From generalized anxiety to social anxiety, anxiety disorders are the most common mental health conditions in the United States. Forty million U.S. adults live with some form of anxiety and, according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America, only 37% of those individuals seek help.
Psychotherapy can be daunting, and some medications may actually induce anxiety-like symptoms. However, a new form of therapy might change how people living with anxiety learn to cope with the condition.
Twenty-three year old Michael Harding served in the Australian army, where he endured hour-long sieges and witnessed the death of friends while stationed in Afghanistan. One night, he experienced tremors that shook his whole body, which then led to twitches so spastic he couldn’t drink water without missing his mouth.
In 2012, Michael was medically discharged with the diagnosis of severe post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and a new, withdrawn personality. He began to have trouble sleeping, and experienced nightmares and night sweats.
Michael sought out help as his symptoms worsened. He tried two kinds of talk therapy and four kinds of medications. When those failed, he turned to yoga and meditation. While those methods of therapy helped, he was still experiencing symptoms of anxiety and muscle spasms.
Michael’s wife began searching online forums in hopes of discovering a treatment that would work best for PTSD. During her research she stumbled across testimonials for floating, a therapy where individuals lay belly-up in a tank filled with warm water so salty they float.
At first, Michael was suspicious of float therapy and how it worked. Last March, however, he had his first float session. After three floats, Michael said his anxiety and hypervigilance had subsided. Three months later, his night sweats also vanished.
“After floating, I was really mellowed out,” Michael said. “I’m not really sure how it does it, but I do know that floating has allowed me to feel in a more confident, comfortable headspace.”
Floating isn’t technically a new therapy, but it has gained popularity throughout the years. According to Aaron Thompson, who runs an online directory of floatation centers, there were only 85 float centers in the U.S. in 2011. Today, there’s more than 250.
A small group of scientists have developed an interest in uncovering whether or not float therapy has a true place in medicine for disorders like anxiety, depression and PTSD.
At the moment, any proof that float therapy helps people with anxiety or depression is anecdotal. However, neuropsychologists, like Justin Feinstein, are researching how floating can affect the brain.
Feinstein has devoted his career to the therapeutic potential of floating, and recently opened the only float lab in the U.S. His custom-made float pool is unlike the coffin-like pods that are on the float tank market. Instead, his pool is open to ensure that people with anxiety disorders will feel comfortable while floating.
When entering Feinstein’s float room, you’ll be greeted by warm air and a small, circular pool filled with 2,000 pounds of Epsom salt. When you’re in the pool, you float without having to strain or tense a muscle. With the touch of a button, the blue light in the room fades to black.
While you can’t see anything as you float, Feinstein can see what is going on in your brain.
To track his research, Feinstein has floaters stick small, waterproof sensors and an EEG device on their foreheads to measure brain waves. After people float, they enter an MRI machine.
Feinstein and his team are more than halfway through the first experiment to combine fMRI brain imaging, a technique for measuring and mapping brain activity in a safe and noninvasive way, and float tanks. They scan each person’s brain before and after they float to see how floating changes areas of activation in the brain.
Advances in neuroscience have allowed scientists to look inside a human brain during physical activity to see how it responds. Research from fMRI studies show that activities such as yoga or meditation activate parts of the brain associated with attention, and decrease activation in the amygdala. These kind of activities can help ease symptoms of anxiety and depression.
Feinstein’s research has led him to believe that float therapy could help individuals with anxiety, depression or PTSD reach a meditative state.
“Floating has given me hope that a whole chunk of our population that normally would never be able to meditate could now achieve those sorts of deep meditative states,” Feinstein said.
While his research is in its early stages, Feinstein and his team have seen that floating helps lower anxiety in the brain in a way that rivals some prescription drugs and medication.
In 2005, Feinstein and his team tested lorazepam on a number of healthy volunteers to understand what happened to the brain when a person took the medication. Neither the researchers nor the participants knew who was given lorazepam or a placebo. However, the differences in their brains were unmistakable.
On lorazepam, volunteers’ amygdalas basically shut off, which doesn’t happen with relaxation alone. The main issue with lorazepam is that, while it is highly effective at taming anxiety symptoms, it can be addictive.
Feinstein conducted a more recent study that replicated the lorazepam experiment, but instead of drugs he used flotation.
Before the experiment started, he scanned everyone’s brain and split the group of volunteers in half. Both groups received what they thought was the intervention: either a 90-minute float or the same amount of time in a reclining chair. After three sessions, Feinstein scanned their brains again.
“Essentially what we found in the preliminary data is that the amygdala is shutting off post-float,” he said. “It’s nice to see that that can be done in a way that doesn’t require medication.”
For the scientific community to fully embrace floating, more studies like Feinstein's are needed.
The Hollywood movie “Altered States” follows the life of credited float therapy founder, John C. Lilly. The movie didn’t help with the negative perception of floating. In it, a scientist experiments with drugs and sensory deprivation tanks, and eventually goes mad.
Due to the perception the movie created about flotation and its founder, when Thomas H. Fine started flotation therapy research in the ’70s, his submission for flotation therapy funding was often met with the response, “This is a hippie fad.”
Through the ‘90s, Fine published studies about floating. In one study, subjects were given eight 40-minute float sessions. After drawing their blood, he found a 22% drop in their levels of the stress-signaling hormone, cortisol.
While his sample size was usually small, his research has shown that flotation can help improve blood pressure, mood, pain, muscle tensions and stress-related hormones.
“I think floating has a strong role in good therapy for a number of disorders that we really struggle with in terms of effective therapies,” Fine said.
Feinstein plans to continue his experimentation with float therapy to include individuals with PTSD.
“Our expectation is that all these effects would be heightened in a population with clinical anxiety,” he said.
While there are a few research gaps Feinstein is working to fill, the price of float therapy may also be a deterrent. An hour-long session can cost between $50 to $100.
For Michael Harding, float therapy is worth every penny. He even bought a secondhand tank six months after his first float and floats every week in the basement of his home.
Learn more about float therapy here.