Stressed Out? Try a Flotation Tank

Plenty of people swear by flotation therapy, but it made me nervous.

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With three kids and a full-time job, I find that having time on my hands is a rare luxury on a par with a Godiva truffle. Thus, I jumped at the chance to spend a full decadent hour by myself in a flotation tank.

Flotation therapy, which is experiencing a small resurgence after becoming popular in the 1970s, is designed to trigger a deep state of relaxation by minimizing input to the five senses. You float in total darkness with earplugs in salt water heated to skin temperature, so you don't feel hot or cold. The 1,200 pounds of Epsom salts mixed into the water make you so buoyant that you bob like a cork. A handful of studies suggest that this "restricted environmental stimulation technique" (aptly abbreviated REST) lowers blood pressure, reduces stress, and eases neck and back pain. Most appealing to me beforehand, though, was the chance to experience a feeling of weightlessness. NASA uses these tanks to simulate conditions of zero gravity in space, and since I always wanted to be an astronaut...

Upon venturing into H&H Flotation Spa near my office in Washington, D.C., I began having second thoughts. The tank—about 8 feet long and 4 feet wide—was much smaller that I had envisioned, and it had a coffinlike lid. Making matters worse, I'd agreed to have my visit videotaped, so readers could watch. My worries about the tank and memorizing my script triggered a stress-related migraine. How ironic, I thought.

Still, I figured if this works as well as some of the flotation therapy websites like Floataway say, the hour should rid me of my stress and my excruciating headache. And it did work somewhat. After a few minutes, I felt as if I were suspended in a giant gob of Jell-O, wobbling like a grape. But soon the feelings of weightlessness slipped away, and my thoughts returned to the video. I simply could not relax knowing that my experience was being documented. After about 35 minutes, I was feeling slightly nauseated. So I lifted the lid and let myself out before my hour of floating was up.

I decided to give it another try a week later, without the videographer in tow. I almost immediately went into my Jell-O state and for a while just listened to the sound of my breathing. But soon I heard snippets of conversation, my husband's voice. I strained to hear what he was saying, and the spell was broken. Slightly seasick, again I lifted the lid and let myself out of the tank after 35 minutes.

Floating, like massages, meditation, and yoga, is clearly not for everyone. In fact, Mark Shriver, an associate professor of anthropology and genetics at Penn State University, is conducting a study to see how temperament and personality affect a person's floating experience. Of the 100 study volunteers he recruited, only two said they wouldn't want to float again. He believes genes may determine how a person responds to the sensory deprivation involved with REST.

Indeed. When I told my mom about my experience, she told me she'd tried floating last year at a Montreal spa: "I felt too confined and couldn't wait to get out." She, like me, relaxes better with a massage.