Could You Benefit From Sensory Deprivation Tank Therapy?

Float therapy can help relieve stress, anxiety and even decrease feelings of physical pain
Illustration of a person floating in water

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, the solution might be REST — and we’re not talking about a nap.

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REST is shorthand for “restricted environmental stimulation therapy.” The meditation technique is connected to the use of water-filled sensory deprivation tanks, where you float in dark silence, removed from external stimuli.

The idea behind float therapy is to enter a state of relaxation that puts your mind and body at ease. Here’s the question, though: Does the concept sink or swim?

Let’s find out with integrative medicine specialist Irina Todorov, MD.

What is sensory deprivation therapy?

The world is filled with distractions that can overload your senses. When you enter a sensory deprivation tank and close the hatch, you’re sealed off from those pesky outside influences and distractions.

The tank is dark and quiet, giving your eyes and ears a welcome rest. The chamber is filled with a shallow pool of water saturated with Epsom salt, offering buoyancy that helps you effortlessly float.

The temperature of the water and chamber is set to match your skin temperature, too, allowing you to better mesh with your surroundings.

“The intent is to give you a break and let you reset,” says Dr. Todorov. “You’re removing the clutter and noise and distractions of daily life. Everything is stripped away. It’s just you, untethered.”

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How does floating help?

The feeling of weightlessness that comes with floating heightens that sense of detachment from the world. Essentially, it creates an environment where you’re not even bound by the laws of gravity.

“By not really touching a hard surface, it helps complete that feeling of disconnect,” explains Dr. Todorov.

Benefits of float therapy

So, why would you want to slip into a sensory deprivation tank and float around for 30 minutes to an hour? Well, here are a few reasons.

A mental boost

Researchers found that a float therapy session can help decrease:

On the flip side, studies also show that feelings of optimism often increase following float therapy. Those good vibes can work to enhance creativity, focus and even help boost athletic performance.

Dr. Todorov traces the positive results of sensory deprivation tank therapy to setting aside time to just be mindful and in the moment. “It’s all about giving yourself the time to break away and mentally reset,” she says.

Better sleep

A clear mind can help put ZZZs within reach. A 2016 study found that float therapy can have “significant beneficial effects” for sleep difficulties, in addition to reducing symptoms of general anxiety disorder.

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Pain relief

Feeling better mentally can translate into feeling better physically. Studies show that sessions in a sensory deprivation tank can reduce the perceived intensity of severe chronic pain from aching muscles.

Researchers attributed the results to the drop in stress and an overall feeling of relaxation that soothed tense muscles.

“It’s the mind-body connection,” says Dr. Todorov. “Pain increases anxiety and stress, and the situation can spiral. But if you can control that stress, the pain level can come down a little bit and make you more comfortable.”

Float therapy: Not for everyone

If you’ve been reading this article and thinking there’s absolutely no way you could spend 30 minutes to an hour inside a dark tank … well, you’re not alone. “It’s definitely not for someone who has feelings of claustrophobia,” says Dr. Todorov.

Sensory deprivation tanks also aren’t recommended if you have:

  • Open wounds or skin conditions.
  • An infectious disease.
  • A seizure disorder.

Is float therapy worth trying?

Meditation comes in many varieties and forms, says Dr. Todorov. If you’re open to using a sensory deprivation tank, there’s little risk in giving float therapy a try as part of a mindfulness program.

“Different people find different ways to manage stress,” notes Dr. Todorov. “Float therapy is just another option to consider.”

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