DISCLAIMER: This blog is not intended to diagnose or suggest treatments for mental health. Consult a qualified therapist or medical professional before floating.
A good farmer knows not to work their fields too hard.
Every now and then, when the land is stressed, they will lay them fallow, allowing the soil to build up nutrients and restore its vitality. This is what I love about ecology – the earth knows how to heal itself. That’s what it does, despite our often-trampling touch.
I believe this is fundamentally true for humans as well – sometimes we just need to get out of our own way. Our bodies, brains, minds, spirits – all they really need is love, patience, & time – not to mention a little salt. This, to me, is the “magic” of floatation – it’s an incredibly effective way to do nothing and, as it turns out, that nothing is, in fact, quite something. Follow?
Because Float Tank Solutions mainly addresses the technical and logistical aspects of our amazing industry, so much of what we often write, create, and share relates to the nuts & bolts of float center construction, ownership, and operation. It’s helpful, we find, to sometimes zoom out and focus on the fact that, at the end of the day, we are helping people find peace, experience relief, and pursue growth in their lives.
This post will explore the intersection of floating with the concepts, beliefs, and experiences related to mental health and wellness, with a focus on anxiety and depression. I’ll explore my own story as it relates to floating before diving into the current intersections of floating and mental health, with a look at past, current, and potential opportunities for research and personal growth.
The road most traveled
The term “mental health” can conjure thoughts of psychologically damaged individuals and their weaknesses. Culturally, we have treated the concept of mental health firmly within the disease-care model, and this can tend to alienate others while limiting our capacity to look at the broader spectrum of human experience.
Krishnamurti said, “It is no measure of health to be well adjusted to a profoundly sick society.” This quote has always stuck with me, because it measures a person’s wellness as a relative factor to the society at large. There are plenty of American’s without “mental illness” who are functionally “well-adjusted” to our fast-paced society.
We exist in a particular culture in space and time that still has a long way to go towards integrating individual and collective self-awareness into our systems and practices. Floating, to me, is a supporter and accelerator of those capacities. I believe that it, too, has a long way to go in finding its full role on this earth at this time.
I don’t want to spend too much time on my own story but, because this issue is the focal point of how I came to floating in the first place, I’d like to lay out my journey. I also want to note that while I take you back through some darker times, as I write this I couldn’t be happier. I’m sitting on my couch with my two dogs, having just worked in the garden.
When I went to college in 2005, my sense of security, self, and joy seemed to slowly implode – just as I wanted to plant my feet and engage my heart, body, and mind.
A main outlet for me was writing – anything, everything. A quote from my freshman journal gives a good snapshot of a moment when my pen was barely serving to help in a moment between classes:
Do I swallow my sadness and pretend like nothing is wrong? Is there anything wrong? The essence of it is that I can’t find my place in this school because I can’t find myself. What do I need to do? Answer me you f*cking journal! Just kidding. I wish it were so easy as just being true to yourself, but I don’t know what that is. I don’t know who I am.
I have compassion for that 19 year old now.
He sure didn’t for himself, then. But that’s alright.
Depression is a hard thing to talk about. But I feel qualified to represent its ranks to some degree, and it helps to have some perspective fo’ sho. The opening line of David Foster Wallace’s, The Depressed Person puts the experience plainly.
“The depressed person was in terrible and unceasing emotional pain, and the impossibility of sharing or articulating this pain was itself a component of the pain and a contributing factor in its essential horror.”
I had moments where it felt this bad, but much of the time it was a nagging stuckness that I was too busy to really sit with but too distracted by it to focus on other things.
I was active in college. I played a few sports across the years, sang in an a capella group, and had a solid crew of friends. Externally, I was one of the more social people in our class. I love people, adventures, nature, and connection, but I spent a lot of energy trying to show other people that I was ok when I truly wasn’t. This is a naturally recursive phenomenon, so I became less social and, by sophomore and into junior year, I really began to struggle academically.
The journey out of the severest depths of depression was super tough and I owe it to my friends and family for being there for me. In my senior year, I took a class on Buddhism, and fell in love with contemplative practice as a refuge to center myself so I could get through school. I began meditating, doing yoga, reading, writing, and running more. I also met the love of my life – we married last summer. The hardest part of depression is opening up the smallest amount of room to love yourself, let alone others. If you can follow a path of gentle self-love, everything else will hopefully follow.
I remember my dad once saying to me, “You won’t believe this now, but one day you’ll look back on these tough times with gratitude.” He was right. While the depression was damaging, academically and relationally, it also forged a deeper engagement with myself – it invited me to fully explore what it means to be human in this world. I met myself in tough times – I like to benevolently call it my “early life crisis” and be thankful for getting it out of the way.
Fast-forward to 2013.
**** fast-forward sound zlllmnnpppqqqzzzppp ****
I’d been on a number of silent meditation retreats, and taking time to explore my own contemplative space was a way to reconnect with myself and others. When I first heard about floating on the Duncan Trussell Family Hour podcast, I knew I had to try it.
My maiden float was in 2014. I’m preaching to the choir here about how wonderful floating is but, as we all know, that first exposure can be something incredibly special. While I had already come to grips with depression and anxiety and was in a great place in my life at the time, that first float connected me with a deep sense of peace that I hadn’t experienced in years. I was imbued with a pervasive “OK-ness” that held strong for about a week. The world was brighter, my body felt calmer, and I was more focused. I didn’t know how, but I knew that this weird tank thing would be part of my life for ever.
You all know what I’m talking about!
When I knew we would be moving to Portland, OR in the summer of 2016, I started looking for jobs and came across the Float Conference and Float Tank Solutions. An email to Ashkahn and a meeting over coffee later, I was arriving into town the day before Float Conference 2016 started. So grateful to be able to explore and advocate for this wonderful practice.
We are nodes in a bigger field. Let’s explore that.
I am just one story. It’s clear that floatation is a potent tool for emotional, psychological, and physical growth – we all know that. My question is, how can we, as an industry, safely and effectively promote this growth in a way that honors each person and keeps them safe? Also, how can we support and encourage growth in the field of research so that the healing and connecting potential of the tank can reach the broadest amount of people?
I think often of the mission statement of my last employer, The Mind & Life Institute: “…to alleviate suffering and promote flourishing by integrating science with contemplative practice and wisdom traditions.”
I’m eager to see more clinical research investigating how to use floating to alleviate suffering in all types of populations: depression, PTSD, anxiety, eating disorders, etc. More research could be done, consequently, on how floating can promote flourishing: creativity, leadership, group/system functioning, learning, and play.
I hope the future of floatation research has psychologists, neuroscientists, educators, health care providers, and other professional fields coming together to look more deeply at the impact floating has, or could have, on individual and collective lives.
Floatation has it’s roots in self exploration and research, and it’s exciting to think that another wave might be coming back around the corner.
Test tubes and electrodes, yes Igor!
From our upcoming, revised and expanded About Float Tanks Guide:
During the early 50’s there was a major inquiry from the world of neurophysiology as to the source of the brain’s consciousness: is the brain simply an organ reacting to external stimuli or is there some internal force that it sends signals to? Prior to brain mapping and imaging, there was very little empirical data to build theories off of, so it was largely up to experimentation to find out.
While one side of early floatation research was LSD and dolphins in the Virgin Islands, dedicated and controlled clinical float research was also on the rise the early 60’s. As the tank evolved, so did the understanding of how to conduct proper research without priming or traumatizing people. While float research withered with the industry in the 80s and 90s, it too is experiencing a comeback.
For a full list of all the research we’ve tracked down, you can check that out here. It’s clear that there are ample pathways for interesting analysis. Research is important because it ultimately provides a deeper understanding of the effects of floatation and, therefore, furthers our ability to support people in the tank.
There have been a few dedicated studies on burnout, depression, PTSD, and stress-relief in recent years, and it’s exciting to see the work coming out of Dr. Justin Feinstein’s lab at the Laureate Institute for Brain Research (LIBR).
In addition to talks at this year’s Float Conference by members of Dr. Feinstein’s lab, we’re looking forward to an in depth Thursday/Friday activity held by Tom Fine, one of the first float researchers. The workshop will will broadly cover the basics of the physiological and psychological aspects of floating in sufficient detail to provide center operators/technicians with a good foundation for understanding and explaining the scientific basis and clinical effects that occur with regular floating. Tom will also describe approaches that can be used with floating – various forms of relaxation, mindfulness, etc – and how pairing them may have synergistic effects.
For me to sit here and say I know exactly how the future of float research should look isn’t really my place. I’m proud to throw my voice into the mix but, ultimately, it’s one of many larger questions facing our growing community.
As is the case with other modalities and their research (contemplative studies, acupuncture), we find it hard to find reliable controls. In addition to an expansion of the topics, angles, and applications for float tanks, we should be seeking consistent methodologies and procedures for replication across time and demographics.
While hard research is essential, I don’t think it’s needed for us to continue to feel fully invested in our float practice. Floating is a tool – a tool we already know is valuable whether or not others agree. Targeted, well-funded investigation is merely a way to boost and hone floating’s utility and full potential.
Speaking of funding, where to get it? We’ll have to explore this more fully in another post because this is a huge question. The government seems to be dabbling with float tanks for military training, though we don’t know much. Kaiser Permanente ran a major ad campaign with Steph Curry for mental toughness and wellness. We see floating represented, for better or worse, in shows like Stranger Things. Who knows what foundations are looking for the next breakthrough in human performance and learning?
There isn’t a lot to say about funding other than that in order to grow the field of research, we need to hone in on interest and money. Whether this comes from academic, non-profit, for profit, or government sources, a discussion would be useful to bridge the gap between desired research and funding opportunities. A parallel conversation is how to maintain the heart of the float community as it makes its way into mainstream society.
Anecdotes – validity & dangers
In an industry like floating, you’re going to hear the C word a lot.
According to word of mouth, floating is the cure for many things. Because the broader mechanisms and reciprocal nature of body/mind systems are so complex, causality is hard to draw. However, many people claim that “floating healed my back pain” or “floating cured my depression.” Yes, it created an environment in which you were able to cut through to a deeper nature, but it won’t work for everyone in that same way.
The responsibility of science is to evaluate these claims and, in doing so, create applicable information. If, in the process, we find that floating, introduced properly and with guidance, can effectively reduce major depressive symptoms and keep them lowered, that’s great info!
There’s nothing wrong with anecdotes, however. In fact, in psychology, case files and first-person analysis are useful tools in understanding mental processes and exploring phenomena. The more information we get from people floating, the more we can understand how the tank environment interacts with different people floating representing a range of variables.
How to support floaters with mental health issues?
Compare these two propositions.
“Want to go cliff jumping?”
“Want to get naked and lie down in dark, soundproof, salt-water tank for 90 minutes?”
Now, it’s possible that the majority of people reading are down to do both – you wild float community, you. For the majority of us, there are no dangers awaiting us in the tank. Richard Bonk, at the Rise conference in St. Louis, framed floating as the middle sibling to contemplative practices and psychedelic experience.
The three all have a few elements in common, most namely they are potent environments for self-exploration and self-revelation. When you’re meditating, it might take a few sessions of boredom and drifting before you get a juicy contemplative moment. On mushrooms, however, you might find yourself quickly exploring life, causality, systems theory, deep ecology, and relational energetics all while sampling a Costco-sized jar of Jelly Bellies. You might also freak out or, at the very least, need to grip the steering wheel a bit tighter.
Floating seems to be a good compromise between the two because it enhances the experience of the gentle self-exposure cultivated in meditation while maintaining a better sense of control and safety than on psychedelics.
Getting back to the cliff-vs-tank scenario – the jump into one’s own mind can be an incredibly vulnerable proposition for some. It’s important to acknowledge this and be prepared, as an industry, to help people through difficult times if they occur in our centers.
While there are revealing and intensely beautiful moments in the tank, there are also moments when you can feel your baggage bobbing up and down right next to you. I’m not saying that every float center worker needs to be trained in psych crisis management – just that a broader awareness of how floating relates to mind, body, and experience in clinical and non-clinical populations will go a long way to truly integrate floating into people’s growth and development.
While it’s tempting to pitch floating as a pathway to bliss, it’s common sense to expect road bumps and periods of more-difficult introspection. This is true in many great spiritual and contemplative traditions, as well as psychedelic shamanism. For someone with depression, the environment could be a revelatory loosening of mental patterns, hangups, and beliefs, or a swirl into familiar dark waters. By broadening the conversation about floating and mental health and well-being, we learn more about how to truly support people’s healing and promote their flourishing.
The float speaks for itself, but I think it has more to say. The float tank is a uniquely potent tool with a range of possibilities and applications for our broader society. From learning and creativity to athletic recovery and psychological work, there seems to be something waiting in the tank for everyone. It’s up to further research to learn how to best use the tank as a means to support the broadest range of human experience possible.
And in the end…
My first float wasn’t necessarily the salt-baptism of spirit, body, and mind that some people encounter. It was, however, a profound confirmation of much of my growth and direction from the previous 8 years. It was a deeply validating bath in the truth that affecting external change in the world is done best when you pursue a deep inner connection. In the tank, I found an inner trampoline of goofiness. I found a tender, calm heart. I found a deep curiosity and desire to engage with the world and explore my place in it.
In the float tank, it seems that self-love, creativity, compassion, and productivity all bubble up naturally. Floating is a way to lay our own fields fallow for a time, to soften into the seemingly endless folds of space, time, body, and mind.
The true work begins when you learn to share your findings with the world. And this is the great irony of floating: by spending the most alonest of alone-times, we find ourself more open, available, committed, and connected.
May your salt always be sludgy, your filters clear, and your smile as wide as your arms
I put that line there to make you think that was the end, which it is (not). However, if you have a little more time, here are some of my B-Side research ponderings for extra credit reading points.
- A look at the relationship between floating and pro-sociality, esp as it relates to group cohesion, communication, and functioning.
- A longitudinal study of various clinical diagnoses/demographics as they relate to floating. Depression, anxiety, PTSD, substance abuse/dependency, eating disorders, OCD, postpartum depression, refugee status, domestic abuse. The list goes on and on.
- I would especially like to see some of these studies done with college students. If floating can head off prolonged depression, it will help a lot of young college students bring their fullest selves to their studies and personal growth as they begin to explore the world.
- A range of studies that focus on relational and environmental factors and how they relate to one’s experience and actions pre, post, and during float.
- Compare different pre-float scripts and post-float survey. Measure effect of priming from verbal and bodily language
- Counseling psychology and its combination/integration with floating has a wide range of possibilities. We could look at four groups who have never floated.
- Group A does no therapy but uses floatation
- Group B does therapy but doesn’t float
- Group C does neither floatation nor therapy
- Group D does both (sub-study within Group D looking at the timing of floating/therapy (pre/post/during)
- Expanded research into the application of the float tank as a means to train self-regulation and develop one’s cognitive, emotional, creative, intuitive, and physical intelligences.