Practically everyone I know who has tried floating in a sensory deprivation tank has become an enthusiastic convert. The brain state induced by flotation, known as R.E.S.T. (reduced environmental stimulation therapy), is characterized by increased theta wave activity. It’s a state of deep relaxation that, for most, releases anxieties and muscle tension, and even enhances creativity and strategic thinking.
The flotation/isolation tank was invented in 1954 by John C. Lilly, a brilliant physician and neuropsychologist who later went on to fame experimenting with LSD with Timothy Leary and then researching human-dolphin communication. Lilly wanted to study the effects of near-total sensory deprivation on human consciousness, and in the process stumbled on a therapeutic modality that millions have subsequently found helpful for pain relief, alleviating stress, anxiety and insomnia, as well as stimulating creative thinking.
Elite athletes often use flotation sessions in preparation for big games or races. Artists come out of the tank brimming with inspiration.
Mostly, though, the therapy is favored by people with chronic musculoskeletal pain issues, many of whom find that the sense of weightlessness they encounter in the tank is the only thing that affords deep relief. Pregnant women are often big fans – especially once they’ve reached the point where sleep becomes a problem because there’s simply no sleeping position that’s comfortable.
It’s not unusual to fall asleep during a tank session, and regular users report that such sleep is profoundly restful. You don’t have to worry at all about rolling over and drowning: Even without the optional floatie headrest, your head and body are so buoyant in the Epsom-salts-saturated water that you’re bobbing half out of it.
In my own experience, it took a few minutes for my exposed upper half to feel cozy enough as the “perfect-temperature” saline solution warmed the air above it. That’s why these tanks are built inside a cocoon of thick insulation. You’re supposed to lose any sensation of discomfort very quickly.
Unfortunately for me, that was the point where things started to get weird.
By any superficial measure, I should’ve been the perfect candidate to enjoy flotation therapy. I adore hot baths, especially by candlelight. When I built my own house years ago, I made sure to clean up, repaint and install an old-fashioned clawfoot tub that was deep enough for a full-body soak.
Astrologically I’m a water sign, and I’ve always been drawn to water for relaxation. It’s always a special treat to stay in a hotel that has a Jacuzzi, and the wildest New Year’s Eve party I ever attended took place at a house with an outdoor hot tub. (You haven’t really lived until you’ve lounged in steaming water with your hair a crunchy crown of icicles.)
Water was my friend. I grew up near Long Island beaches and spent childhood summers in a beat-up Airstream trailer parked beside Napeague Bay. Skinny-dipping in Shawangunk waterfalls was one of the great joys of my university years in New Paltz. I never stopped being drawn to swimming, even after that little incident at Far Rockaway at age five when I stepped over an abrupt dropoff and a family friend had to drag me out of the surf.
Oops. Yeah, there was that near-drowning experience at an impressionable age. And a year later, I got as sick as I’ve ever been, with a case of pleurisy. That’s an infection of the lining of the lungs, one of whose symptoms is a persistent sensation of drowning. Maybe there’s more history here that I should’ve considered before assuming that flotation was for me.
I never stopped swimming, but I couldn’t cut it on my school swim team because I couldn’t do the front crawl. I couldn’t properly synchronize breathing in with where my nostrils were. Still can’t.
The same issue of being “a nose-breather” made me quickly wash out of a scuba course as an adult. I’m fine snorkeling, so long as my nose is blocked by the mask, but I can’t dive with just the snorkel. The water goes up my nose when I breathe in through my mouth, and I get panicky. Panicky is the opposite of how a float is supposed to make you feel.
Fluid and my lungs have long had an adversarial relationship. It’s only a matter of luck that I’ve never had pneumonia. The battery of breathing tests I had after being diagnosed at age 40 with sarcoidosis in the lymph nodes that cluster around the bronchi disclosed that my lung capacity and my ability to use oxygen efficiently aren’t great – perhaps the legacy of that childhood bout with pleurisy. Even in my prime hiking years, I got winded easily.
But in an isolation tank, there’s no point at which your nostrils need to meet the water, so fear of drowning shouldn’t have been a real issue. Nor do I have any history of claustrophobia; I enjoy spelunking and crevicing.
The main red flag that I shouldn’t have ignored was the fact that I’m absolutely miserable in hot, humid weather. I can’t spend more than about ten minutes in a steam room before getting an anxiety attack. In summer I just want to curl up and die. So, at the point when the tank got toasty-warm and I was supposed to be vegging out and letting my mind wander, instead I became aware of the icky sensation of sweat running down my face.
Soon I began to feel like I was suffocating as I breathed in the steam. For me, it wasn’t like a nice hot bath in a room with good air circulation. It was stifling.
I found my “relaxing” soak interrupted by my frequently having to sit up and push the door open, eventually jamming a washcloth into the hinge to keep it propped in a half-open position. Even then, to my shame, I couldn’t wait for it to be over.
Isolation therapy hadn’t failed me. I had failed it. I’m an unrepentant Flotation 101 dropout. This could conceivably happen to you as well, if you passionately hate summers even in the Northeast and dream of retiring someplace closer to the Arctic Circle.
Fortunately, that doesn’t describe most people. More likely you’ll come out of the tank with a blissed-out look on your face and your body utterly relaxed.
You won’t know for sure until you give flotation a try.