Upon experiencing my first floats, I felt a sense of wonder at what could possibly be happening. A multitude of floats later and each experience leads me into a deeper state of awe as I attempt to wrap my brain around an explanation for these deeply healing effects. My evidence-based degree as well as an interest in neuroscience have led me to try and find theory about what was happening in my brain and physiology for these effects to be possible. Yet I continue to rest back in my seat time and again when I remember that reducing therapeutic outcomes to a singular functional part such as our brain will never give rise to one clear answer of what is occurring.
Research into Flotation-REST
Research into Flotation-REST (restricted environmental stimulation technique) provides various theories of how the therapeutic benefits of floating are reached. Yet one all-encompassing therapeutic explanation that my mind can rest upon is as elusive as healing itself.
Today after yet another grapple with the online research, I again sit back in my seat grinning at the world and her mysterious ways of pulling us into her grasp. Inspired to understand the deeper mechanics of change, I again let my desire of explanation go like an elastic band out into the ether. I allow my curiosity to move from my mind to rest in my body and in the actual experience of what floating is, for me.
What exactly is floating?
We put ourselves in a space designed to reduce sensory input. In this instance, flotation rooms which provide a dark, sound proof space filled with water set at skin temperature. This water is filled with magnesium sulfate to reach the highest possible salinity. The result is a buoyancy that allows our body to rest, gravity defied.
So how does floating affect people?
I am affected in many ways. Spiritually, physiologically, creatively, muscularly, in my nervous system, my brain. Yet if there’s anything I’ve learned through holistic healthcare, it is that nothing occurs in isolation. To say that flotation-REST brings about healing through changes in central nervous system functioning, for example, is merely looking at this experience in a reductionist manner. Although there are some clear correlations, perhaps we are too hasty to try to match cause and effect in our scientifically rigorous world.
Can I explain my transformation purely through theory?
Brain chemistry does not just have effects in the brain, just as muscle relaxation does not just make our body feel relaxed. We are one united being. Our parts having unfathomable interrelationships that no book or rigorous research will ever be able to fully comprehend or explain.
What a joy it is, when we are able to rest in that mystery.
But it doesn’t diminish my love of neuroscience! Nor my gratitude for people such as Dr Lilly who conducted some of the first research into flotation-REST. Having this information available in the health culture that we currently exist in allows us as a community to find language to help spread the word about the possibilities floating offers.
Why is flotation therapy becoming popular now?
This world that we live in even on the wild remote island of Tasmania, bellows at us with increased synthetic light. We have access to technology at all hours of every day, a bombardment of marketing and colour. Noise and smog, mobile phones resting alongside our ears, brains and beds. Even those of us who limit this input still exist within a world that is humming from dawn until dawn. Floating feels to me like a therapy that is reaching its prime, finding its way into the depths of humanity at a time when it is so terribly needed.
Disconnected from gravity. The outside world removed. A uniquely barren environment that allows us to rest in a way that no other environment on earth can allow. Not even a womb.
Perhaps it’s time has come.
Who can floating help?
Sympathetic nervous system activity; the part of us that is activated in response to stress. It is amazingly effective to deal with eustress; positive levels of stress that ignite us in ways that are powerful. But we end up in a state of distress if we engage with this type of response for too long. Our body unable to maintain the energy requirement which leads to many responses. People may feel overwhelmed or stuck in a place of sympathetic dominance, feeling the world asking too much of them. Floating reduces the impact of this. (1,2,3,4,5,6).
Can you explain specific results from the flotation-REST research?
Anxiety, depression, stress, poor sleep quality, high blood pressure, inability to relax – key words of our era. Floating supports these things to improve. It can support finding oneself in a relaxation response even if severely stressed. (1,2,3,4,5,6).
My mind wants to know the exact molecules or neurotransmitters that are increased, decreased. The parts of the brain that are activated or quietened. But perhaps an easier answer could be to say that we are just able to rest. Rest away from the incessant reality that surrounds us.
How many floats do I need to have?
After many floats, I began to perceive a new subtlety to my experience. It feels to me like each float has been slowly rejuvenating my nervous system after many years of holding trauma and stress. Float by float, millimetre by millimetre, my system is deeply repairing. A new ability to really know what it feels like to rest in safety.
I knew after one float this was occurring, but perhaps there comes a tipping point. A place beyond language and theory. A perception of experience within a human body that can take us into new territory. Subsequently, I feel embodied within a nervous system that can hold me in a way I’ve never experienced before. I know there are many who wish to feel like this, but it can feel like a foreign concept if the usual state of being has always been compromised.
Rebuilding within the darkness.
Our bodies, our minds, our teeth, our blood, our bones. We break down and we build up. Constantly cycling through the renewal of ourselves. My joy is witnessing a rebuilding that feels supported by the void of a float room. Rebuilding within the vastness of darkness and quiet. Suspended in all possibility.
I don’t need to wait for the ethics to be approved or the statistics to come in. Or for language to give reasoning to my experience. I believe in floats, in their magic and potency. My body is the witness. The breeding ground for transformation. My unfolding life a testament to how this salty water is affecting me and why I believe it’s worth trying.
It’s not everything, but it’s definitely something.
- Bood S, Kjellgren A & Norlander T 2009, ‘Treating stress-related pain with the flotation restricted environmental stimulation technique: Are there differences between women and men?’ Pain Research and Management, Vol. 14, No. 4, pp. 293-298.
- Dunham M, McClain J & Burger A 2017, ‘Comparison of Bispectral IndexTM values during the flotation restricted environmental stimulation technique and results for stage 1 sleep: a prospective pilot study,’ BMC Research Notes, Vol. 10, no. 640, pp. 1-6.
- Feinstein J et al 2018, ‘The Elicitation of Relaxation and Interoceptive Awareness Using Floatation Therapy in Individuals With High Anxiety Sensitivity’ Biological Psychiatry: Cognitive Neuroscience & Neuroimaging, Vol. 3, No. 6, pp. 555–562.
- Feinstein J et al 2018, ‘Examining the short-term anxiolytic and antidepressant effect of Floatation-REST,’ PLoS One, Vol. 2, No. 13, pp. 1-24.
- Jonsson K & Kjellgren A 2016, ‘Promising effects of treatment with flotation-REST (restricted environmental stimulation technique) as an intervention for generalised anxiety disorder (GAD): a randomised controlled pilot trial,’ BMC Complementary & Alternative Medicine, Vol. 16, No.108, pp. 1-12.
- Kjellgren A & Westman J 2014, ‘Beneficial effects of treatment with sensory isolation in flotation-tank as a preventative health-care intervention – a randomized controlled pilot trial,’ BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine, Vol.14, No. 417, pp. 1-8.
Picture credits: thanks to @bauchventura, @laanchan & @estera125 at picsart