The futuristic capsule-like pods filled with enough salt water to make an adult float effortlessly have been marketed as sensory deprivation pods for people to relax and meditate in. But more than just a fancy way to escape the hustle and bustle of modern life, studies are showing that floating for a few minutes a week may have real benefits for those who suffer from anxiety and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).
In a report by Time, the effects of floating were measured on Australian army veteran, Michael Harding, who served in Afghanistan. He was discharged in 2012 with severe PTSD which he tried to treat with therapy, medication, and even yoga, juicing, medicinal marijuana, and meditation.
But nothing helped his nightmares, night sweats, anxiety, muscle spasms, and his changed personality.
According to the report, Harding and his wife figured they had nothing left to lose by trying floating and to his surprise, in just three sessions his anxiety and hyper-vigilance subsided. In three months of regular floating, his night sweats dissapated as well.
“After floating, I was really mellowed out. I’m not really sure how it does it, but I do know that floating has allowed me to feel in a more confident, comfortable headspace,” he said.
Although floating and sensory deprivation pods have been popping up all over the US, Australia, and Canada since 2011, their effects of the body and brain have not been extensively studied. According to neuropsychologist Justin Feinstein, this may be due to the stigma left behind by the floating pod’s inventor, John C. Lilly, whose life was dramatized in the movie Altered States.
In the movie, Lilly was depicted as a scientist who experimented with drugs in his isolation and sensory deprivation tanks which eventually made him go mad.
However, scientists like Feinstein want to dispel the myths behind floating and study its real benefits, especially for those with PTSD.
Feinstein believes that floating may be a fast-track way for the brain to achieve a state of meditation without the use of medication. This could be extremely helpful for those with anxiety who cannot sit still long enough to meditate.
“Essentially what we found in the preliminary data is that the amygdala is shutting off post-float. It’s nice to see that that can be done in a way that doesn’t require medication,” said Feinstein.
Floating in the Ocean may Work Too
Floating in salt water isolation tanks may just be one option for those seeking this kind of treatment. Some groups have also been observing benefits for PTSD sufferers from scuba diving.
US Marine veterans like Tim Maynard told NPR in 2014 that he returned home to Greenville, N.C. After being discharged from active duty with PTSD. As a Purple Heart recipient, he was eligible for free diving classes with a local gym which he credits with saving his life.
“That first time I got in the water, it was just — it was like everything stopped. Everything. I was just mind-blown at how alone yet safe I felt. I just felt like nothing else mattered except for me swimming around right there. And then when I came up, I just couldn’t even express the amount of joy. It was an overwhelming sense of emotion,” Maynard said.
According to Maynard, the euphoria he gets from diving stays with him for upt o two to three days after his dives and after nine months of learning to scuba dive, he no longer had to take medication to control his anxiety.
Many more studies are needed to measure how floating in isolation tanks or in the open ocean affect the brains and physiology of those with PTSD. But through the efforts of doctors who are open to the “hippie therapy” and with anecdotal evidence from veterans who report positive results from floating, it could be a viable tool for therapy and treatment.