If you’ve never floated, or you’ve had one or two floating experiences and are curious to learn more about floatation therapy, then this article has got you covered. We’ll briefly explain what floatation therapy is, how it works, cover in much detail the physical and mental benefits of floating, cite scientific research on the subject, cover some common myths, give a brief synopsis of the history of floatation therapy and how it evolved over time, and last but not least, tell you how to make the most out of your float sessions.
Let’s dive right in!
What is floatation therapy?
Flotation therapy is a form of therapeutic relaxation that involves the use of a flotation tank or pod filled with highly concentrated Epsom salt solution. The high concentration of Epsom salt makes it so that one can float effortlessly in the water, providing a calming sensation and allowing the body to relax both physically and mentally. Many believe that floating can have numerous benefits such as stress relief, improved sleep, pain relief, and more.
How does floatation therapy work?
Floatation therapy works by creating a relaxing and restful environment, isolating you from external stimuli (which is why the pods also are called sensory deprivation tanks). Some floatation tanks have atmospheric lighting, while others are pitch black.
Typically there are about six pounds of Epsom salt (magnesium sulfate) per gallon of water, which provides buoyancy and a supportive and weightless space that allows the body to fully relax and let go. The water is kept at skin temperature. This creates an optimal environment for the release of physical and mental tension, allowing for improved sleep, stress relief, and other possible benefits.
Floatation therapy benefits
The benefits of flotation therapy include stress relief, improved sleep, pain relief, increased creativity and focus, improved body coordination, and improved overall physical and mental health. It can also provide an environment where one can be free from external distractions, which can help with relaxation. Additionally, because the concentration of Epsom salt in the tank is so high, it can help to reduce inflammation and improve skin tone.
There are various physiological benefits to floatation therapy, which we’ll cover below, while also citing the latest available science on the subject.
Athleticism and muscle recovery
A 2016 study involving elite athletes found that floating significantly improved muscle soreness and mood-state. (Source: Matthew W. Driller, Christos K. Argus,
Performance Enhancement & Health).
Athletes who’ve publicly praised the benefits of floatation are NFL player Carl Lawson, Olympic athletes Michael Phelps, Aly Raisman, and Jade Johnson. Sports teams like the Golden State Warriors, the Buffalo Bills, the New England Patriots and the Philadelphia Eagles also use floatation therapy.
High blood pressure
Studies have shown that floatation therapy can have a positive effect on blood pressure. The Epsom salt solution helps to reduce inflammation, which can help to lower blood pressure. Additionally, the sensation of weightlessness associated with floating can help to relax the body and reduce stress, further reducing one’s blood pressure.
Flotation therapy can help with chronic pain relief. Because of the high concentration of Epsom salts in the water, floating can reduce inflammation and stimulate the body’s natural healing process. Additionally, the sensation of weightlessness can help to relax tight muscles and reduce chronic muscle tension, leading to a reduction in pain levels.
Even people with arthritis find that floating can improve their condition, and while there is no scientific evidence that this is actually the case, anyone suffering from arthritis might consider giving it a try. On the most obvious level, the buoyancy of the water can temporarily relieve the joints from the stressed their exposed to day after day.
The Epsom salt also boosts magnesium levels, an important mineral for healthy bones, and the Arthritis Foundation recommends taking Epsom salt baths. Research has shown that magnesium can be absorbed through the skin. (Source: Gröber U, Werner T, Vormann J, Kisters K. Myth or Reality-Transdermal Magnesium?)
Floatation therapy can help improve sleep quality and fight insomnia in several ways. First, the reduction of stress and anxiety helps to create a calming environment that can be conducive to better sleep. Second, the Epsom salt solution helps to relax tight muscles and reduce pain, which can have a positive effect on sleep quality. Lastly, the weightlessness of the tank can help to reduce restlessness, allowing the body to fully relax.
Flotation therapy has been shown to have a positive effect on the immune system. Studies have found that floatation therapy can reduce levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, and may help to boost the body’s natural defenses. Furthermore, the high concentration of Epsom salts in the solution can also help to reduce inflammation, which can help to fight infections and support the immune system.
Mental benefits of floatation therapy
The effects of sensory deprivation tanks vary from person to person. Generally speaking, users report feelings of profound relaxation, improved mood, and reduced stress. Other potential effects include reduced anxiety and depression, improved attention, creativity, and mental clarity. Additionally, flotation therapy has been used to treat pain and PTSD.
Anxiety & depression
Additionally, it can be helpful for reducing anxiety and depression and can stimulate the release of endorphins. A research paper (Feinstein JS, Khalsa SS, Yeh H-w, Wohlrab C, Simmons WK, Stein MB, et al. (2018), Examining the short-term anxiolytic and antidepressant effect of Floatation-REST) showed that participants reported feeling less anxious, less stressed, less depressed, less tense, and more relaxed and happier after a 1-hour float session. What’s more these effects were more pronounced in the more severely anxious participants.
Another study found that floating significantly reduced Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD), and 37% of the treatment group reached full remission at post-treatment. They also recorded beneficial effects on sleep difficulties, emotional regulation, and depression. And this was not just short-term: With the exception of depression, all improvements were maintained at a 6 months follow-up, and no negative effects were found. (Source: Jonsson K, Kjellgren A. Promising effects of treatment with flotation-REST (restricted environmental stimulation technique) as an intervention for generalized anxiety disorder (GAD): a randomized controlled pilot trial. BMC Complement Altern Med. 2016)
A 2018 study involving 31 participants with high anxiety sensitivity were randomly assigned to either a 90-minute session of Floatation-REST or an external comparison condition. The researchers found that Floatation-REST had a significant anxiolytic (anxiety-reducing) effect, increased feelings of relaxation and serenity, and reduced blood pressure, while also increasing awareness for cardiorespiratory sensations and increased interoceptive awareness. (Source: Justin S. Feinstein, Sahib S. Khalsa, Hung Yeh, Obada Al Zoubi, Armen C. Arevian, Colleen Wohlrab, Marie K. Pantino, Laci J. Cartmell, W. Kyle Simmons, Murray B. Stein, Martin P. Paulus, The Elicitation of Relaxation and Interoceptive Awareness Using Floatation Therapy in Individuals With High Anxiety Sensitivity, Biological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience and Neuroimaging)
Ultimately, the mental benefits of flotation therapy are dependent on the individual and their unique experience with the practice, but simply reaching a deep state of relaxation often already helps.
Floatation therapy helps with stress in several ways. First, it creates an environment where one can be free from external distractions and stresses. Additionally, the high concentration of Epsom salt in the solution helps to relax tension in the body and reduce inflammation, leading to a sense of calm and relaxation. Finally, the sensation of weightlessness can help to soothe away anxieties and worries, allowing the mind to relax, and gives your nervous system a break.
A 2014 paper by Kjellgren A & Westman J., published in the journal BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine, titled Beneficial effects of treatment with sensory isolation in flotation-tank as a preventive health-care intervention – a randomized controlled pilot trial concluded that flotation REST-treatment helped participants reduce stress, anxiety, depression, while also improve optimism and sleep quality. 65 participants were involved in this study, and the control group did not experience any significant changes.
Floatation for meditation
Floatation therapy can be a great complement to a meditation practice. Floating in the Epsom salt solution simulates a zero gravity state, and helps to relax the body and mind and can provide a unique environment for an extended meditation session. Furthermore, the weightlessness of the tank can help to deepen one’s breathing and focus and can help to open up the mind to new experiences, and makes it easier to induce a theta state, which is a dream-like state of consciousness, very similar to the meditative state people seek out when training their mind.
Float therapy encourages creativity
Floatation therapy has been shown to help with creativity. The calming environment created by the tank can help to reduce stress and anxiety, providing a space where one can focus on creative tasks with increased clarity. Float therapy is also known to improve attention span and sensory processing. This is because floatation therapy can synchronize the brain waves of those participating, which can help to boost focus and clarity. Additionally, float tanks are often quite buoyant, which makes them ideal for enhancing sensitivity.
For some people, sensory deprivation tanks can induce a state of hallucination or altered consciousness. In general, however, the goal of flotation therapy is not to induce hallucinations or altered states of consciousness. Instead, the purpose is to promote relaxation and reduce stress. You can read more about hallucinations that can occur for some people during float sessions here.
Improved focus & concentration
Many people report they’re better able to focus, and sustain concentration for a longer period of time after a float session. There’s some research from 2018 which indicates that this might be true, and that floatation therapy can “provide greater clarity of thought”.
Perceptual and motor skills
This is probably related to improvements in focus and concentration, and probably one of the reasons why so many elite athletes use sensory deprivation tanks, but many people find that regularly floating sharpens their perception and finetunes their motor skills. One small study showed that float sessions can significantly improve the performance of participants in a rifle marksmanship training course. (Source: Barabasz, Arreed & Barabasz, Marianne & BAUMAN, JAMES. (1993). Restricted Environmental Stimulation Technique Improves Human Performance: Rifle Marksmanship)
A brief history of floatation therapy
Floatation tanks, also known as isolation tanks or sensory deprivation tanks, have a long and interesting history. First developed in the 1950s by neuropsychiatrist John C. Lilly, the tanks were initially used as part of research into altered states of consciousness, sensory deprivation, and the effects of isolation. In the 1970s, the tanks saw a resurgence with the popularity of the New Age movement and the rise of therapeutic flotation tanks. These tanks, used for relaxation and stress relief, allowed people to float in a therapeutic solution of warm water and Epsom salt.
In the 1980s, flotation therapy started to become popular in the United States and Europe. But it wasn’t until the late 1990s that the use of flotation tanks for therapeutic purposes really began to take off. Today, people around the world use floatation tanks as a form of stress relief, relaxation, and to reduce anxiety and depression. Flotation therapy has also been used to treat pain, PTSD, and other conditions. As the popularity of flotation continues to grow, so does the number of people that are discovering the potential benefits this therapy can bring.
Myths about floatation therapy
Some common myths about floatation therapy include: it is only for people with mental health problems, it is unsafe, or it is uncomfortable. In reality, flotation therapy can be beneficial for people of all ages and backgrounds, and it is considered a safe and comfortable experience. Additionally, because the solution inside the tank is so dense, there is no need to worry about swimming or drowning.
There are also myths propagated by spas and private floating centers that exaggerate the efficacy of flotation therapy, make unsubstantiated claims, and sometimes simply mislead people in order to drum up more business. (Source: Kristoffer Jonsson, Anette Kjellgren, Curing the sick and creating supermen – How relaxation in flotation tanks is advertised on the Internet, European Journal of Integrative Medicine).
It’s important that you don’t go into a float session with unrealistic expectations. Floating isn’t a life-changing experience that will cure you of lifelong illness. It’s not a magic potion, not a silver bullet. It’s a tool you can use that’s proven to be very effective for many different purposes, and I personally believe that in this day and age, where we’re constantly bombarded with stimuli and information, it’s more important than ever to detach and tune everything out, so we hear our inner voice more clearly. And that’s where sensory deprivation tanks can be tremendously helpful.
How to prepare for your float?
Wear earplugs. It’s not necessary, but I recommend the use of earplugs so salt water won’t enter your ears. Before entering a float tank session, be sure to shower and use a mild soap or shampoo to wash away any oils or lotions. Additionally, it is advised to avoid caffeine and other stimulants before entering the tank. It is also important to leave any jewelry at home as it can interfere with the seals of the tank.
During the float you might experience unusual things. It’s quite common for people to become much more aware of what’s going on within themselves, a phenomenon called enhanced interoception. This means you might become much more aware of the sound and feeling of your own heartbeat, your breathing, the sounds and motions of your digestive system, and so on. People who are generally more exteroceptive (more focused on what’s happening outside of them), experiencing this might seem weird—thus, it’s helpful to be aware that this is completely normal and that you’re in good health.
Finally, it is a good idea to bring a light snack or beverage with you to enjoy after the session.
How often should you float?
That’s totally up to you. Start with one session and see how you feel afterwards. In general I recommend doing it once or twice a month at first, and then if you feel you want to float more often switch to a weekly rhythm. Furthermore, it is important to listen to your body and adjust session frequency accordingly in order to maximize the benefits of flotation therapy. Some people float multiple times per week, and if you ever get to that point, it might be worth to purchase your own float tank.
Who is floating for?
Flotation therapy is suitable for people of all ages. From the young to the elderly, floating has many potential benefits, including stress relief, improved sleep, pain relief, increased creativity and focus, improved body coordination, and improved overall physical and mental health. For those with medical conditions or disabilities, it is important to check with a medical doctor or healthcare professional before participating in flotation therapy.
If you suffer from claustrophobia however, floatation tanks are definitely not for you, since they’re a small enclosed space.
Give floating a try
If anything, at the end of this article you should know two things: There’s really no downside to floating, but there’s a lot of potential good. I’d encourage you to experience a floating session yourself. Just make sure that the float center you choose has good reviews and maintains high standards. Furthermore, you should feel comfortable at their facilities
What you get out of floating very much depends on you. For some people it’s just a simple tool of relaxation. For others, it’s a powerful conduit to personal transformation. For others again, it’s a way to alleviate physical ailments and make aches hurt a little bit less, almost like a massage for both body and mind.