Study: Flotation Therapy Alleviates Stress, Anxiety, Depression, And More

Image via: MJTH | Shutterstock.


by Luke Sumpter

on May 5, 2016

Research published in the journal BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine explored sensory deprivation in a flotation-tank as a preventive healthcare intervention. The results showed significant improvements in stress, depression, anxiety, pain, sleep quality, and even optimism, proving that flotation therapy is an effective way to prevent and treat a plethora of physiological and psychological ailments.

The goal of flotation therapy is sensory isolation, removing the mind from the bombardment of stressful stimuli that we face on a daily basis by plunging it into deep relaxation and meditation. Science is showing that this desirable state is actually medicinal and has the potential to reduce stress and the damaging symptoms that accompany this unhealthy state of being.

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The authors of the publication explain how stress-related ill health, which is often expressed in the form of depression, anxiety, and insomnia, has been studied in the workplace, such conditions being common reasons for workers taking sick-leave. As well as reducing productivity and increasing the risk of psychiatric disorders, time off work induced by stress may cause the individual economic strain, thus causing a spiraling cycle of stress. So how can flotation therapy relieve this? The key lies in our relaxation response.

The relaxation response (RR) is the opposite of the fight-or-flight response. It is the physiological process responsible for relieving stress and occurs during deep states of relaxation. The reason RR works so efficiently to combat the debilitating symptoms of stress is due to the impact it has upon the parasympathetic nervous system. This division of the nervous system is responsible for many physiological changes, including energy conservation and relaxation. Through this mechanism, RR lowers the heart rate and blood pressure and slows down the breathing.

The authors of the research note that to successfully ignite the RR response during periods of stress, it is crucial to reduce sensory input and bodily movements. Such requirements make flotation therapy fit the bill perfectly. The research describes the basic mechanisms of the method: “During flotation-REST (Restricted Environmental Stimulation Technique) an individual lay[s] in a horizontal floating posture immersed in highly concentrated salt water (magnesium sulphate) in a flotation tank. All incoming stimuli are reduced to a minimum during this period (usually 45 minutes), i.e. sound and light, and the water is heated to skin temperature.”

So how exactly does flotation therapy fare under scientific analysis? What were the methods and results of the research?

Sixty-five participants (14 men and 51 women) were included in the study. Subjects were randomly divided into a flotation-REST group consisting of 37 people and a wait-list control group made up of 28 people. The flotation group received a total of twelve 45 minute sessions over a period of 7 weeks. Various measurements were assessed before and after the treatment period, these included depression, anxiety, stress, energy, sleep quality, pain, and optimism. The same measurements were assessed for the control group.

The flotation group displayed dramatically improved scores when compared to the control group, with subjects exhibiting reduced levels of anxiety, depression, pain, and stress.

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Let’s take a quick look at the data:

The floating group score for stress before the treatment period was 1.86, which then dropped massively to 0.95 post-treatment. In comparison, the control group scored 1.84 before and 1.89 after — meaning the control group’s stress score actually increased!

The anxiety score for the flotation group before treatment was 7.92, which then dropped to 4.28 after treatment — almost halving! Whereas the control group scored 7.03 before and 6.96 after the study period.

When it came to depression scores, the flotation group started with a score of 4.42, which then dropped to 2.25 after treatment, almost halving again. The control group started at 4.00 and ended at 4.30, another increase.

Other positive lifestyle factors were seen to improve within the flotation group as well; significant improvements in sleep quality, optimism, pain, and mindfulness were measured. These results augmented the stress-busting abilities of flotation therapy even further.

The researchers concluded that flotation therapy will likely improve general health and reduce contributing factors to stress-related illness whilst increasing certain psychological factors in healthy participants.

The phenomenal results from this study show the power of techniques that catalyze the relaxation response — flotation therapy being one of the most potent. It highlights that environment is key to our health and that optimum conditions can assist in healing. Among all of the invasive methods, addictive pills and damaging drugs, flotation therapy stands apart as a gentle and effective way to reduce stress and its life-destroying counterparts.