Have you ever been nervous walking into a spa? Spas can be a bit intimidating (what bits of clothing do you leave on? When do you tip? Is the fancy water free?) but until the other day I’d never been truly nervous walking in for an appointment. I haven’t dabbled in the edgier beauty trends, such as the “vampire facial” or anything involving insects, partially because I try to keep things that repulse me out of my well-being treatments. But then I made an appointment to immerse myself in a dark, silent tank full of salty water for an hour.
Entering the building for my first experience in a sensory deprivation tank–also known as flotation therapy, float therapy, or simply “floating”–my heart was definitely racing.
After reading about some possible therapeutic benefits of floating, and the athletes and celebrities who enjoy it, I wanted to try this potentially therapeutic activity. I was intrigued by its odd history, which includes a researcher who was really into dolphins.
But I was nervous.
A few stories I’d heard followed a similar arc: The person got into the tank, freaked out a little, then felt a deep sense of calm toward the end. But what if I really freaked out? I struggle with anxiety and I’m usually strongly averse to any situation that allows my thoughts to wander unchecked for too long. Given too much downtime, my mind is great at jumping straight to the most embarrassing thing I’ve done in the past ten years or lingering on the biggest challenge ahead of me. Sleep is often an issue, and when I’m really anxious, even meditation is difficult.
So why was I paying to sit alone with my thoughts for sixty minutes? Because I’m really interested in anything that might help with anxiety and my sleeping problems, and early research suggests that float therapy might help. Still, it was starting to feel like a mistake.
Upon arrival I was given paperwork, which included a section to check off which benefits I was hoping to receive from the afternoon’s treatment. Reduced stress and anxiety? Yes please. Enhanced creativity and focus? Sure. Each check mark reminded me why I was there and I felt a bit better walking into a private room to lock up my belongings and change into a robe.
At the locker, I paused. I considered slipping my phone into the pocket of the robe for a social media post. But I thought better of disrupting what was supposed to be a calming experience with technology, so I left it in the locker.
The spa I chose has private “float rooms” with pools that look like shallow hot tubs. The tub is surrounded by a flimsy wall inside a soundproof room. This was not one of those enclosed flotation tanks, which look to me like a cross between the bed The Little Mermaid sleeps in and a time machine.
A spa attendant led me into a float room, along with a man who’d arrived while I was changing, to explain the experience. While she told us about the pool–1,200 pounds of Epsom salts dissolved in the 95-degree water–I couldn’t help wondering which boxes this man had checked (was he there, perhaps, to enhance his creativity? Or maybe to lower his blood pressure? Was he nervous, too?)
There were three large, rubber buttons on the side of the pool: one controlled the music, the other the lights, and the third would signal that I needed help. I was immediately sure I would accidentally hit the panic button in the dark and somehow shut down the entire city block.
The woman continued her orientation, explaining that soothing music would play at the beginning and that we should press the button to turn it off once we reached a “meditative state.” This “meditative state” was also mentioned in a brochure I’d grabbed at the front desk, and I was excited about it. If we fell asleep, the lights would come back on at the end of the session and the machine that filters the water would certainly wake us up.
When she left to show the man into his private “float room,” I inserted the provided ear plugs, showered thoroughly as instructed, entered the pool, and turned the lights off.
I’d read that you can’t sink in one of these baths, even with effort, so of course I spent the first minute trying to sink. No luck.
I then tried moving my arms around into different positions. I relaxed as I moved my limbs through the thick water. My whole body felt slippery as I bobbed around like an otter.
Once I settled in, my back began to ache, so I grabbed the inflatable neck pillow provided. But would the touch of this tiny flotation device against my neck ruin my chance at total sensory deprivation? Was I doing it right if I used the neck brace? I took it off and put it back on a few times, all the while thinking about the time that was ticking away as I failed to transcend my physical state or enter blissful calmness or something.
A few of my senses were activated mid-bath. The healing power of bathing with Epsom salts might be disputed, but one thing I can tell you for sure is that you can taste it. And it’s bitter. Keep your mouth closed and try to keep it out of your eyes.
I finally turned the music off, hoping I was settled enough. I was not. After bumping into the wall a couple of times, I started obsessing over staying in the middle of the pool so I could deprive myself of the maximum number of senses. I’d read about people seeing or hearing things during sensory deprivation, like waves of light. I’ve never seen the Northern lights, and had decided this could be a pretty good substitute for the time being. But where were my visual hallucinations? This was nothing like Reykjavik. My feet and head kept gently bumping into the walls.
On the upside, my constant fidgeting didn’t leave a lot of room for panic. For a while, perfectionism trumped anxiety. I did eventually settle down. I decided to keep the neck brace on, and my anxious thoughts stayed manageable. I relaxed a bit, still waiting for the beautiful waves of colorful light. My brain instead delivered small flickers of white light in the periphery of my vision that disappeared when I tried to look directly at them. It turned out there were plenty of places, other than panic, for my mind to go throughout this novel experience.
When the lights came on to signal the end of the session, I wasn’t roused from some out-of-body state, but I was surprised that a full hour had passed.
I could say, if you’re an anxious person, to go on your least stressful day of the week (I went on a Friday). I could say to take a friend with you or make sure you start with some deep breathing, but if you suffer from anxiety you know it can strike anywhere, any time. So just be kind to yourself. If I could go back to when I was walking in, hands shaking, I would remind myself that I could get out at any time and try not to think of that as a failure. Well-being practices aren’t one size fits all.
For me, the main benefit that flotation therapy did seem to deliver (aside from those tiny phantom lights, which were fun) was better sleep. As I mentioned, at times I have trouble falling asleep. I’ve occasionally been advised to set aside some time before sleep to sit somewhere outside of my bed (say, on the couch with a soothing cup of caffeine-free tea) and let my thoughts run wild. Until floating, I’d almost forgotten about this sleep hygiene tip.
I walked into the spa anxious, with just a bit of the typical Friday afternoon fatigue, but I walked out exhausted. I fell asleep easily that night. It was as if my mind had worked out all its energy. Though it’s certainly not fiscally responsible for me to rely on floatation therapy to get to sleep every night, maybe I’ll finally listen to that advice and practice better sleep hygiene by letting my mind wander before getting into bed.
And to those of you who struggle with perfectionism, I most certainly didn’t “float” perfectly, and I got tired anyway. Therapeutic benefit achieved.