I Tried A Deprivation Tank For My Anxiety

Photo: Courtesy of Floatworks.
As far as words that strike fear into your heart go, I suppose "deprivation tank" are not the first that come to mind. An invitation to lie buoyed by water saltier than the Dead Sea in a pitch-black tank is supposedly the ultimate relaxation technique, but floatation tanks – or "sensory deprivation tanks" or "isolation tanks", whatever you want to call them – have always sounded terrifying to me. Obviously, I accepted the invitation. If it doesn’t challenge you, it doesn’t change you, and all that.

Floatation tanks were invented in 1954 by Dr. John C. Lilly, an American neuroscientist who also dabbled with psychedelics. His propensity towards the non-scientific (neuropsychologist Justin Feinstein, who’s currently studying the effects of floatation on the brain, calls him “wackadoodle”) meant floatation was dismissed by the medical community as hippie codswallop for some time. Feinstein’s studies, though, have shown it may be beneficial for people suffering with anxiety. In his floatation laboratory at the Laureate Institute of Brain Research in Oklahoma, he scans the brains of participants before and after they float, and has noticed that activity in the amygdala – the part of the brain that triggers the fight-or-flight response – is reduced. Floatation still isn’t fully embraced by the scientific community; a 2015 article detailing Feinstein’s work revealed it wasn’t funded by the National Institute of Health in the U.S., and the sample groups used in the research tend to be small. Chilling out is the primary reason people float. “There’s a neuron network that’s highly activated when people are suffering a bout of anxiety, OCD or depression,” says Ed Hawley, who runs the Floatworks in Vauxhall. “After floating that neural network is really dampened down. For a long time it’s been known that if you take someone’s blood after floating, there’s a lot less cortisol in it, which is the stress hormone.” He’s talking about Dr. Thomas Fine, who conducted studies on floatation from the 1970s through to the 1990s. It isn’t just for anxiety, though. Most floatation centres also claim that floating is beneficial for sportspeople, citing the athlete Carl Lewis, who used floatation tanks in the run-up to his winning 100m sprint at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. There is a study that supports the theory that floatation after exercise helps: levels of blood lactate, which is produced during exercise, were found to be lower in the test group that floated. Again, though, the sample size was small. As an anxiety and OCD sufferer, I’ll try anything – within reason – that might calm me down. My OCD doesn’t manifest itself with physical actions; instead, I suffer with what some call ‘pure O’, where I get disturbing intrusive thoughts. I was worried that being in the dark with no other distractions would send my OCD into overdrive, and that I’d ruin the experience by spending the hour locked in a mental battle. I felt mildly apprehensive as I set off to the Floatworks in Vauxhall. Inside my personal ‘float room’, as well as the giant clog-like tank, was a shower, so I stripped off, hosed down, and climbed into the watery enclosure. I’d been assured by Ed that the water was filtered to within an inch of its life; his exact description of the tank’s sanitation was that it’s “the same filter system that you’d use to take dirty water and make it drinking water.” But, as someone who’ll happily share my toothbrush with friends and pluck the day’s outfit from my floordrobe, it wasn’t my primary concern.
Photo: Courtesy of Floatworks.
Given that my main concern was feeling weird about being shut in a dark, wet pod, I was surprised when I pulled the lid shut without hesitation. It opens easily with a gentle push, and I didn’t feel imprisoned. Soft pan pipe music filled the tank; the idea is that you let the music lull you into a relaxed state, then turn the light off when it stops. I decided to follow the instructions and was plunged into inky blackness. I extended my arms and felt nothing but the skin-temperature water; the size of the tank and position of the light switch were impossible to determine in the dark. I sat up, panicking, jabbing at the ceiling to open the lid. So far, so the polar opposite of relaxation. I did slightly better at round two. I mentally repeated to myself that I was just in a giant bath, and it would still be a giant bath with the light on or off. I lay back in the dark and breathed slowly, aware of a loud gurgling. It took me a minute to realise it was my stomach. Pro tip: don’t wolf a croissant and a smoothie ten minutes before floating. What if someone comes into this room, locks me in the tank and starts filling it with water? I thought. Weirdly, I wasn’t panicking. I was just musing. I watch too many horror films, I responded mentally. This isn’t Final Destination: The Floatation Tank edition. My toe hit the tank wall, reminding me that I wasn’t in infinite space. Truthfully, I never felt I was; the idea of fully ‘letting go’ freaks me out, and I knew that, despite feeling pleasantly devoid of anxiety or twitchiness, I was still making a conscious effort not to completely zone out. I didn’t fully let down my mental barriers, but not a single intrusive thought wormed its way into my mind, which felt like a small personal achievement. I had reached the point of genuinely enjoying floating by the time the pan pipes wafted back into the tank. I put the light on and noticed how smooth my skin looked; the magnesium-rich Epsom salts in the water don’t just make you float, but apparently they’re also a great exfoliant. I was calm; my palms weren’t sweating and my stomach wasn’t rolling like they so often do as I claw through each day in a heightened state of anxiety. I didn’t feel in a rush to go anywhere, so I sat in the ‘chillout room’ and read my emails without feeling that I had to answer them immediately. In the interests of transparency, I should mention that I floated for free in order to write this piece, and as much as I found it moderately enjoyable, I’m not sure I’d pay £50 (the Floatworks’ rate for a single floatation session) to do it again. Monthly memberships that range from £40 to £200, depending on how frequently you want to float, are also available.

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