What would you say if I told you closing yourself in a dark, enclosed space where you can float in saltwater isolation is good for you? You might wonder if I was serious. As more spas and wellness centers advertise sensory deprivation tanks, people may be skeptical about the supposed health benefits. Fear and claustrophobia may also come to mind. However, this wellness technique has a surprising amount of supportive science behind it.
This mode of therapy is known by several names, including floating, float tank, isolation tank, sensory isolation, sensory deprivation and restricted environmental stimulation technique (REST). To limit negative associations with the term “sensory deprivation” the newer term “REST” has become more popular.
Imagine a large bathtub filled with warm salt water that has a density high enough that you can float on your back on the water. The tank is large so that you can stretch out as you float without touching any part of the chamber. This allows for full relaxation of the muscles in the body. The tub lid is closed, creating a dark and quiet atmosphere you comfortably relax in for an hour. The absence of light and sound in the chamber is the “sensory deprivation” that is paired with the floating in salt water.
Sensory deprivation isn’t just a chance to destress by yourself. It could improve your physical health, too. Studies show that as few as five float sessions may reduce chronic pain and can lower stress hormone levels and reduce perception of severe pain in people with chronic neck and back issues. Here are some of the other ways REST may benefit your health and well-being:
- Mood improvement: One study found that 12 floating sessions reduced anxiety, stress and depression, while also increasing optimism and mindfulness.
- Blood pressure: Ten sessions in a flotation tank led to lower systolic and diastolic blood pressure.
- Headaches: After four weeks of floating, people with chronic headaches saw a substantial decrease in the number of headaches they experienced. This effect lasted as long as six months after the treatments.
- Insomnia: Multiple studies find sensory deprivation improved the ability to fall asleep and stay asleep, with beneficial effects lasting for many months after the treatments.
If you are struggling with any of these symptoms, or just need some time to relax by yourself, you might want to talk to your doctor about getting some REST.
Erica A. Wehrwein, PhD, is an associate professor of physiology at Michigan State University. Her research interests are on the connection between breathing and the nervous system, interactions of mindset and personality on physiological health outcomes and neural control of blood pressure.