal reports are showcasing the value of float sessions in the achievement of lasting weight loss. For example, one anecdote from a female patient indicated that she successfully lost 30 pounds using flotation therapy sessions. She had been at least 20 pounds overweight for more than 10 years, and she had tried numerous diets that failed. She also reported that she had a very negative body image and that she hated how she looked.
During her float sessions, she reported that she practiced visualization. She would visualize the slim, healthy body that she wanted to have, and she also tried to visualize the excess fat being flushed from her body. She continues to use flotation therapy today, and she credits her time in the float pod with helping her to finally accept and love her body for the first time in years.
How Does Flotation Therapy Help Athletes and Artists?
Athletic and artistic pursuits both require creativity and mental clarity, and many of these activities also require muscular strength, coordination, and power. Scientists are continuing to investigate the benefits of flotation therapy for both groups of people, and the results so far have been very promising.
Muscle Recovery for Athletes
Elite athletes, including Tom Brady and Aly Raisman, have used flotation therapy to help their muscles recover quickly and effectively after games and competitions. The Australian Institute of Sport believes so strongly in the benefits of float therapy that it has an on-site flotation therapy area for athletes.
Scientific studies show that float sessions can help with athletic recovery by reducing levels of lactic acid, a substance that accumulates in the body during vigorous exercise and that can produce muscle pain and cause muscle fatigue. One of the more recent studies into flotation therapy and its effects on lactic acid was carried out at Northern Illinois University and published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research in 2013.
The study authors followed 24 male students in their 20s. Each of the participants completed two exercise periods designed to push the muscle to the point of fatigue. Both of the exercise sessions were followed by a recovery period that consisted of either a 60-minute session in a float pod or a 60-minute session of sitting in a comfortable chair. The researchers collected blood samples and survey responses before exercise, immediately after the recovery period, and again at both 24 and 48 hours after the conclusion of the recovery period.
The results of the study indicated that there was a statistically significant reduction in both blood lactate levels and in perceived muscle pain following the flotation sessions. This effect was not seen after the 60-minute sessions of sitting in a chair.
Improvements in Performance
In addition to the muscle recovery benefits for athletes, research suggests that time in a float pod could also increase an athlete’s technical performance ability. For example, a study conducted at the University of British Columbia by Dr. Peter Suedfeld compared the performance of basketball players before and after they received a float therapy session.
The basketball players in Dr. Suedfeld’s study had their individual performance measured a day before their float session. The next day, they each had a single session in a float pod, and this was combined with visualization exercises. When the player’s performance was measured again on the day after the float session, the results indicated a 37 percent improvement in the accuracy of free throws as compared to a control group of players who did not receive the float pod sessions.
Enhancements in Creativity
Several scientific studies suggest that float pod time provides a natural boost to creativity that could help athletes, artists, and anyone who participates in creative pursuits.
A joint study conducted in 1992 at the University of Vermont and the 1st University of Rome examined the effects of float sessions on creativity in a group of male and female university students. Half of the subjects spent one hour in a float pod, and the other half (the control group) spent an hour in a darkened room. Each participant was given the Guilford fluency test to measure creativity before and after treatment, and they also took a personality test and completed various affect scales before and after the study.
As compared to the students who spent an hour in a darkened room, those who participated in the float session demonstrated statistically significant increases in their scores on the Guilford fluency test, and they also had increases in their scores on the other tests that measured their cognition. The participants who took part in the float sessions also increased their levels of vigor, and they maintained their scores on curiosity measures. The researchers noted that the float pod subjects showed decreases in hostility, fatigue, depression, anxiety, and tension, and they believe that these changes played an important role in the creativity benefits that were observed.
A 2011 study published in Music and Medicine followed a group of university students who were enrolled in an intermediate level course on jazz improvisation, a skill which requires creativity and perceptual-motor coordination. Over the course of four weeks, half of the students received one float pod session per week, and the other half of the students served as the control group who did not receive float sessions.
The students in both groups were rated on improvised pieces in a blind test before and after their treatment, and the study also looked at their instructor’s ratings of any perceived changes in the student’s ability to improvise. The student’s final grades for the jazz improvisation class were collected, too. At the conclusion of the study, the float group showed higher scores on their technical improvisation ability than the control group. The final class grades of the students who had participated in the float sessions were higher than those in the control group, too.
How Can I Buy a Float Pod?
If you believe you could benefit from float therapy, you may be interested in buying a float pod. In terms of where to buy a float pod, these can be purchased online or at specialty stores. For many people, the choice of where to buy a float pod will be influenced by the float pod price. It is important to do research and comparison shopping to ensure that you get a float pod that fits your individual preferences and that you’re able to find a float pod price that fits your budget.
The final float tank price that you pay will depend on factors like the size of the pod, the materials used in its construction, and the available lighting choices. The choice of seating inside the pod, the ventilation capabilities, and the presence of anti-slip surfaces could also influence the float tank price.
As you do research and comparison shopping, you may want to email or call customer service teams to ask specific questions about which float tank may be the most appropriate for your situation. If you have had float therapy sessions at a commercial location, you may want to make a list of the things you liked about the particular pod you used. If you have friends who have float tanks or have been to float sessions at other places, you may wish to ask them about the characteristics of those float pods, too.
We wish you a relaxing and positive float pod session!