It’s dark in here, and all I can hear is my breath. I’m floating in a sensory deprivation tank, which is basically like a bathtub in a silent, lightless room. I close my eyes and take small sips of air, filling my belly consciously before slowly releasing. Thoughts are racing about what I “should” or “could” be doing. I can’t stop them from arising, but I do my best to let them pass like clouds in the sky. You are here now, I tell myself.
If you struggle with general anxiety disorder like I do, or experience situational anxiety, then you know just how difficult it can be to push pause on anxious thoughts. It’s scary to feel like you have little or no control over them; but perhaps even more scary is the fear that it will always be that way.
Over the past seven years, I’ve tried several remedies to relieve my anxiety, including nightly meditation, yoga, spending time outside, and scheduling one full day each week to rest. But it wasn’t until 2019, when I began working as an assistant at Integrative Physical Therapy, that I first heard about floating in a sensory deprivation tank and its potential calming effects. Attached to this clinic is Baker City Float Center, the first space to offer a sensory deprivation tank in northeast Oregon. Having just graduated from college with a degree in Applied Health and Fitness, my passion for wellness was very much alive, and I was eager to give floating a try.
What exactly is a sensory deprivation tank, and how can it help with anxiety?
Floating in a sensory deprivation tank is a zero-gravity experience meant to calm the nervous system through restricted environmental stimulation therapy (REST), or an experience designed to activate as few of your senses as possible.
Generally, float tanks for sensory deprivation come in a variety of shapes and sizes, including pods, rooms, and cabins, all of which are filled with shallow water and close to 1,000 pounds of Epsom salt (which raises the buoyancy of the water, making floating effortless). A float pod is a round tank you submerge yourself in with a lid that closes on top of you, whereas a float room is a dark room with an open tank similar to a bathtub (making it a more suitable choice for anyone with claustrophobia).
Somewhere in between the two is a float cabin, which is the one I decided to try firsthand. It’s essentially a roomy tank—big enough to stand up inside—with a door for entering and exiting. In some places, like at Baker City, there are buttons within the cabin for rotating through an assortment of dim colored lights, or even for playing soothing music or a meditation.
Typically, however, the environment within a float pod, tank, or cabin is meant to be virtually lightless and soundless. This essentially “deprives” your senses of input, which makes it all the easier to lose track of where your body ends and the water begins. “While floating, your body calms, melts, and softens; it feels more spacious and resilient,” says physical therapist and certified lymphedema therapist Anne Nemec, PT, owner of Integrative Physical Therapy and Baker City Float Center. “This can occur in the mind, too. You may [feel as though you] have more room and choices.” Before ever trying floating for herself, Nemec invested in a Dreampod Float Cabin—a specific type of sensory deprivation tank—to add to her physical therapy clinic because of the unique impact she believed it would have on her community. “Floating is like meditation on steroids,” she says.
In particular, Nemec touts the physiological changes that can happen during a float session, which was shown to help reduce stress and anxiety scores in healthy participants in a 2014 pilot study. Researchers believe that floating in a sensory deprivation tank may decrease sympathetic nervous system output (aka “fight or flight”) while increasing parasympathetic activity (aka “rest and digest”), which in turn lowers heart rate and blood pressure, and slows breathing.
Because folks with anxiety often have a greater sympathetic response to stress, it’s possible that a modality like floating—known to decrease that activation—could have even stronger, longer-term benefits in people with anxiety.
In fact, a 2018 study comparing the effects of floating in a sensory deprivation tank among 50 people with various anxiety-related disorders and 30 non-anxious folks found that the former group experienced significantly larger stress-reducing effects (and in that group, the float also provided more relief for most folks than any of the other techniques they’d previously tried). And in a small 2016 study of people who did 12 floating sessions over several weeks, participants with generalized anxiety disorder experienced a significant improvement in anxiety symptoms from their baseline.
My experience with floating in a sensory deprivation tank
Being that I’ve attempted just about everything else for my anxiety, which is still something I struggle with, I decided I’d give floating a try to see if it might ease my symptoms.
The first time I entered a tank, I had high expectations for myself and the experience. For example, I told myself that the lights must stay off, I couldn’t get out, and I needed to make sure I did my breathing exercises, meditated, prayed, and stretched while in the tank. As you can tell, I have this bad habit of turning rest into work. (That’s my anxiety for you.)
As a result, my first time floating wasn’t as beneficial as I suspect it could have been. My mind continued to speed a million miles per hour, and I went on worrying about to-dos—I still need to respond to that text! I should really start looking into grad programs!—as soon as I got home.
The good news is, I went back…not once, but three additional times, motivated by the thought that I could reap the benefits with some practice. Each time, I found that I could put less pressure on myself to be “perfect” at floating— making it a whole lot more relaxing.
This is why Nemec says it’s important to approach a float without any strict demands of yourself. “This is your float and time,” she says. “There is no right way to float; you can always get out when needed, and you’re in complete control of however you’d like your time to go.” For some folks with anxiety, that’s easier said than done. It may be helpful to inquire about the potential modifications available, she suggests. That might mean starting with shorter sessions and using sounds, music, or lighting to ease into the new environment.
For me, positive self-talk has been the most helpful throughout my float journey. I’ve started telling myself that it’s okay if I choose to have the lights on in the tank, or get out before the time is up. I practice mindful breathing when I can but also accept when my body wants to breathe naturally. I don’t intentionally pray or meditate while in the tank, but I do find that the experience often takes me, mentally, somewhere far away, and when that happens, it’s a welcome break from the inner turmoil my anxiety usually causes.
Upon exiting the float tank the past couple times, I’ve also had more peace of mind, ease throughout my day, and acceptance when I don’t finish everything I’d hoped to get done.
Still, that doesn’t mean everyone (or even everyone with anxiety) should start floating regularly. Perhaps being alone with your thoughts or simply being in any kind of enclosed space for upwards of an hour just sounds terrifying or uncomfortable. In these scenarios, it may be best to pass on floating, as would be the case if you have any open wounds, tubes in your ears, a seizure disorder, or kidney or liver issues that could increase magnesium absorption from floating to dangerous levels. If any of the above applies to you, check in with a doctor before scheduling a float session.
Otherwise, keep in mind that managing anxiety is all about finding what works best for you physically, emotionally, and financially through trial and error. Out of the hundreds of coping strategies out there, floating in a sensory deprivation tank is just one suggestion to manage the everyday weight of anxious thoughts.
In my world, however, floating has helped me cope more effectively with my anxiety, alongside yoga, writing, and spending time outside. If you’re like me, you might just find that a float now and then really helps lighten the load.