Sensory Deprivation: Can Floating Ease Stress While Boosting Creativity?

By Evonne Ermey

Invented in the 1950’s, sensory deprivation tanks are not new. The objective of the tank, or pod, is to create an environment void of external stimulation, imposing total relaxation on the user.

Floating in highly salinated water, users experience a feeling of weightlessness. The pod’s hinged lid further alienates them from their environment by eliminating both external light and sound. For best results, participants are encouraged to float naked.

Staring into the gaping mouth of the sensory deprivation tank, the hinged jaws of the modern pod remind me of a whale’s mouth or a giant seashell. I worry that the interior of the pod will feel tomb-like. I’m not a fan of enclosed spaces.

The six minute introductory video that I’m compelled to watch at orientation promises numerous health benefits to be reaped – Relief from chronic pain, a greater sense of mindfulness, even a kick-start to theta brainwaves associated with heightened creativity. But the most loudly trumpeted benefit of sensory deprivation therapy – also referred to as Restricted Environmental Stimulation Therapy (REST) – is stress relief.

While there’s not a wealth of research on REST therapy, studies indicate a quantifiable reduction in stress, anxiety, and depression for up to four months after treatment. In fact, the Research Center at the Laureate Institute for Brain Research in Tulsa, Oklahoma is currently engaged in mapping the brainwaves of PTSD sufferers participating in REST therapy with promising results.  

If REST therapy can uncrimp the minds of PTSD sufferers, then the bombastic digital overstimulation I endure as a corporate media wage slave should be a cake walk. Seriously, if I could erase just one (or 50) kitten videos, I’d be good.

Within the private room at the Float spa, I am equipped with wax earplugs, Vaseline to smear over any open cuts or wounds, and a squirt bottle of fresh water to combat salt water that might slide into my eyes.

Ambient music plays as my ears submerge in the salty water. I expected it to be warm, but it’s as Scott at the front counter promised – body temperature. I depress a button in the side of the tank, plunging myself into darkness. It feels like my body is turning, but it’s just my mind. Eyes open, eyes shut, it makes no difference, everything is black. My eyelashes feel fuzzy and large on my cheeks. When I blink, my eyeballs emit an obscenely loud and juicy squishing sound in the dark.

The claustrophobia I anticipated never comes. I feel myself floating on a wealth of stars, in infinite space. And the space within my mind IS infinite.

In meditation (a practice I don’t have the patience for) we are told to follow our breath. In the sensory deprivation pod, my breath is like an anchor, sawing through the water, roaring in my plugged ears. My thoughts float.

A tendency to hallucinate has been documented in REST. I don’t know if I’m hallucinating but images begin to populate my mind, some of them disturbing, and I find myself startled and panting in the grimy air. It’s like I’m having a mental cleanse, or as one friend puts it later, it’s like meditation on steroids.

Eventually the filter whirs back on and the water begins to vibrate, a cue that my time in the pod is over. I’m encouraged to take my time getting dressed and invited to indulge in the oxygen bar in the lobby.

“How was it?” Scott at the front counter asks.

“It was weird.”

“I hope good weird,” He says.

“I think so… I have to marinate on it,” I say.

I’ve never been to therapy, but I’ve heard that each session leaves you feeling raw and kind of vulnerable. That’s the way I feel as I stand there dripping in the lobby.

“Do you think you’d try it again?” Scott asks.

“Yeah, actually I think I would.”

That night I sleep like a baby, like I left all the creepy wolf heads and water snakes that occupy my subconscious in the pod’s saltwater. Even my shoulders stop aching.

A week later, I’m using my energized theta brainwaves to write this blog and looking forward to my next REST session.

Evonne Ermey took her float at True Rest float spa in San Diego)

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