When I mentioned to a friend that my baseline neurosis has evolved from daily stress into anxiety, her response was – "Go for a float!"
Yes — spend an hour in a dark, soundproof room floating in a body-temperature warm pool. "The heavy salt concentration does the work for you," my friend told me. "You just lie there and meditate."
As a doctor wary of overprescribing medications, I was intrigued by the idea that floating can combat stress and anxiety, but I wanted to know if there's any science to back up this claim.
So I visited the lab of neuropsychologist Justin Feinstein at the Laureate Institute for Brain Research in Tulsa, Okla. Feinstein is investigating float therapy as a nonpharmacological treatment for people with conditions like anxiety and depression.
"These are individuals with PTSD disorder, panic disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety — we covered the whole spectrum of different types of anxiety," he says.
Before volunteers get in the pool, Feinstein maps their brains using functional MRI, which provides images of the brain's metabolic activity. Feinstein takes images again after a 60-minute float. And he's finding that floating seems to quiet activity in the amygdala, the brain's center of fear and anxiety.
Feinstein asked if I wanted to try it, so after a quick shower, I jumped right in.
The round pool is 1 foot deep, 8 feet in diameter, and saturated with 1,332 pounds of magnesium sulfate, commonly known as Epsom salt. It holds you up like a mattress. The room is soundproof, the lights are off and you just lay back and float.
Floating made me feel weightless; it's kind of like being suspended in air. I could feel my muscles relaxing. There was one exception — I noticed how clenched my jaw was, probably my natural state of being. I really had to focus on letting it relax.
It took a while to let my thoughts quiet down, but eventually I was so relaxed I fell asleep—while floating!
While this sounds promising, it's important to remember that this research is preliminary. One of Feinstein's pilot studies, which is currently under review for publication, found that in 50 individuals with anxiety, all showed measurable signs of relaxation including lowered blood pressure, lowered activity in the brain, and significantly reduced symptoms of anxiety. Feinstein has found that some of these effects can last over 24 hours. The Float Clinic and Research Center has many other ongoing studies and another currently under review for publication.
Even though floating isn't a proven treatment, more and more commercial float centers are opening across the country, including the H2Oasis Float Center and Tea House, which opened here in Tulsa a little over a year ago. It uses the same open pools that were designed for Feinstein's lab as well as small, enclosed float pods which can be claustrophobic for some people. A one-hour float session costs between $50 and $70.
"At the very minimum, you are going to have one of the most relaxing hours of your life," says Debra Worthington, co-owner of the facility. She says that many people come here trying to float their anxieties away — injured athletes, veterans with PTSD, people with chronic pain and anxiety.
"I have people leaving the pools crying because they never knew they could feel that good because they have so much pain on a daily basis, whether it's physical pain or mental pain," Worthington says.
While medication is beneficial for many anxiety and mood disorders, many classes of the drugs are habit-forming, and all have side effects that patients often find unpleasant. So while floating isn't a proven therapy, there's little harm in trying to float some of that stress away.
John Henning Schumann is an internal medicine doctor and serves as president of the University of Oklahoma's Tulsa campus. He also hosts Studio Tulsa: Medical Monday on KWGS Public Radio Tulsa. This story was produced by Jane Greenhalgh.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
But if you'd rather unplug completely, there's another option. It's called float therapy, and it's pretty much what it sounds like. You float your anxieties away in a pool. Sounds nice, but is there any evidence that it works? John Schumann is a doctor in Tulsa, Okla. He also hosts a medical show on member station KWGS. He looked into the research.
JOHN SCHUMANN, BYLINE: When I mentioned to a friend that my own baseline neurosis has evolved from daily stress into outright anxiety, her response was, go for a float. A float? Yes. Spend an hour in a dark, soundproof room, soaking in a body-temperature pool. Just lay there and meditate. What do I have to lose?
(SOUNDBITE OF SPLASHING WATER)
SCHUMANN: In the pool I go. And it's kind of amazing. It's sort of like being suspended in air.
Floating makes you feel weightless. I feel my muscles relaxing.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPLASHING WATER)
SCHUMANN: It's complete darkness in here. And then it's just a matter of letting my thoughts quiet down.
The water is heavy with epsom salt. That's magnesium sulphate. It holds you up like a mattress without getting your skin all prune-y. Eventually I'm so relaxed that I fall asleep. As relaxing as this is, I'm at heart a skeptic. I wanted to know if there's any science to back up the claim that floating can actually decrease stress. It turns out a scientist at the Laureate Institute for Brain Research, right here in Tulsa, is trying to find out. Justin Feinstein is the director of Laureate's Float Clinic and Research Center, the nation's only dedicated float lab. He's focusing his research on the effects of floating on the brain and its impact on a number of psychological conditions.
JUSTIN FEINSTEIN: These are individuals with post-traumatic stress disorder, panic disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, social anxiety disorder. We kind of covered the whole spectrum of different types of anxiety.
SCHUMANN: Before getting in the pool, Feinstein maps the brains of his volunteers using functional MRI. This provides high-resolution images of the brain. Areas of high and low metabolic activity light up in different colors. He maps them again after about a 90-minute float. What he's finding is floating seems to quiet activity in the amygdala, the brain's center of fear and anxiety.
FEINSTEIN: At least in the short term, this does create a very profound state of relaxation, and it's reliable. In fact, we didn't have a single patient who didn't find this to be really relaxing.
SCHUMANN: Feinstein says without sensory stimulation, the body can achieve a state of calm.
FEINSTEIN: It's almost what you might call a forced homeostasis, where all of the different systems that regulate life functioning are completely taken care of, and you get to just totally relax.
SCHUMANN: Now, as promising as this sounds, a note of caution. Feinstein's findings are only preliminary. His pilot study was small, just 50 volunteers. Clearly more research is needed. Gary Schwitzer, founder of HealthNewsReview, a journalism watchdog group, says we shouldn't put too much faith in preliminary findings.
GARY SCHWITZER: You can mislead people by talking about something being therapeutic or possibly therapeutic when you are nowhere near proving that it is a therapy.
SCHUMANN: Even though floating isn't a validated treatment, more and more commercial float centers are opening up around the country.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOOR CLOSING)
SCHUMANN: Here in Tulsa, the H2Oasis Float Center and Tea House opened just over a year ago. You can get a 60-minute float for around $50.
DEBRA WORTHINGTON: We have four float rooms down the hallway, three different pool types.
SCHUMANN: Debra Worthington is the co-owner. She shows me the pools. There's a small, enclosed float pod, a round pool big enough for a couple and her favorite, an 8-foot round pool in a room with 8-foot ceilings.
WORTHINGTON: It's a beautiful pool. It's one of the most comfortable floats.
SCHUMANN: All sorts of people come here trying to float away their pain, stress and anxiety - injured athletes, parents of teenagers, veterans with PTSD. I have people leaving the pools crying because they never knew that they could feel that good 'cause they have so much pain on a daily basis, whether it's physical pain or mental pain.
SCHUMANN: Medication is beneficial for many anxiety and mood disorders, but some classes of the drugs are habit forming and have side effects that patients often find unpleasant. So while floating isn't a proven therapy, there's little harm in trying to float some of that stress away. For NPR News, I'm John Schumann in Tulsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.