If you’re of a certain age, you likely remember the movie “Altered States,” which prominently featured a sensory deprivation float tank. For a short time after the movie’s release, sensory deprivation tanks were all the rage.
Fast forward to the current moment, and the flotation tank is making a comeback. This time, however, the science is more thoroughly understood, and the process involved in isolation flotation is standardized. Research has also revealed what we can expect from a floating session in terms of benefits. Turns out there is more than a little upside to floating in a saline bath with the lights out. In fact, this practice now has a formal name: Flotation Restricted Environmental Stimulation Therapy (Flotation REST).
What Is REST Therapy?
The formal REST process occurs in a large water tank that is normally contained within its own room. The water is saturated with Epsom salts, which infuses the bather with magnesium and keeps a human body afloat without any effort on the bather’s part.
Research continues to explore a range of possible applications for Flotation REST. Many potential benefits hinge on the fact that the therapy activates the parasympathetic “rest and recover” nervous system. That spurs healing and immune system response. However, regardless of what you’re hoping to treat, the experience is generally consider pleasant—so much so, that it is being offered at high-end spas.
- Anxiety reduction. Because the therapy reduces sensory input, it blocks distractions that might otherwise cause anxiety. It can also lead to slightly altered states of perception, further removing an anxiety sufferer from anything that might exacerbate their condition. Research has shown a measurable reduction in anxiety symptoms after a REST session—an effect that may last long after the session is over. The therapy has also been shown to have potential as a tool against depression.
- Stress relief. Although there is not a great deal of existing research, a meta-analysis study found that Flotation REST can significantly reduce the stress hormone cortisol, blood pressure, and other potentially stress indicators. Of course, basic common sense would tell us that a long soak floating weightless in a quiet dark space would naturally be stress-relieving.
- General relaxation. The vast number of people who try Flotation REST find it soothing, calming, and relaxing. Much like a massage, this practice can be part of a self-care regimen to make life more pleasant.
- Mind altering effects. Some adherents of Flotation REST report experiencing enhanced perception and revealing cognitive changes, including out-of-body experiences. This points to the therapy as a possible avenue for enhancing creativity and possibly other applications such as behavioral modification. However, accounts are anecdotal. Most people will experience some heightened awareness due to the absence of the stimulation of normal day-to-day “noise”.
If you think Flotation REST might worth a try, look for a reputable facility. The standards for this type of water tank involve sanitizing refiltration after each user, antibacterial UV lights, and hydrogen peroxide treatment. Reputable businesses follow the sanitizing process recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and prevention (CDC).
Floating times range from 45 to 60 minutes, and enthusiasts recommend weekly sessions. However, that may depend on your budget and preferences. In any case, you can choose whether to keep the tank lid open or closed, and some facilities offer piped in music of your choice, although that really runs counter to the philosophy behind Flotation REST.
Although there are relatively few side effects or downsides to this therapy, there are certain individuals who should avoid the practice. Anyone with an open wound or contagious disease should avoid floatation baths. REST is also contraindicated for anyone who suffers from epilepsy, low blood pressure, or kidney disease. Lastly, if you’re claustrophobic, this is not the experience for you. If you have any doubts or questions about using a floatation tank, consult your primary caregiver to determine if REST might be helpful, or at least enjoyable in your case.