What Are Sensory Deprivation Tanks?

Sensory deprivation tanks sound like science fiction. But there are some possible health benefits behind this latest spa trend. If you want to give sensory deprivation tanks a try, here’s what you should know.

What Are Sensory Deprivation Tanks?

Sensory deprivation tanks are also known as isolation tanks or flotation tanks. These specially designed chambers block off as much sensory stimulation as possible.

Sensory deprivation tanks provide what’s called flotation restricted environmental stimulation therapy or flotation-REST. The goal of flotation-REST is to help you reach a state of total relaxation.

In general sensory deprivation tanks for flotation-REST are:

  • Soundproof. You won’t hear anything going on outside the tank. So you won’t have any noise distractions.
  • Dark inside. You can’t see anything around you.
  • Filled with enough Epsom salt-dense water so you can float on your back. This helps reduce the pressures of gravity on your body.
  • Warm. The water temperature is around 95 degrees to match your body temperature.
  • Fully enclosed. There’s a lid that shuts down over you.

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Possible Benefits of Sensory Deprivation Tanks

What limited current research there is on flotation tanks is fairly new. Research so far shows that flotation-REST may improve both physical and mental health problems for some people. Possible benefits of flotation tanks and flotation-REST include:

  • Reducing anxiety, including generalized anxiety disorder.
  • Reducing pain.
  • Reducing stress.
  • Improving symptoms of depression.
  • Improving sleep.
  • Improving physical performance and recovery. Elite athletes who had a 45-minute session after hard training reported improvement in both their mood and muscle soreness. That’s according to a small study published in Performance Enhancement & Health.
  • Boosting creativity and focus.

Most studies on flotation-REST have been small, with most focusing on immediate or short-term benefits.

For chronic pain, a study in JAMA Network Open found flotation tanks don’t offer long-term pain relief. People in the study had less short-term pain and related anxiety. But so did people in the placebo group who weren’t getting the same treatment.

Because different studies used different lengths and numbers of sessions, it’s difficult to determine what amount is necessary to get benefits. Some researchers believe the power of suggestion, and not the flotation-REST therapy itself, plays a role.

Larger, longer-term studies are going to need to confirm who benefits from sensory deprivation tanks and how they benefit.

How Do Sensory Deprivation Tanks Work?

Flotation tanks may work similarly to meditation in helping your mind and body relax.

Flotation tanks are a popular wellness treatment found at spas and independent flotation tank facilities. It’s not clear, however, if these facilities can replicate the benefits people had during research studies.

It’s not clear how many times you need to use a sensory deprivation tank to get benefits. Most studies on flotation-REST used one or two sessions a week for several days or several weeks. The sessions typically lasted 45 minutes to an hour, but some went for as long as 90 minutes.

What to expect during a sensory tank session

The tanks are kept isolated in a quiet room that often has a shower and toilet. Sessions last 45 minutes to 90 minutes. Here’s what typically happens:

  • You will shower before getting into the tank.
  • You may wear a bathing suit or float naked, depending on the facility.
  • You will wear noise-canceling earplugs.
  • When you get in the tank, you can control light and music from inside, depending on the facility. For the most relaxation, it’s recommended you keep both lights and sound turned off.
  • You can use a panic button inside the tank if you want to get out.
  • You will shower after you get out to rinse off the salt.

Because tanks are kept in a quiet room, you may have the option to float with the lid open. Some spas and flotation tank facilities offer options to add soothing music or various infrared lighting. You can choose to shut both off with a button inside, so that you are in total darkness and without sound.

Some research has found that keeping the tank open or adding soothing music or colored light does not affect the treatment. People still experienced benefits in these situations.

Risks of Sensory Deprivation Tanks

Based on the research so far, flotation tanks appear to offer some benefits and are safe for most healthy people. How you react and the benefits you receive may differ from someone else’s.

Some people may have negative experiences using flotation tanks. These include hallucinations, delusions, and other psychosis-like experiences (PLEs).

Some can begin to experience PLEs after just 15 minutes of sensory deprivation. These negative reactions should stop when you get out of the tank.

You should use caution using flotation tanks if:

  • You are claustrophobic. You may want to look for an open flotation tank instead.
  • You are prone to hallucinations. One study found that even people who aren’t prone to hallucinations may also have PLEs during sensory deprivation. But people who were prone to hallucinations had more of them while in the tank.
  • Though float tanks may help with anxiety, anxiety itself may sometimes lead to an increase in hallucinatory experiences. It’s not clear whether having anxiety increases your chances of having these experiences while in the tank. Or whether having PLEs while in the floating tank causes anxiety.
  • If you have been drinking alcohol or using recreational drugs within the past 24 hours.

Flotation tanks and flotation-REST are complementary therapies. You should not use flotation tanks to replace any other current treatment.

Flotation Restricted Environmental Stimulation Therapy for Chronic Pain. JAMA Network Open. 2021. Link.

Flotation restricted environmental stimulation therapy and napping on mood state and muscle soreness in elite athletes: A novel recovery strategy? Performance Enhancement & Health. 2016. Link.

Promising effects of treatment with flotation-REST (restricted environmental stimulation technique) as an intervention for generalized anxiety disorder (GAD): a randomized controlled pilot trial. BMC Complementary Medicine & Therapies. 2016. Link.

Examining the short-term anxiolytic and antidepressant effect of Floatation-REST. PLOS One. 2018. Link.

Predicting Psychotic-like experiences during sensory deprivation. Biomedical Research International. 2015. Link.

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