Float your boat
The best bath you’ve ever had or the gateway to the Upside Down? Stranger things have happened. Jessica Howley dives into flotation therapy...
Floatation therapy ain’t just for accessing the Upside Down now!
When astronauts talk about space, they always seem to come back to the floating thing. There’s something special, they say, about being alone with your thoughts in a body that feels weightless. I haven’t been to space, but I do feel like I’ve done the next best thing.
The idea of floating in an isolation tank is nothing new. If Ab Fab made it cool the first time around (the ISO
Tank ep – enjoy), Stranger Things is responsible for the second coming of this trend. But even though floating in a tank won’t transport you to the Upside Down, when it comes to floating and mental health, it’s not all science fiction.
Until fairly recently, its stressrelieving benefits were purely anecdotal. But groundbreaking research from neuropsychologists at the Laureate Institute for Brain Research in the US has shown that something special happens in the brain when the body floats. The research is ongoing, but early studies suggest that it dims anxiety in the brain in a way that could rival prescription drugs and meditation.
I’m intrigued. After a period of anxiety attacks a couple of years ago, I was referred to a mindfulness course by my doctor. While it made a huge difference, I’ve been on the lookout for anxiety-easing techniques ever since – and I’m yet to find one that’s stuck.
Picture an alien’s bed and that’s the pod-like pool I climb into one dreary Tuesday evening. The water is 25cm deep and filled with Epsom salts; and both the air and the water are heated to skin temperature (35.5°C), meaning it’s impossible to tell which parts of your body are in the water and which aren’t.
It’s unlike any bath I’ve ever drawn (even when I use the fancy bubbles). I pull the door closed behind me so that I’m floating in total darkness. I expect to feel claustrophobic, but it’s almost like I’m back in the womb.
It’s right about now that things are quietening down in my amygdala. Back at the Laureate Institute,
FMRI scans done on the brains of volunteers before and after taking a dip show that floating quietens the activity in this region – the same one that’s activated by the fight or flight response. And I feel as calm and placid as the water around me.
I go in feeling apprehensive about the 55 minutes stretched out in front of me. But by the time I’m sipping on a green tea in the chill-out room afterwards, I’m so at peace that I feel almost nervous stepping back out into the big wide world. In the following weeks, I return, and each time I slip into the water, that familiar calm washes over me. And it isn’t confined to my time in the tank. The mind-spinning chaos of my commute is notably absent; deadlines no longer fill me with dread. It could be a placebo effect, or perhaps it’s just the knowledge that, in the act of booking my next session, I’m carving out an hour of my week to be totally alone with my thoughts.
I’m fully submerged in this wellness trend. When buying in bulk, an hour in a flotation tank costs about $60, or the same as
I’d spend at the pub on a Friday. Knowing that one will leave me peaceful and the other, well, pissed, it’s a no-brainer really.