How Float Therapy Can Help Provide Relief from Depression

Mental illness.

Even saying it out loud makes some people uncomfortable. But given recent estimates from the National Alliance on Mental Illness, one out of every five Americans will suffer from some form of mental illness during their lifetimes.

Sadly, the fluid nature of the mind coupled with a general misunderstanding of possible treatments means that mental illness doesn’t always get the attention it deserves. After all, we can splint a broken leg. Send antibiotics after a sinus infection. Even pursue specialized surgery for heart disease. But when it comes to healing the mental state? The challenge increases exponentially.

To put a finer point on it: Most hearts are basically the same, anatomically speaking. But the mind? No two have ever been alike. That’s why any course of therapy that shows promise with treating things like anxiety, depression, and bipolarity should really be given its due diligence.

Fact: there are almost as many reasons people suffer from mental illness as there are individuals who do. We may have progressed far enough to have identified certain sets of conditions that apply to general, definable maladies, yes. But nobody can really say for sure what the common underlying causes are, since everyone’s life experience is so different.

That said, we are living in a high-stress environment; one in which countless demands are placed upon our time, and energy. If we could simply enjoy our lives and didn't have to fight every day to survive, the impact for mental illness could be a lot lower. The fact is, most of us do have a lot of responsibility. We can’t all just live a life of breezy leisure.

So the demands of a modern world require a range of contemporary solutions. In a lot of ways, we’re on our own out there...and we need to take things into our own hands. That means finding ways to practice self-care. Because if we don't take care of ourselves, who will?

To that end, a 2018 study administered by the National Institutes of Health showed that Floatation-REST (Reduced Environmental Stimulation Therapy) has significant potential when it comes to offering relief to those who experience quality-of-life affecting mental health issues.

The study’s findings were considerable, and persuasive. Participants reported a pleasant, side-effect free experience, with the abstract saying, “Overall, the procedure was well-tolerated, with no major safety concerns stemming from this single session.” The conclusion? “Floatation-REST may be a promising technique for transiently reducing the suffering in those with anxiety and depression."

A previous study conducted in 2016 (which sought to look at the effects of floating on Generalized Anxiety Disorder) seems to corroborate these findings, indicating: “GAD symptomatology was significantly reduced for the treatment group...when comparing baseline to post-treatment scoring. Regarding clinical significant change, 37% in the treatment group reached full remission at post-treatment. Significant beneficial effects were also found for sleep difficulties, difficulties in emotional regulation, and depression...All improved outcome variables at post-treatment, except for depression, were maintained at 6-months follow. No negative effects were found.”

So, the argument can be made that the science is in. Of course, there will always be skepticism. But as always, jumping in with both feet (so to speak...please step carefully into the tanks), is typically the best way to dispel doubt.

In a recent Washington Post article, Stanford University Psychiatrist Nathaniel Morris wrote about his floating experience. He had heard from so many of his patients that floating had helped them, so he decided to experience it for himself...even though he had some reservations about the purported benefits.

Skeptic or not, Dr. Morris emerged from his session with an improved insight on the benefits of a good float.

“...[W]hat struck me most were the moments when I was lying completely still, floating without sound or sight, the feeling in my arms and legs disappearing into nothingness. My sense of time fell away and I felt at peace, as if I were lying in bed and about to fall asleep. It was a sense of tranquility that grew more profound as time passed. And then before I expected it, there were two taps on the tank, and my one hour was over.

I opened my eyes, and slowly, I sat up, my body feeling warm and heavy. It was like I had slept for days. When I think back on the experience it is a sense of deep ‘calm’ that I most recall...I spent an hour inside a dark metal box but somehow came out feeling completely at ease, not just during the moment but also for a few hours after. I think many of us — and especially some patients who have mental health issues — seek out that kind of calm in our daily lives.”

Mental health advocate and blogger Ashley Laderer experienced a similar phenomenon during her research for a piece she wrote for therapy outlet TalkSpace. 

“When I finally plopped myself into the tank, I immediately floated — no effort necessary. I couldn’t help but smile. It was a phenomenon I’d never experienced before, as I can’t float in pool or salty ocean water for the life of me. I thanked the 1000 pounds of epsom salt in the tank for keeping me up. The water felt perfect — because it’s kept right around human body temperature. They say for this reason, it becomes easy to lose track of where the body ends and the water begins, adding to the sense-free experience. Tiny lights resembling colorful stars lit up the ceiling of the tank, and zen music played at the perfect volume.

With my ears submerged and earplugs in, my breath began to sound like gentle ocean waves, coming in and out of shore....”I am a mermaid,” I thought. “This is what it feels like to be a mermaid”...I felt as though I was going in and out of some sort of consciousness, like how I feel when I’m just drifting off to sleep. I even felt like I was having little snippets of dreams! No longer was I making a super-conscious effort to be relaxed — I just was.”

Psychology Today agrees with both the findings of these studies, and the experiences of floating converts. 

“The characteristics of floatation therapy make it a strong fit for treating physical pain, helping the body recover from injury and pain-related illnesses, and rebound from vigorous physical exertion. Removing external stimuli from the float environment has the effect of all but eliminating the body’s internal stress response. Floating appears to take us out of ‘flight or fight’ (a chronic state of physiological being for many of us) and moves us into ‘rest and recover.’ That fight or flight stress response — with the excitatory hormones and inflammation surges that are a part of it — is a primary trigger for pain.”

Ultimately, all the studies and personal accounts in existence won’t be able to tell you if floating can help with your mental or emotional unrest; you’ll need to experience it for yourself in order to determine its efficacy.

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