Is sensory deprivation the key to tackling stress and anxiety?

I’ve been on the quest for relaxation and inner peace for years.

My phone has become a graveyard for numerous unused meditation apps. My inbox is flooded with reminders and offers from yoga studios that I signed up for years ago.

With a mind that never settles down and with the permanent stresses and distractions of everyday life, true serenity seems like an impossible task.

But amongst all this, there was still one method I had yet to cross off my list: floatation therapy (otherwise known as sensory deprivation). 

Floatation therapy is the practice of laying in a ‘floatation tank’ (sensory deprivation tank) and allowing yourself to fall into a peaceful ‘healing’ state while being removed from all stimulation and senses. Sessions are usually one hour, but floatation aficionados can ‘float’ for longer.

With floatation therapy becoming more popular, you can find centres popping up all over, with prices ranging from £50+ per hour session.

But what actually is this horrific-sounding experience? And does it work?

What is floatation therapy and what are the benefits?

Sensory deprivation involves lying in a floatation tank; a pod containing a shallow pool of water mixed with half a tonne of Epsom salt, making you entirely buoyant.

The ‘pod’ is also devoid of sound and light, immersing you in complete sensory deprivation. 

There are numerous benefits associated with ‘floating’, from pain reduction to muscle relaxation and improved sleep. These bodily perks aren’t just limited to the physical – floating has even been known to aid mental wellbeing such as decreasing anxiety and stress.

Naturopathic doctor, Dr Lana Butner, tells ‘This type of therapy can be a sort of meditative experience. While floating, your brain is not being flooded with as much stimuli as you’re accustomed to since you cannot hear or see as much as you would normally.

‘Your perception of your body in space is also altered, which provides a greater separation from reality. All you can really hear is your heart beating and your inhales and exhales.

‘These conditions are perfect for turning inward and focusing on your breath.’

What happened when I tried floatation therapy

Floating sounded like just the type of thing I needed, so I was soon on my way to my first session.

The floatation centre I chose provided the aesthetic and feel of a day spa. Everything was made of wood and smelt like essential oils. I was promptly taken to my own private room, where under the soft lighting there stood a luxurious shower, bench for belongings, and the pod.

Ah, the pod. Giant, glistening white, and smooth as an egg. The whole set-up felt very Star-Trek-meets-Black-Mirror.

The attendant gave me instructions on how to use the floatation tank, which were simple. The lid could be opened and closed with ease at any point, with two large buttons on the inside – one to provide an internal neon blue light, and one for the emergency alarm.

Once alone, I entered the pod. Swimwear is perfectly acceptable, however it’s recommended to float naked to fully allow yourself to be immersed in the sensation. Or lack thereof. Not wanting to prevent myself from experiencing the floatation therapy in all its glory, I stripped off and shut myself into the futuristic flotation tomb.

The first thing I noticed was the intensity of the buoyancy. With all the Epsom salt, it’s impossible to sink under the water. The feeling of complete weightlessness felt completely, well, weird.

I allowed myself to move around on the water’s surface, fascinated by the lightness of my own body while listening to the soundscape-esque music that plays for the first ten and last five minutes of the one-hour session. Realising I would have to turn the lights off eventually, I worked up the courage to do so and pressed the button, submerging myself in complete darkness. 

Being the coward I am, it wasn’t hard for my imagination to run away with me as I floated into the abyss. Was I really in the pod, or was I suddenly floating through a dark cave? Was I in the middle of the ocean at night, with sharks and eels swimming underneath? The minor fear was amplified once the music stopped and I was suddenly in a state of further nothing-ness.

However, this stress didn’t last long. Once I got used to my empty surroundings and lack of stimulation, I quickly grew comfortable with the knowledge that I was safe. 

With no sensation, everything seemed almost exaggerated. Each sound – my stomach rumbling, my hand twitching against the water – was amplified greatly. At one point, I reached up and stretched my body out, hearing each crack of the vertebrae in my spine click into place echoing around the pod. 

I tried to meditate. Tried to coerce my mind into being quiet. In a way, it both worked brilliantly and horribly. With nothing to focus on but the strangeness of the sensation I was experiencing, I felt very present in that moment. My mind wasn’t exactly wandering, but there was also so much going on that it was impossible to stop thinking altogether.

If anything, I became acutely aware of my thoughts. There was nothing to distract me from the loudness of my own voice. After all, how often is it that we can have a moment to think to ourselves, with nothing at all to take us out of our trance?

As time ticked on, I found myself eventually trying to guess how long I had been inside the pod for. With no stimulation, it was impossible to guess. An hour is a long time to be with yourself and only yourself.

When the music came back on, signalling my session’s near end, I was relieved and also disappointed. I didn’t want to leave the comforting void, but I also wanted to look at and touch things in the real world to bring me back to earth.

After utilising the lush shower and toiletries, I truly felt like I’d just had a luxury spa experience. I didn’t take advantage of the ‘relaxation room’ or herbal tea area, but these were available for my leisure if I had wanted to.

When I stepped into the outside world, assaulted with the sound of traffic crossings and honking cars the spell was, surprisingly, not broken. For the rest of the day I found myself moving around as if I was still floating, incredibly aware of my words and physicality. 

For all this, I can’t work out if floatation therapy is a terrific hack – a shortcut to getting a luxury spa feeling for a cheaper price – or a classic wellness fad. There had been no world-shattering epiphanies inside the pod, or a sudden understanding and love for meditation.

However, the benefit seemed to lie in the physical rather than mental experience. Through ‘floating’, I had enabled myself to become totally and completely connected with my own body. 

The more still I had become, the stranger it felt. At one point it felt as if I was completely motionless, but also hurtling forward through the vast darkness at lightning speed. I had stared at the black space around me until lights began to dance in my vision. Soon, I struggled to tell if my eyes were open or closed. It seemed as if I was starting to hear my heart beating under my chest and the blood pumping through my veins.

I hadn’t been able to escape myself. Instead, I felt I had been forced to spend time with myself more than I ever had.

But is floatation therapy practical? As someone with no specific goals to achieve, it felt like a unique and somewhat relaxing experience, sure. But I can’t see myself wanting to repeat the experience anytime soon.

For those with certain needs or conditions (such as athletes or those in pain), the experience might be much more valuable.

I asked Dr Brooke Stubbs, an internal medicine physician, if she thought some people are likely to benefit more than others.

‘All the things that [floatation therapy] studies are measuring (pain, happiness level, optimism, etc) are extremely subjective experiences and limited at that,’ Dr Brooke explains. These studies seem to help more with people who rank very highly on the scale of depressive or pain symptoms, so I might recommend this to specific patients who have tried multiple modalities without relief.’

There’s also the cost to consider. The cost of a float can start from £50+ per hour, with many centres offering monthly memberships. With these prices and encouragement to float on the regular, it’s not hard to see how this could be just another expensive wellness pastime for the rich, rather than a mental health boosting habit that can be considered accessible. 

Floatation therapy, as a one-off, is a wildly unusual and potentially wonderfully relaxing experience if you allow yourself to embrace the concept.

But as a long-term solution to wellness woes, it’s unlikely to be suited to everyone’s needs. 

That said, if you become hooked on sensory deprivation and want your own personal pod to have at home, these can range from around £10,000- £20,000+. It seems there really is a price on inner peace.

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