How People with Anxiety are Finding Relief Through Sensory Deprivation

1st October 2019

Floating in a giant blow-up pool of salty water had become the latest wellness solution for people suffering with anxiety, but is there any evidence it actually works?

Even if you haven’t tried it yourself, most people may recognise the wellness phenomenon known as “sensory deprivation” from Netflix’s nostalgic supernatural series Stranger Things, in which telekinetic pre-teen Eleven uses a floatation tank to tap into her powers.

While it might seem a little bit “extra”, more and more people are offering up anecdotal accounts of how flotation sensory deprivation has helped to improve their anxiety – there’s even been scientific studies on the subject. In 2018, researchers investigated the short term anxiolytic (anti-anxiety) and antidepressant effect of floatation tanks and concluded that even one session could provide relief from a variety of mental health conditions.

“A single one-hour session of Floatation-REST was capable of inducing a strong reduction in state anxiety and a substantial improvement in mood in a group of 50 anxious and depressed participants spanning a range of different anxiety and stress-related disorders (including PTSD, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Panic Disorder, Agoraphobia, and Social Anxiety Disorder).”

Sufferers noticing a real difference

Patients with anxiety and depression noted a considerable increase in relaxation, happiness and overall well-being, while simultaneously reporting a decrease in pain, stress, muscle tension and depression.

In case you’re worried about falling asleep and drowning, don’t be – participants in the study also noted a considerable increase in energy, with a decrease in sleepiness and fatigue.

So how does it work? Baths are filled with epsom salts to increase the density of the water, which allows your body to float. Because your body is evenly supported by the water, you won’t experience any pressure points or discomfort – just total relaxation. It’s basically the exact same as floating in the sea, but without the fear that you’ll float away with the current and end up stranded in the ocean (not so relaxing). The water is kept consistently at body temperature – around 36.5°C – so you’ll barely feel it, to the point that you almost feel like you’re floating in mid air.

The Research

This method of sensory deprivation known as Floatation-REST (Reduced Environmental Stimulation Therapy) dates back to the 1950’s. When working at the National Institute of Mental Health, Dr. Jay Shurley and Dr. John Lilly were interested in exploring how the human brain would respond to being in an environment completely devoid of sensory stimulation.

Lilly and Shurley found that instead of falling into a deep sleep, patients remained conscious with full awareness throughout floatation experiments. Initially, patients had to wear a helmet connected to breathing tubes while suspended vertically in a tank of water.

It wasn’t until the 1970’s that Dr. Lilly and a man named Glen Perry developed the horizontal floatation tank that we know today, which removed the need for a helmet.

Struggle with Anxiety

Whilst anxiety has been dubbed a millennial scourge, figures show that rates of anxiety disorder and depression have risen considerably over the last few years among the whole British population. According to NHS data, there has been a 28% increase in people being admitted to hospital for stress and anxiety in the last ten years. This only a small proportion of people suffering, as it is estimated that three-quarters of people living with anxiety never seek any professional help. This may be one reason for the increasing popularity of CBD as a type of self treatment for stress and anxiousness.

Anyone looking to explore their options for anxiety therapy will be glad to know that it’s not entirely unaffordable. A 60-minute session of floatation therapy can range from £40-£50, about the same price as getting a bikini wax in the middle of London (and remarkably more enjoyable). And if that’s not an option for you, the NHS offers free Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) and counseling without the need for a referral from your GP.

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