Before you enter a sensory deprivation tank, the staff at The Float Zone tell me, you must be totally clean: no makeup on your face, no lotions on your body. You have to take a pre-float shower, and you should cover any small cuts with Neosporin because of the dense salt water. Then, you turn off the lights, pop in your ear plugs, climb into the pod, close the overhead door, and float for 60 minutes. While the very idea of sensory deprivation induced a primal sense of fear in me, when I tried floating in a sensory deprivation tank for the first time, the experience taught me something important about myself that I now know I should probably try to work on moving forward: I need to freaking relax.
Now, despite my nerves, the reason I decided to try floating in the first place when I was offered the experience at The Float Zone in Richmond, Virginia, was because I'd heard sensory deprivation can be really good for you, holistically speaking. For instance, a 2014 study published in the journal BMC Complementary and Alternative Medicine showed that floating in a sensory deprivation tank can help people manage feelings of stress, anxiety, depression, and various forms of pain. Plus, I always enjoy trying new wellness experiences, and from what I'd googled beforehand, it seemed totally safe, despite being designed to make you feel like you are weightlessly, silently hovering in a dark, endless galaxy.
Indeed, the floating sensory deprivation pod looks like something you'd use to travel through space, or a place in which you'd be cryogenically frozen.
Though the experience seemed a bit daunting at first, I was welcomed warmly by The Float Zone staff, and after watching a quick instructional video that told me how to get properly cleaned and prepped, I was guided into my personal floating room to begin the experience. And yes, in case you were wondering, I felt mentally and emotionally resistant to the whole thing even as I was preparing to get into the tank.
I was worried, I think, that I might have a panic attack in the pod, or that I would meditate myself into some kind of naturally-induced psychedelic trip and never fully return to reality. But I was told by the staff that it was quite easy to pop open the roof door of the pod, and I didn't even have to close it if I didn't want to.
After I took my shower, I popped in my wax ear plugs, turned off the lights, and climbed inside.
Now, I can tell you that, from a physical standpoint, floating in a sensory deprivation tank immediately feels incredible. Can you remember the last time your body felt as though it were defying gravity? Because, for me, it was probably when I was still in my mother's womb. Floating in the pod, to put it simply, felt amazing for my muscles and joints; they had no choice but to release any tension they were holding on to and surrender to the salt water around me.
That being said, my mind would not shut up for what must have been a solid 30 minutes, aka half of the entire float session. It's an unusual feeling to be submerged in water and not have to worry about going under, so maybe that was what took a little getting used to. Thankfully, I had the option of playing some gentle music from a little button inside the pod, which I figured would help with my mental chatter.
As it turns out, I was right: My mind really let go when the tunes were on, and after a mere minute or two of the music, I entered into a half-asleep, half-awake state. I was so relaxed, I actually began to see dream images, textures, and swirls of color in my mind's eye.
I was so immersed in the experience, in fact, that I genuinely lost track of time, until a recording of a woman's voice gently informed me my float was done for the day. After that, I enjoyed some water in the The Float Zone's relaxation lounge with a few gentlemen who also described having rather psychedelic experiences when they finally let go in their respective pods. We all agreed that, at first, it felt really difficult to relax and ease into it.
To learn a little more about my experience with sensory deprivation floating, and what it was really doing to my brain and body in the moment, I reached out to Dr. David Berv, the founder of The Float Zone, who tells me over email that "flotation is [the epitome] of mind-body therapy." What's more, he tells Elite Daily, research has demonstrated that the benefits of this therapy include improvements in your body's response to stress, in addition to better blood pressure, heart rate variability, and muscle tension. Floating also improves athletic recovery, he says, as well as performance, concentration, focus, creativity, and perhaps most importantly, it can help improve your sleep. Yes, please.
As for what's really happening to your body when you float in the sensory deprivation tank, Dr. Berv says it all comes down to the fact that you're putting yourself in this completely new environment, testing uncharted waters, as it were. "Since the skin and water temperature are about the same, it is hard to tell where the water ends and your skin begins," he tells Elite Daily. "Because of the buoyancy of the water, due to about 1,000 pounds of epsom salt dissolved in 175 gallons of water, your brain spends much less effort processing your place in space due to the minimal gravity state."
And as for those racing thoughts I initially had upon entering the pod, Dr. Berv says that's all par for the course.
"While [mental] chatter is common at first with the removal of and unplugging from our fast-paced and technological environment, it is easy and common to drift into stages of sleep," he tells Elite Daily, adding that some people will even experience "hypnagogic jerks or twitches" as their brain moves from a normal state to a more relaxed one.
And even if you don't fall asleep during your sensory deprivation experience, Dr. Berv explains, your mind "thinks" and "flows" in a very different way when you're floating. Because the experience is so relaxing, and so similar to the sensation of sleeping, he says, the parts of the brain that deal with emotion, stress, and anxiety are all basically quieted for the moment, allowing you to truly melt into the full-body experience.
Again, by the end of my time in the sensory deprivation tank, that newfound feeling of relaxation 100 percent alerted me to the fact that I spend a whole lot of my time not feeling that relaxed. Coming out of this experience, my goal is to find ways in my everyday life to feel just as centered and calm as I did in the flotation tank, and to engage in those activities as often as possible.
As Dr. Berv assures me over email, floating could absolutely be one of those practices. "Floating even one time has positive benefits, and regular float therapy has lasting benefits for both mind and body," he says. More specifically, Dr. Berv recommends floating three times within two months to start seeing some of those benefits, and if it's been suggested to you by a health care professional as a way to help with something like anxiety or depression, going as much as two to three times a week may be a good idea.
As for me, this definitely won't be my last encounter with a sensory deprivation tank, I can tell you that much.