What is float therapy?

Young woman's hand floating in spa bath

It might seem a bit strange at first. You shower to wash the dirt and oil from your body, then you rub a little Vaseline over any cuts that might sting. You head to a tank, or maybe a pod, where you step into a pool of shallow, very salty water.

And then you close a door and lie back, floating, weightless in the soundless dark.

It’s sensation you’ve never experienced before.

You can call it sensory deprivation or flotation therapy, but those who do it mostly call it float. It’s a midcentury invention that seemed a little wacky in the ‘60s and ‘70s but now is routinely used by the military and professional and college sports teams, not to mention spas around the world.

At The Ohio State University, “floating is our best, most holistic recovery device” for student-athletes seeking to improve their performance and minimize their risk of injuries, says Nick Domicone, director of sports science at Ohio State. Across campus, there are four float tanks that are about 5-by-10 feet, big enough to hold the university’s largest basketball players.

Studies have shown that floating can reduce pain and boost both motor accuracy and mood — in 2018, a study of 50 anxious and depressed participants found that just an hour of floating was enough to reduce anxiety. Ohio State’s experts also have found that an hour in the float tank helps lower heart rates and restore student-athletes to their body’s equilibrium state.

Floating can also benefit those who are experiencing pain while trying to recover from an injury, as long as they have no open wounds, says Chris Kolba, a physical therapist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. “The float tank can facilitate healing through reducing stress and unloading the body as well and just allowing the nervous system to ‘shut down,’” he says, “which could help regulate pain.”

What does float therapy feel like?

You prepare for your float by taking a shower, then you enter the tank in minimal clothing. The tank is filled with 10 inches of skin-temperature water and a massive amount of Epsom salt, which makes you extraordinarily buoyant — you float with ease. While the goal is isolation, some people may feel claustrophobic in a tank, so floaters usually have the option to keep a light on, or play some music, Domicone says. “But mostly it’s just you and the water,” he says. “Once the water stills, you barely feel like you’re inside of your body.”

It can take some time to get used to this. Some people have trouble finding a comfortable position or clearing their mind. You might even feel pain in the tank — all your senses are deprived, so anything you experience will be more intense.

“It’s not a bad idea to give the float experience a few tries, as the first visit may not fully achieve relaxation because of how unfamiliar it is,” Kolba says. “I felt my own first session was good, but I didn’t feel fully relaxed — I was thinking of everything that was going on as opposed to just totally quieting my mind and relaxing. And let's face it, when you think of lying in water, you usually think of sinking.”

A float session generally lasts 60 minutes, but some go even longer. It’s best to go when you feel relaxed, so morning can be an ideal time. Domicone advises student-athletes to wait 30 to 60 minutes after a game or practice so their body isn’t at a heightened state when they go into the tank.

Should you try float therapy?

Floating isn’t for everyone. Some people fall asleep in the tank and emerge feeling fantastic. Some will see flashes of light and color, their confused brains trying to make sense of the situation. Some experience revelations, while others get bored. Those who feel claustrophobic or get too much salt in their eyes might bail early.

But there are very few risks associated with floating. You can’t overdose — some devotees swear by weekly sessions in a tank. You may feel slightly sluggish or dehydrated when you get out of the tank, but that doesn’t last. Talk to your doctor if you have any concerns before trying a float tank.

A few more tips: Avoid caffeine before you go (the point is to be calm), as well as shaving, which could cause irritation. Go to the bathroom before you go in. And have a light snack ahead of time — there’s nothing especially relaxing about listening to a growling stomach when it’s the only thing you can hear.

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