Is Floatation Therapy the Ultimate Mind Hack?
A beginner’s guide to trying out float tanks, and the science behind the results
The room was pitch black and eerily quiet. The only noise, in fact, was the occasional sound of sloshing water when I moved. I was laying on my back, naked except for a pair of goggles covering my eyes and earplugs in my ears.
In addition to the darkness and silence, I couldn’t feel much—I was floating in about a foot of salt water. This is was as close to total sensory deprivation as I had ever been, or am ever likely to get. I had been lying there for nearly an hour, and I was loving every minute of it.
This is floatation therapy — the practice of floating on your back in a saltwater-filled sensory deprivation tank, for an hour or more at a time, in order to achieve a sense of inner peace. Amazingly enough, it actually works.
To me, the experience felt like tens of hours of meditation practice, crammed into a single hour. The lack of sensory input — or anything at all to do, really — allowed me to be alone with my thoughts for the first time I could remember. It was glorious. Time flew by so quickly, I was disappointed when my hour was up; I could have sworn it had only been twenty minutes.
When I told mother about it, her response wasn’t quite what I expected. “Alone with YOUR thoughts? And that was relaxing?” Thanks, Mom.
Floatation therapy has been around for quite a while, but only in the last six or seven years has it really gotten popular enough to be somewhat mainstream. Now it’s touted by a variety of biohackers and productivity gurus as a sort of non-chemical nootropics, a mind hack for killing anxiety and improving focus and mental clarity.
And they may be right. A growing body of research now suggests that floatation therapy may be an effective tool for fighting anxiety and depression, fewer side effects than drug-based treatments. I’ll explain more about that research below; but first, some background that will be helpful.
So, What Exactly Is Floatation Therapy?
In short: it’s the most complete form of sensory deprivation you can achieve without using drugs. The effects are sort of like a supercharged form of meditation.
So, here’s how floatation therapy works.
First, you need to find a place that has float tanks. Usually, that means a dedicated “float spa” that specializes in float therapy. In some cases, these places will also have infrared saunas.
You book a session ahead of time, usually for an hour, but sometimes an hour and a half or even two hours. At the appointed time, you show up, take a quick shower, and change into a bathrobe and slippers. An attendant escorts you into a small, private room with a float tank inside. It looks something like this:
The attendant opens the tank for you, then leaves the room, leaving you a pair of goggles and a pair of earplugs. You take off the robe and slipper, put on the goggles and earplugs, and get in the tank.
Now, the next part is obviously quite individual, but here’s how the whole experience feels for most people.
After closing the door, you lay back and float in the water. At first, you’ll probably expect, intuitively, that you’d just float on the bottom. But, in fact, the water in float tanks is so salty that you can easily float on your back, even though it’s only about a foot deep.
When you first settle into position in the now pitch-black and perfectly quiet float tank, your mind will probably be racing. Truly clearing one’s thoughts and just being doesn’t come naturally to most of us. In my experience, it usually takes about 20–30 minutes to really calm down and let my mind empty out.
Once you do though, you’ll begin to relax. After a while longer, if you’re like me, you’ll feel a sense of peace and serenity unlike any you’ve ever felt before.
At least, until you drift into the wall of the tank, briefly jolting you out of that state. That will happen, and the first time it does, it’ll take about five minutes to get back the same state of relaxation you were in before. By the end of the session, bumping the wall of the float tank will distract you for thirty seconds at most. A few sessions later, it will barely even register.
Now, your mind won’t stay completely empty the whole time. Thoughts will intrude into your mind. I need to answer those emails when I get home. What am I going to do for dinner tonight? How many people have peed in this float tank?
These thoughts will enter your mind almost nonstop at first, but less and less as the session goes on. And what you’ll notice is that intrusive thoughts just don’t seem to “stick” like they normally do. They’ll be in your head for a few seconds, then go away on their own.
It’s nearly impossible to have any sense of time in the float tank. Before you know it, the attendant will come and knock on the side of the tank, letting you know it’s time to get out. You’ll likely be disappointed by this, but you’ll get out and head to the shower to clean off the salt residue before changing back into your clothes.
Upon leaving the float spa, I feel an incredible sense of calm — or to put it another way, an extreme absence of anxiety, combined with a mild sense of happiness and levity. This generally lasts a few days after the first session.
As I’ve done repeated sessions, I’ve found that I’m able to relax faster and more easily, slipping into that calm, meditative state in more like ten minutes. Better yet, the aftereffects start to last a little bit longer after each session. I’ve done about a dozen float sessions, and for me, that sense of calm lasts about a week after each float.
Now, what I just described is how the process works, and the subjective experiences that most people report. But objectively, what does it do for people? Until recently there was no data on that, but in the last few years, science has started to shed some light on that question.
The Benefits of Float Therapy
So just how effective is float therapy then? Obviously, people feel more relaxed from it, but are the benefits measurable and clinically significant?
Actually, yes. In one study, fifty participants took an anxiety inventory before and after a one-hour float session. The subjects experienced clinically and statistically significant reductions in anxiety following the session. Moreover, 96% of the test subjects chose to stay in the tank for the full hour (they all had the option to end early), and 100% of them asked to do more float sessions in the future.
The big downsides to that study are, of course, that it only examined participants immediately after the float session and that it lacked a control group. Other studies have looked at the longer-term effects of floatation therapy.
In a 2014 pilot study, 14 men and 51 women were randomized into a control group which did not undergo float sessions and an experimental group which underwent twelve 45-minute sessions over the course of seven weeks. Due to the length of the study, the researchers were able to measure lifestyle effects such as the impact on participants’ sleep quality, mindfulness, and energy levels.
At the end of the study, the subjects who did float sessions experienced significant improvements in multiple psychological parameters. To quote the study’s conclusion, “Stress, depression, anxiety, and pain were significantly decreased, whereas optimism and sleep quality significantly increased for the flotation-REST group. No significant results for the control group were seen. There was also a significant correlation between mindfulness in daily life and degree of altered states of consciousness during the relaxation in the flotation tank.”
A separate study from 2016 followed much the same format, with subjects who suffered from generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) undergoing twelve float sessions over seven weeks. Subjects experienced significant improvements not only in the symptoms of GAD but also related symptoms. Significant improvements were seen in sleep, emotional regulation, and depression, while no improvement or non-significant improvements were seen in pathological worry and mindfulness.
Crucially, this study inventoried the subjects' symptoms at four points: pre-treatment, mid-treatment, post-treatment, and six months after the treatment. Even six months later, significant improvements were still seen in GAD, sleep and emotional regulation, though the improvement in depressive symptoms had faded by then.
The research on this subject is still in its infancy, and more studies obviously need to be done. Nonetheless, there is compelling evidence that floatation therapy is effective for anxiety and depression, as well as related problems like insomnia and mood swings.
Moreover, float therapy seems to lack the side effects typically seen in drug treatments. It shows promise as an alternative therapy for patients who respond poorly to drugs, as well as a complementary therapy alongside both psychotherapy and pharmacological treatments.
It is also conceivable that float therapy may have synergistic effects with other treatments, possibly allowing patients to use lower doses of anxiolytic and anti-depressant drugs — but that’s something that sorely needs to be studied directly.
Realistically, it will be at least another ten years before we have a good amount of data on how float therapy interacts with other treatments. What we can say right now, though, is that it works. It works both for people with clinical symptoms of depression and anxiety as well as for alleviating the sub-clinical level of chronic stress that all too many of us suffer from.
As for how it works, as far as anyone can tell the mechanism is essentially the same as meditation. By calming the mind, float therapy reduces anxiety and alleviates related symptoms such as depression and disordered sleep.
Although no individual study has yet directly compared float therapy to traditional meditation, the research so far suggests that float therapy can produce more rapid progress. Both logic and anecdotal evidence suggest it works best when paired with a regular meditation practice.
Reviews and Testimonials: What Real People Have Said About Their Float Therapy Experiences
So far I’ve shared my experience with floating, described a typical first-time experience, and showed you the research.
If you’re interested in hearing how others have experienced it, the r/FloatTank community on Reddit is a good source of that and more.
Additionally, health vlogger Jack Jones tried a self-experiment in which he floated for 90 minutes every day, for 30 days. His documentary on the experiment is available for free on YouTube, and it’s well worth the watch if you’re interested in experimenting with float therapy yourself.
Experiences are mostly—but not universally—positive. Claustrophobia is obviously an issue for some. Also, since floating is essentially a supercharged form of meditation, it can be redundant for people who are already very experienced meditators.
Overall, I’d say about 80% of the experiences I’d heard about were positive, 10% were actively negative (i.e. people had claustrophobia issues), and the remaining 10% were of the “it just didn’t do anything for me” variety.
A Few Tips For Float Therapy Newbies
Based on both the research on other people’s experiences, float therapy is well worth trying if there’s a float spa near you. Here are a few tips for getting the most out of your experience.
- Talk to a doctor first if you suffer from claustrophobia or schizophrenia, or if you’re on psychoactive medications.
- Practice meditation for at least a few days before you try floating. Even a basic understanding of meditation techniques will help you get “in the zone” much faster.
- Look for deals on Groupon — you can usually find one if you’re in a major urban area.
- Plan to do a few sessions, spaced 4–7 days apart, before deciding if float therapy is right for you. The sessions build on each other.
- Don’t drink or do drugs before floating. Also avoid large meals, junk food or caffeine on the day you float. I was amazed at how many people on Reddit talked about getting high before floating. This strikes me as a singularly bad idea.
- Float for 60 minutes at first. Consider bumping that up to 90 minutes after one or two sessions, especially if the attendant comes to inform you that your session has ended and you find yourself wishing you could stay in the tank longer.
- Keep some sort of journal over the first few weeks of your floating experiment, beginning a week before your first float. Record how happy, anxious, productive, mindful, etc. you are, to get a clear idea of how it affects you.
- Combine your float session with a daily meditation practice. Sessions don’t have to be long; meditating for even 5–15 minutes a day can make a huge difference. The two will build on each other; meditating will help you get into your float sessions faster while floating will teach you to meditate better.
Float therapy is, in my opinion, something that nearly everyone should try. Your mileage may vary, but most people who try it find that a few weeks of float sessions provide similar benefits to months or years of meditation. For some people, float therapy may well be the ultimate mind hack.