Sensory Deprivation Tanks and Their Impact on Mental Health & Wellbeing 

Posted by Naomi Rohr on

A sensory deprivation tank, also known as a floating tank, is an isolated, soundproof, completely dark tank that is filled with less than a foot of saltwater. The first tank was designed in 1954 by American Physician and Neuroscientist, John C. Lilly and used for reduced environmental stimulation therapy (REST). The purpose was to be able to isolate and study the origins of consciousness by removing as many external stimuli as possible.

Through the act of floating in water saturated with Epsom salt, sensory signals, and gravitational awareness is minimised, as is movement and speech. This is why you may feel a little wobbly as you leave the tank. Some people even say it feels like a “trip” or the deepest meditation ever. In a recent study on the effects sensory deprivation tanks have on depressive moods, participants reported significant reductions in stress, muscle tension, pain, depression, and negative affect, accompanied by a significant improvement in mood characterised by increases in serenity, relaxation, happiness, and overall well-being.

Benefits of Sensory Deprivation Tanks

These days, float centre's and spas all over the world offer the therapeutic floating tank experience and you can even have a tank installed in your home.

Though more often than not, you may want to try a floating tank out of pure curiosity. But there are six primary reasons or results that people seek (and have achieved) when entering a sensory deprivation tank including:

  • Better athletic performance and recovery
  • Relieves physical pain including muscle tension caused by stress, and tension headaches
  • Improved concentration, focus, and clearer thinking
  • An increase in originality, imagination, and intuition, and creativity
  • An overall improved mood and emotional balance
  • Treat an immunity weakened by stress
  • Significant reduction anxiety and anxiety-related disorders
  • Reduced symptoms of depression, sleep difficulties, irritability, and fatigue

Overall, sensory deprivation tanks may have a positive impact on mental health and wellbeing. However, 1 in 3 people experience hallucinations or psychosis-like experiences. While manageable and short-term, these experiences might not be comfortable for everyone. Researchers suggest it is the result of the brain trying to creatively cope with the lack of external stimuli, much like when you sleep and have vivid dreams. There have been no reported negative long-term effects.

A New Source of Therapy

Floating tanks are being described as a transcendental form of therapy that is best utilised as a supplement to other types of therapy. A 2018 study demonstrated a significant improvement in mood and a reduction of symptoms in 50 people with Generalised Anxiety Disorder. In 2018, very similar results were produced in a study of 46 people who also had GAD, mild depression, and related mental health concerns including post-traumatic stress, panic, agoraphobia, and social anxiety.

While these results were clinically impressive, a significant amount of research on Flotation-REST is still underway so that these benefits can be better defined, understood, optimised, and implemented into other forms of treatment and therapy. For now, it is safe to recommend regular 1-hour float tank therapy sessions for anxiety, restlessness, and general stress.

Can floating tanks make you happy? 

People have reported experiencing mild euphoria, a sense of optimism, and a positive outlook immediately following a session. Others have experienced spiritual shifts, insight, and a deep exploration into their consciousness and reported a sense of oneness and Godliness. 

The experience you have in a floating tank is heavily dependent on the intentions you have going into it, your belief systems, and your overall openness to the unfamiliar. Or, you could very well just get the best 1-hour sleep of your life while floating in saltwater.

Can Floating Tanks Replace Medication?

In short-not likely. It’s important to note that there aren’t enough substantial studies on the effects floating tanks have on mental health to the extent that it would be advisable to discontinue medication or replace it with restricted environmental stimulation therapy. The line between psychology and psychiatry can feel a bit blurry and there are a number of ways medication may be replaced, it’s just not viable to say that floating tanks are one of them.

However, people have used it to replace other things such as smoking, overeating, coffee addiction, and other undesirable habits. Regular float tank sessions may help regulate the brain’s reward system making it less needy for regular stimulants. 

Sensory Deprivation Tank Alternatives

Sensory deprivation tanks may impact the brain in a way that is most similar to a deep meditative state, but ten-fold. And if you’re already aware of the emotional, physical, psychological, and spiritual benefits of meditation, then you can already imagine what 45 minutes in a floating tank might do for mental health and wellbeing.

If you don’t have access to a floating tank, there are alternatives that may provide similar benefits. For one, deep meditation! Only this time, replicate the tank as much as possible. This can be done in a tub or pool. Do your best to eliminate light, sound, and other external stimuli. You’d need to eliminate all distractions and completely immerse yourself in the experience.

Ultimately, floating tanks are deeply relaxing. If you have spent most of your life in fight or flight, (which most of us have), many parts of the brain are being overworked. Sensory deprivation tanks are not a shortcut to healing, but they can be used to help stabilise, relax, and restore the body’s physical response to stress, trauma, and anxiety.

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