Imagine the lapping of waves on a shore, the patter of raindrops on a window. We know instinctively the power of water to soothe and relax. This is why ocean sounds are so popular in meditation videos. Listening to the sound of water can reduce levels of the stress hormone cortisol and promote relaxation. What if we were to take this a step further? Flotation-Restricted Environmental Stimulation Therapy (REST), also called sensory deprivation, enhances the soothing benefits of water by minimising the demands of processing sensory information. I was curious to understand how a short flotation session can help us reach a state of deep relaxation.
Flotation-REST involves a person floating in a dark, soundproof tank filled with water. From the outside, it looks like a bath with a lid. The water is saturated with Epsom salts allowing you to float without exerting any effort. The sense of enclosure is not for everyone, though if you’re comfortable with this, it can have powerful benefits for your health and well-being. A typical session is an hour and should leave you feeling relaxed; if sensory deprivation is enforced or over a longer period then it can have negative effects.
From the beginning, flotation tanks have been linked with exploring the nature of the mind. The first tank was developed by John Lilly in the 1950s to study consciousness. A controversial figure, he wanted to find out whether sensory deprivation had similar effects to hallucinogens such as LSD. He conducted experiments with and without hallucinogens to understand the impact. Changes to the laws on drug use in 1965 put an end to this research, and by the 1970s, commercial flotation centres were offering Flotation-REST as a relaxation experience without the aid of hallucinogens.
You may be forgiven for questioning the appeal of sealing yourself in a darkened tank. Now more than ever, we are faced with constant stimulation. We are bombarded with notifications and feeds. It can be overwhelming for our brains to process all of this information, leading to many of us feeling stressed and exhausted. We learned last year that Zoom fatigue is a phenomenon backed by science; processing information on virtual calls can be incredibly draining. All this content scrolling can have a negative impact on our well-being and can trigger the ‘fight or flight’ response.
As a result, growing numbers of people are seeking out ways to escape from the demands of modern life. With outlets like holidays being off-limits, people are looking for a respite closer to home.
Sensory stimulation is filtered out during a Flotation-REST session. As we adjust, we switch from ‘fight or flight’ mode to ‘rest and recover.’ There is evidence of reduced activity in the parts of the brain associated with sensory information and increased activity in the parts associated with emotional processing, learning, creativity and deep states of meditation.
Flotation-REST offers an escape from the sensory overload, from the pressures and rush of modern life. It can be a welcome way to slow down and take time to reflect. Many people lose a sense of time; some experience a slowing down while others find the session is over before they know it. It forces us to be in the moment as there is no way of measuring the passing of time while in the tank.
For this reason, Flotation-REST can result in a state of deep relaxation. Studies show that it can reduce anxiety, depression and sleep issues. The immersion in water plus the minimal demands on our brain can create a powerfully relaxing experience. Some people even fall asleep for short periods. The high levels of magnesium in Epsom salts activate the parasympathetic nervous system and promote rest.
Immersion in a flotation tank can also ease aching muscles. There is evidence that it can reduce symptoms of chronic pain. Anyone who has felt the comfort of a bath after intense exercise will be familiar with this. With increasing numbers of us leading sedentary lifestyles, chained to our desks, flotation tanks can offer a remedy to these everyday aches and pains.
Once the stresses and strains of everyday life have been dissolved, flotation tanks can help give us a greater sense of clarity. This is hardly surprising when you consider how many things demand our attention in an age of multiple screens. All of these distractions are taken away, allowing deeper insights and reflections to surface. You’ve probably experienced something similar when you’ve been concentrating on a task then an idea occurs to you later while in the shower.
When we tune out the peripheral things, our thoughts become more lucid and we experience clarity. Studies have exposed multitasking as less efficient and productive than single tasking. Flotation-REST is a powerful way of filtering out background noise so we can focus on what is important.
When we minimise stimuli, it can help spark creativity. Flotation-REST can be a great way to creatively reframe things. The stillness of the experience can paradoxically stimulate a flow state; our thoughts are more fluid when there are fewer distractions. It is thought that the reduced stress levels combined with a boost in energy leads to greater creativity. For some, a flotation session can trigger incredibly vivid images or hallucinations. While there is a risk that some might find this disturbing, most people experience a kind of euphoria.
So what is the place of Flotation-REST in the modern day? Research suggests that short sessions can have a positive impact on our health and well-being. There is particularly strong evidence that it can improve sporting performance. The reduction in pain allows athletes to recover quickly and it is possible that the increased focus can support higher performance. Flotation-REST can also play a part in stimulating creativity. There is only one way to find out the effects for you and that’s to take the plunge.
Louise Bond has several years of experience working in healthcare transformation and is excited by opportunities for more preventive approaches.