We Tried It: Sensory deprivation float tank

I get really nervous before my rec league soccer games. I play goalkeeper and like many athletes (using the term loosely here), I put way too much pressure on myself. The day of a match, I start feeling more and more anxious as it gets closer to game time -- a feeling that starts in the pit of my stomach and rises, occasionally, to full-blown dizzy spells. I have my pregame rituals, and then poof, as soon as the first whistle blows, I'm in the zone.

I'd been hearing about sensory deprivation float tanks for a while, how they're used as tools of relaxation by athletes, creative types and people with serious illnesses. I like meditation and I'm into natural ways to reduce anxiety, so I thought I'd give it a shot. If it can work for professionals, maybe it could work for this rec league goalkeeper, too.

What is floating?

The isolation tank was developed in 1954, in an attempt to research what might happen to the brain if you removed all external stimuli. In the 1970s, Peter Suedfeld and Roderick Borrie began to explore the tanks for potential therapeutic benefits, using hundreds of pounds of Epsom salts to help subjects float on top of the water. A study in the late 1990s found that more than 90 percent of those who tried sensory deprivation float tanks experienced feelings of relaxation; a 2014 study published found that 12 45-minute float sessions over seven weeks reduced stress, depression and anxiety.

Fees and gear

A float session is typically 60-90 minutes long and costs between $45 and $90. You don't need to bring anything with you, except maybe something to drink after (many studios offer water). When you first get there, you will have to sign a waiver, but beyond that, you just show up and the attendant will tell you everything you need to know and answer any questions you might have.

I found the first studio through a report on my local news station, but just searched Google to find the second one.

Preparing to float

To be honest, seeing the tank for the first time may actually increase your anxiety about the process. I've been floating twice, the first time in a rectangular tank that reminded me of a refrigerator and the second in a "tranquility tank" that reminded me of something from a sci-fi movie. The tanks are 8 to 9 feet long and about 5 feet wide (depending on the model), and inside each tank there is about 10 inches of skin-temperature water (about 93.5-95 degrees Fahrenheit) with 800-1,000 pounds of Epsom salts. Don't worry -- in between each session the water is drained and the tank is cleaned, typically with hydrogen peroxide. The water that comes in for the next float client goes through an extensive filtration process, making it cleaner than the water you typically shower with.

Every float center does things a little differently. The first place I went to had you start by laying down on a slightly inverted table and listen to binaural beats for 20 minutes before going in the tank. You could choose beats based on what you were hoping to achieve from the session -- Zen meditation, creative flow, etc. Regardless of the center, the room will have the tank, a shower and a bench or hook to hang your clothes. (There likely won't be a bathroom in the room, so make sure you go ahead of time!)

Lisa Lopez, the owner of Healing Waters Float Studio in Northglenn, Colorado (which was also where I did my first float), said doing the inversion before the tank "helps the body and brain prepare for anti-gravity and complete sensory deprivation and with the extra blood flow containing oxygen and nutrient. It helps people go much deeper, much faster inside the chamber."

Lopez emails her clients a video that explains the process to first-time floaters, which answered a lot of my initial questions.

When I was ready to get into the tank, I rinsed off in the shower in my room and wiped my face with a towel first, just to make sure no salty water dripped down in my eyes once I got in the tank. Most tanks have a spray bottle with fresh water either inside or sitting on top, so if you get salt water in your eyes, you can rinse it out right away. I decided to go completely naked, so I carefully stepped in and closed the door behind me. It was easy to get into a floating position (though you can sit up anytime you want), but it took some time for my neck to relax. Although it may feel like you are about to go under, you won't sink, and you can't roll over in the water because there is so much salt. I put my hands behind my head to support it at first, then gradually moved them away.

What it's like

At first, it just felt just like floating -- I even tapped into the side of the tank a few times (though barely). Eventually, I came to feel completely supported, comfortable and at ease. I didn't notice a smell, but have read other people's descriptions of slight "locker room" smells during their experiences.

I'm not a claustrophobic person, but if that's a concern for you, you can crack the door or leave it all the way open, or leave the light on, if the tank has one. You will still get some benefits from being weightless, whether or not you're in the dark. I found that once I got in, it looked the same if my eyes were open or closed, so I didn't really have the feeling of being closed into something. You can't see anything, and you can't hear much beyond your own heartbeat and breathing. (I'd recommend not eating a ton before, but don't go in hungry. A growling stomach can be really loud and distracting in the water.) The rooms and tanks are not soundproof, though, so if there was something going on in the next room or a fan was on above the tank, you might be able to hear it.

The first time, I was really stuck in my head. I was thinking about anything and everything, not sure what I was going to experience in there and mainly worrying about whether the woman at the desk set the timer (she did). All you have to do is relax, and music will come on to alert you when your session has ended.

It reminded me of being a beginning meditator, maybe even more difficult because once you remove every possible distraction, all you have are your thoughts. And your breath. And your heartbeat. Which is also what makes it so wonderful. After a while, I heard the music that meant the session was over.

When you first sit up in the tank, it's helpful to brush the extra salt water off of you, especially out of your hair. It's pretty easy to just sit down in the tank, but make sure you keep your head back so the salt water doesn't drip into your eyes! Also, be careful getting out, because the salt water is actually pretty slippery. Some tanks have a handle, others you just hang on to the base, just don't grab the door.

My fingertips were shriveled, much like after being in a bath, but the salts make your skin and hair super smooth. I was surprised that it didn't dry out my skin. After getting out, I made sure to use the provided eardrops, because I didn't use earplugs. The drops are typically either just vinegar or a vinegar and hydrogen peroxide mixture, designed to break up and wash out any salt that might be crystallizing in your ears. It helps get any water out, too.

After my float, I was told I could sit in the oversized chairs in the lobby as long as I needed to. I felt an increasing sense of calm and relaxation when I was able to take my time, sit outside for a few minutes after and ease back into my regular routine. I drank some water and relaxed there for a few minutes before getting in my car.

My second float was amazing because I was able to relax much more quickly. I went to another studio to try a different tank. While the other studio did not have the inversion table and binaural beats, music was piped inside the tank for the first 20 minutes. As soon as I got in, I started feeling relaxed. There was a little bit of the overthinking initially, but it all settled down pretty quickly, and I could have stayed there for much longer than 90 minutes.

Did it work?

The second time that I floated, I scheduled it the same day as a soccer game. It didn't completely eliminate my anxiety, but it definitely decreased it. I felt calm and relaxed for most of the day.

I asked Lopez about the effects she has seen athletes experience from floating. "It really varies for athletes on the benefits. Some find it helps them hone in and focus on the task as hand and goals of their endeavor, some find it enhances their performance, endurance and stamina and some use it to help to heal from practice or hard workouts or even from their event to get ready to prepare for the next ones."

I felt relaxed after my first float, but the second session felt really good. They say you get better at floating the more you do it, and I can definitely see that. I like that it's an hour or so of my day when I can't multi-task. I can't do anything except float there, so all I can do is relax.

I highly recommend trying it, and if you do, book a couple of sessions.