The Science Behind Floating and Relaxation

To resolution or not? Perhaps we don’t have to choose. Reducing stress and increasing relaxation are pretty appealing aspirations for all of us, whether we commit to them with gusto on January 1st or just have a fleeting flirtation with them on a Tuesday in April while slogging through our commute. Sometimes the thought of embarking on a journey of stress-reduction is, in itself, stress-inducing, and thus, we do nothing. Sometimes change feels incredibly daunting and complicated even if the payoff is positive.

Sometime soon, in a neighborhood near you, you will have an opportunity to unplug from the parts of your life that are stressful and tune in to an experience that offers quiet rest with little effort. What if you didn’t have to make monumental resolutions to profoundly improve the quality of your life? Welcome to floating.

Although we all know stress is not healthy, what does science actually say about the subject (1)? Robert Sapolsky is an American neuroendocrinologist and professor of biology, neuroscience and neurosurgery at Stanford University. In his widely-acclaimed book, Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers, Sapolsky succinctly explains why stress is a problem.

“A large body of evidence suggests that stress-related disease emerges, predominantly, out of the fact that we often activate a physiological system that has evolved for responding to acute physical emergencies, but we turn it on for months on end, worrying about mortgages, relationships, and promotions” (2).

So the stress-response mechanisms in our body, which were meant to help us handle an acute crisis, get stuck in the “on” position. Yeah, that’s a problem. But, luckily, science also has quite a lot to say about how relaxation can help us to avoid the most damaging effects of stress.

The National Institute of Health (NIH) website lists a substantial number of diseases which have been effectively treated using relaxation techniques. “In contrast to the stress response, the relaxation response slows the heart rate, lowers blood pressure, and decreases oxygen consumption and levels of stress hormones. Because relaxation is the opposite of stress, the theory is that voluntarily creating the relaxation response through regular use of relaxation techniques could counteract the negative effects of stress” (3). In other words, through relaxation, we help switch our stress- response button to the “off” position, thus giving our bodies and minds a chance to reset.

Floatation therapy is just one relaxation technique of many; however, it is gaining notoriety as an effective, simple method of relaxation. You enter the float tank, you lie back in extremely salinated water–thanks to the 1,000 pounds of Epsom salt dissolved in the warm water of your personal tank– and you effortlessly float. You may sleep, daydream, actually hear and feel your breath for a change, and disconnect from the pressures and stressors of everyday life.

New research is ongoing, but a number of studies have already shown the promising benefits of floatation therapy (often referred to as REST, or Restricted Environmental Stimulation Technique). One such study out of the Netherlands is indicative of the general findings.

“The results showed that REST has positive effects on outcomes relating to physiology, well-being, and performance…The findings from our study suggest that flotation REST might be a valuable alternative to other stress-management techniques. It has relaxing, mood-, and performance-enhancing effects that seem to be more profound than those of other relaxation techniques. Especially in the field of burnout and chronic fatigue, REST could have practical use…Our results show that REST is most effective particularly in those areas (4)”.

Floatation therapy provides many of the same profound benefits as meditation without the need to “practice” or spend hours trying to convince your knees that the Lotus position is actually really comfortable. Don’t get me wrong; meditation is an amazing and valuable tool, but its requirements sometimes intimidate us despite our longing to reap its rewards. Floating is an open door. Walk in, lie back and allow yourself an experience that just might change your life for the better.

  1. http://www.collective-evolution.com/2014/10/24/science-says-stress-is-killing-us-do-you-know-why/
  2. Sapolsky, Robert M., Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers. (2004). Henry Holt and Company, LLC, page 6.
  3. https://nccih.nih.gov/health/stress/relaxation.htm
  4. http://saltuary.com.au/wp/wp-content/uploads/2012/10/Dutch-2004-meta_analysis_REST.pdf

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