I Went Into A Sensory Deprivation Tank, And I Finally Learned How To Let Go

by Michelle Thevenot

Sensory deprivation experiences are kind of a new thing around where I'm from. So, when I heard murmurs of such a business in our nearby city, I was intrigued. If this is new concept to you, these spa-like pods allow you to float in highly concentrated Epsom salt water heated to skin temperature.

The idea is, you hang out for a while (my session was 90 minutes) in the enclosed, sensory-deprived environment that limits noise, light, movement and temperature changes, and you soak in the magnesium-rich elixir of relaxation.

I've tried to enjoy traditional relaxation spa treatments (massages, manis, pedis, facials), but I've never been able to completely relax to get the full effect. I don't find it relaxing to have a stranger touch me while I'm in a foreign environment, and I'm only wearing a sheet or spa robe. Being alone for a sensory-deprived experience sounded much safer and relaxing.

I'm also a highly sensitive person (HSP). The short and simple explanation is that I take in a lot of information from my surroundings and process it more deeply than the “average” person, which takes more time and energy.

It often leads to a buildup of sensations and emotions that I haven't been able to process, creating tension buildup, stress, anxiety and overall deterioration of my functional efficiency. To be able to “turn off” the world and retreat into a safe, dark, quiet place sounded like the ultimate relaxation experience.

My fitness regime had been kicking my butt recently, and with the increase in intensity came some sore muscles and lactic acid buildup. I was still walking around with what felt like razor blades in my hamstrings from a leg workout I did three days prior. I was familiar with using Epsom salts in the bath at home to help alleviate sore muscles, but never in the concentrations these float tanks offered.

As I showed up for my appointment at the float spa, the atmosphere was already a welcome relief in its stark contrast from the mid-day downtown cacophony of traffic, construction and all other generally unsettling sights, sounds and smells. As I walked in the door, I noticed the lights were dimmed, loose-leaf tea and water were set invitingly beside the seating. I was greeted by a kind young lady (the only person I encountered within the establishment) who introduced me to the sensory deprivation float tank experience.

My private room had been prepared just for me with my name on the door, and it was pleasantly warm as I walked in. The room housed the big spa pod, a corner shower and a dressing station. I put in earplugs, stripped down, showered and removed my makeup. It was reassuring how such prep work was encouraged to ensure the filtered and treated tank water stayed as clean as possible.

Then, it was time to start the session. As I embarked on my inaugural sensory deprivation float, here are the five distinct psychological and physiological stages I experienced during the 90-minute session:

1. Adjustment

Whoa, this is so weird. The water had an oily quality to it due to the hundreds of pounds of dissolved salt. I comfortably stepped into the shallow, lukewarm water, and I closed the door with only a moment's hesitation. Shorty after the motion-sensing lights shut off outside the pod, the interior of the spa went dark.

As I lay back, I floated. It was so weird. I tried to breathe calmly, relax my muscles and convince my brain that I wasn't going to drown. It was unnatural at first, and I resisted the urge to play with the strange water.

2. Focus

After forcing myself to stay still, I knew I was going to be OK. Then, it was time to try to stop thinking. Instead of thinking about my grocery list, what my son was doing at daycare and what was for supper, I turned my mental gaze inward. What was going on with me?

I could hear my heartbeat. I could hear my tummy gurgles echo through the water. I could feel the water frame my face. The limbs felt almost imperceptible if I kept still. I slowed my breathing.

“This is actually pretty cool. I'm floating in a tank. Yes, now focus. Relax. You're going to be OK,” I thought.

3. Decompression

As I became more relaxed and acclimated to the sensations (or lack thereof), I began to feel a pull through my neck and spine. From the base of my head floating in the water to the weightlessness of my torso, the pulling sensation felt like a welcomed stretch at first. But as I continued to consciously stay relaxed, the pulling sensation throughout my spine intensified.

It was like the feels-so-good-but-kind-of-uncomfortable decompression sensation you experience from massage therapy and chiropractic sessions. It took more effort to remain relaxed as a wave of a mild tension headache and nausea creeped up. Again, these symptoms were comparable to my experiences with a chiropractor and a masseuse. I hoped it would pass, and I breathed.

Pop. It startled me from my trance-like position, and my body wiggled like a fish in the water ripples. Weird. I didn't expect my neck to pop. Relax. Reset. Try again. Pop, pop, pop.

Really? My vertebrae cracked between six to 10 times throughout the session. Seriously, how compressed was my spine? As my neck and back unzipped, it felt mildly and momentarily uncomfortable, but the relief that followed felt glorious.

4. Melting Away

Once my back had finished popping and decompressing, my mild discomfort faded, and I could float undisturbed. I couldn't tell where my skin ended and water began. Did I even have legs anymore? It felt good. It felt so good.

It was so quiet. I appreciated the darkness. The post-spinal release had my endorphins flowing. I began to drift, and I didn't worry about where my thoughts and state of relaxation would take me. My eyes closed. Facial muscles I didn't know I had let go of the last threads of tension.

5. Relaxation

I'm somewhat surprised to say I was actually able to reach a state of relaxation. It was a time of slow, deep, inward self-reflection without pressures to do, say or think anything. I didn't have anything to worry about.

My last conscious thing I can recall focusing on was a spot on my forehead. It's a practice I've found helps me drift into deep relaxation and sleep. Some might call the area the “third eye,” and scientists refer to it as the pineal gland, which is known for producing melatonin (sleep hormone). After taking a deep, slow breath, I don't recall much beyond that.

It was glorious. I finally shut off. It wasn't long before a gentle blue light and soft music awakened my senses again and my session was over. Already? Ninety minutes felt like 30.

As I slowly reacquainted myself with my limbs, showered and dressed, I noticed my muscle discomfort had decreased significantly. If I had to put a number to it, 70 percent of the exercise-related muscle pain was gone. Mentally and physiologically I felt open, lighter, taller, clearer and refreshed.

As I padded down the hall back toward the front desk, the kind lady asked how I was and offered tea. I could barely speak, but I had smile on my face. I sat, sighed and sipped in the post-sensory-deprivation glow.

Would I recommend the experience? Absolutely. Will everyone have the same experience as me? Likely not. It's my understanding that the sensory deprivation experience in a float pod can be as unique as the people who use them. I can imagine that with additional sessions, I might be able to reach a state of relaxation more quickly or have a completely different experience altogether.

Whatever your goal may be for trying a sensory deprivation float, it may require some practice of physical and mental control to achieve that goal. Whether it's relaxation, connecting with your inner self, developing theta brain waves, magnesium absorption, decompression or pain relief, the sensory deprivation tank helps you along the way by providing the ideal surroundings to do so.