Float Away Anxiety

If you could find a proven non-invasive technique that increases your serenity for more than a day would you be curious?

Dr. Feinstein is a clinical neuropsychologist with an interest in the link between floating and serenity levels. He is the Principal Investigator at the Laureate Institute for Brain Research and was a keynote presenter at the 2018 Float Conference (Portland, Oregon).

He starts his presentation explaining that the brain is floating inside the head. Protected from the outside world by the skull and the cerebral fluid – much like a well calibrated float room cocoons you from the outside world. The float room facilitates a state of quiescence by providing an environment where there is:

  • No light, so the part of the brain responsible for creating our visual world doesn’t have information coming in

  • Minimal sounds – the area that processes auditory input doesn’t have any outside information coming in

  • No space – A large part of our brain activity is busy creating a sense of our bodies in space. While floating there is no sense of space – it’s limitless and there is a loss of tactile sensation.

  • Taste and smell also aren’t receiving any input.

  • Minimal movement and no speech – a rare moment in life when we’re not compulsively engaging with the world. The frontal cortex, responsible for planning and executing language and movement, has nothing to do. It goes into a state of rest.

  • No gravity – so the spinal column is relieved of pressure.

All this creates a profound intervention for the nervous system.

As Dr. Feinstein explains, “a nervous system in modern society that is being inundated with stimulation, suddenly finds itself in this most unusual of circumstances.”

What happens when you introduce floating to people with severe anxiety and stress, whose nervous systems are on the fray, hyper vigilant and hyper-aware all the time?

Would it help the nervous system recalibrate? Reset?

Dr. Feinstein typically treats clients with severe anxiety and stress. For three years he trialled using floating as an intervention. He studied a group of people that were unemployed due to anxiety or, couldn’t face the world due to post traumatic stress. As a benchmark for relaxation he used watching Earth documentaries and compared one-hour floating sessions.

The results from floating included:

  • significantly increased serenity and relaxation
  • decreased muscle tension and state anxiety

The greatest reduction was found in muscle tension – where significant amounts of tension and anxiety is held unconsciously within the body. Participants were asked to outline the main areas of muscle tension before floating. These were consistently in the neck, shoulders, upper and lower back and down the spinal column.

After the second float all of the muscle tension in the lower and upper back and along the spinal column disappeared. Some tension remained in the neck (From my own observations and experience this is a typical response for people with chronic neck tension. The tension in this area can be deeply habitual and often takes a few floats to fully release).

Clearly, floating removes tension from the body

…and according to Dr. Feinstein, it’s not just the skeletal muscles in the outer body but deep in the vasculature of the body. These ‘smooth muscles’ showed to have significantly reduced tension just 10 minutes into a float tension.

Another variable that the study measured was heart rate variability. According to Dr.Feinstein, this is an excellent indicator of the parasympathetic nervous system – the system responsible for relaxation. As with the smooth muscle tension results, again, straight away there was a very strong relaxation response to floating.

How long will the effects of a float last after a session?

Participants were still feeling reduced levels of stress and anxiety and higher levels of serenity at least 20 hours post float. The higher level of anxiety you start with, the greater the effect of floating. Floating brings stress and anxiety down to normative levels.

With this reduction in stress and anxiety is there more to it than increased serenity?

It turns out that when we reduce or eliminate the external sensory input it simultaneously enhances interoception – the brain’s ability to sense the internal world of the body. This signal is being heightened and amplified during a float. It’s a form of sensory enhancement – of the internal world. Participants noted a heightened sense of their heartbeat and breath in particular.

Dr. Feinstein explains the improved interoception is twofold:

  1. Attention regulation – “the ability to sustain and control attention to body sensations (e.g. I could pay attention to my breath without being distracted by things happening around me).”
  2. Self-regulation – the ability to regulate distress by attention to body sensations (e.g. when I was caught up in thoughts, I could calm my mind by focussing on my body/breathing).

These two aspects are significant in that they form the basis of meditation. With no prior training, just one hour of floating allows people to access a mindful state spontaneously. This provides opportunities for people who would otherwise find meditation too difficult. As Dr.Feinstein puts it: “it’s so conducive for training and teaching people experientially how to access mindful states.”

From a space of mindfulness, a repatterning of the brain can occur.

“If a response antagonistic to anxiety can be made to occur in the presence of anxiety-evoking stimuli so that it is accompanied by a complete or partial suppression of the anxiety response, the bond between these stimuli and anxiety responses will be weakened.”

Joseph Wolpe, 1958, Psychotherapy by Reciprocal Inhibition

In the context of floating…

Try being anxious when your blood pressure is down by 10 points, your relaxation response is up, and your muscle tension has totally evaporated. Yet, when people are anxious they will often feel the sensations of their heartbeat and the breath. The very sensations that we become more aware of when floating. But, in the context of relaxation a new associated can be formed. These implications could go way beyond the 20 hours of serenity reported in the study! We look forward to getting the results of Dr. Feinstein’s future studies.