Floating For PTSD - Unbelievable Mind & Body “Therapy” In “Floatation Therapy” by Sarah Clark
Floatation or REST (Reduced Environmental Stimulation Therapy) …
Floating in silence and darkness in a float pod, away from the stresses and hustle and bustle of modern life when your brain doesn’t have to fulfil its usual tasks related to processing your external environment - you enter into this relaxing, timeless-sense-of-nothingness. Floating in a deeply healing and therapeutic void of time and space.
I didn’t discover floating until early June 2015. From the moment I first laid back and instantly floated in the 500kg of Epsom Salt (magnesium sulphate) in the water I fell in love with it. I felt such relief and joy that I knew I’d found something that could finally help me. Nothing else has allowed me to feel the incredible benefits of pain relief, rest and relaxation as floating does.
I have such a complex group of health issues that some of the more specialist teams I’ve been referred to (including the chronic pain team and services there to help with some of the specific traumatic issues I’ve been through) have turned me away saying they can’t help me because my problems are too complex. I’m probably as good an “advert” and “proof” as anyone of the numerous profound beneficial effects floating can have for someone.
Before you read any further – I’ll put a “trigger warning” on the rest of the article (discussions of self-harm, suicidal thoughts etc)
Floating is not for everyone. Most float centres have warnings about people with epilepsy, schizophrenia, heart conditions & pregnancy. Although I have total backing of my GP regarding floating but most other medical professionals, I’ve mentioned floating to have never even heard of it, despite its vast number of benefits. I was surprised the pain consultant had never heard of floating – he was very interested and said he’s used magnesium in anaesthesia. Magnesium itself is well known to help with pain.
My numerous chronic pain issues include chronic compartment syndrome in both legs (I used to over-exercise), carpal tunnel syndrome in both wrists, ulnar neuropathy, facet joint degeneration lower spine and 4 small disc herniation’s in my neck and back and some other aches and pains that are “medically unexplainable”, perhaps in part due to pain sensitisation where because of all my “true” pain issues my body misinterprets pain signals. I’ve got various physical health issues too. Emotionally - I’ve had a Borderline Personality Disorder diagnosis for the past 15 years. During the summer of 2018 I saw a much more specialized psychiatrist privately in London who agrees with me that Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is more fitting as my primary diagnosis. I’ve never formally had any treatment for PTSD. I mostly just try to deal with it on my own as health care professionals don’t get to see what I’m like halfway through the night after waking from a terrifying nightmare.
One of the additional aspects of “Complex” PTSD is something known as “emotional flashbacks” which are a lot harder to recognise you are going through because there is no visual aspect as there is in normal PTSD. In simple terms this happens at a subconscious level when even a small trigger makes you re-experience the emotions you had during the actual trauma. Often people themselves don’t even realise this is happening and to others their behaviour can seem very out-of-context for the present situation and their emotions can seem very dysregulated.
I experience most things at such emotional intensity that for example when I feel suicidal even the simple act of breathing, metaphorically hurts, because its entwined with continuing to live. I also walk around trying to get on with daily life and activities as best as I can at physical pain levels a lot of people would just be in bed with, let alone function. One float during a bad pain flare up – I experienced almost a total-pain-free hour in the float pod. Once I was given Fentanyl by an A&E consultant which is 50 to 100 times stronger than morphine, so that’s an indication of how extreme my pain levels can be!
I’ve tried several types of therapy designed to help with BPD and also been on a long list of medication, some with very nasty side effects. Therapy really is hard work. It’s an incredibly slow process. Mental health services very strongly advocate mindfulness, relaxation and breathing exercises and mostly wouldn’t accept the fact that I told them mindfulness doesn’t help me. It exacerbates my distress. Breathing exercises make me feel more panicky. I’ve looked into some research studies into mindfulness making symptoms worse for a small proportion of people with PTSD. Although during a float session you can use meditation strategies and forms of mindfulness - mindfulness and floating act on different parts of the brain.
I’ve also tried things like massage, acupuncture, a weighted-blanket, various pain creams, neuro-stimulation devices, CBD oil. Although I appreciate how strong the placebo effect can be, I’ve tried every new thing verging on the strong side of scepticism and negativity. Nothing benefits me as much as floating. Acupuncture or massage are roughly the same cost as a float session. I can see why it’s sometimes referred to as “floatation therapy” – it really is a kind of therapy. I’d recommend it to everyone and anyone – even someone 100% fit and healthy could benefit in so many ways.
As with a lot of experiences in life, your physiological and emotional states at the start of the experience can dictate exactly what and how much you get out of it. In a float tank – there’s so many different things the brain no longer has to do that it’s beyond the scope here to discuss them all. Just a few are – no longer having to process our external environment and orient us in time and space, deal with motion, speech….
When floating, our body and brain no longer has to fight against gravity. In a float tank it allows your spine to decompress and to rest at a more normal alignment. I’ve had quite severe back pain radiating to my legs when I’ve been in pain wherever I am – sitting, standing, laying down. Floating really helped then. Our bodies working against gravity also consumes a huge amount of daily energy. Floating also allows your muscles to totally relax.
My first session was at Floating Point Float Centre in Pangbourne, near Reading, and it was actually slightly ruined because I just kept thinking over and over again just what an amazing feeling it was! I was a little nervous as I didn’t know what to expect and if I might panic inside the float pod. I felt energized and ecstatic as soon as I got in the tank. I had music all the way through my first float. Initially I had the lid open and light on for ten minutes. But then subsequently went the whole hog in terms of lid closed, light off, no music. WOW!!! I experienced a sense of stillness in my mind that I had never felt before. I’ve been back to Floating Point several more times and would thoroughly recommend it. Their post-float sorbet in the chill out room is pretty tasty! Michael Cordova one of the owners is very knowledgeable and incredibly clued up about floating and very helpful indeed with any questions. He gave a TEDx talk in 2017.
The water temperature is maintained around skin temperature, after a while the water and air and your body are the same temperature and it’s hard to tell where one ends, and one starts. This gives a true “floating” and weightless feeling.
I’m essentially never free from even a low-level of anxious-feelings and have in the past experienced severe panic attacks. For me the most noticeable physiological bodily sensations of anxiety are noticing my heart pounding and how it feels harder to breathe. I’ve worked very hard to overcome my social anxiety over the past few years, and since I’ve been floating my anxiety has dropped even further. Dr Justin Feinstein (a Clinical Neuropsychologist) from the Laureate Institute of Brain Research in USA has spoken about “Clinical Floating” for anxiety and depression at The Float Conference for the past few years. There’s quite a bit on YouTube - It’s worth watching. His studies and research have shown marked benefits to some of the most anxious of patients.
When floating (if you chose to have no music and the light off) your brain no longer has to process external stimuli. It turns to a process referred to as “interoception” which is a lesser-known sense that helps you understand and feel what's going on inside your body. For most people when they float it’s your cardio-respiratory sensations that you notice the most – you can feel your heart beating and the sound of your own breathing (quite bizarrely you can even hear the sound of your eyes moving!). People like me perhaps have “anxiety sensitivity” and over time floating can help de-sensitize the brain in the floating environment (which feels very safe) to the noticeable cardio-respiratory sensations and then over time these exact same symptoms when anxious then become less noticeable and important. This can allow people to feel like they are suffering less from the anxiety symptoms and then start to do things again they were avoiding due to their anxiety levels.
How do you escape from the hell inside your head?
So often my emotions are so strong, and my thoughts are so obsessional and utterly terrifying that I just don’t want to be me anymore. From all the trauma I’ve been through in my life at the hands of other people, I know that the worse person ever to be afraid of and to be afraid of them causing you harm – is actually yourself. You cannot escape from yourself.
You are inside your own head. You cannot run away from your thoughts and emotions.
Why then should I find being in a float tank where my mind focuses on what’s going on inside my own body help me so much? Strangely, for me anyway, the interoception experience when floating IS the escape – from myself. You become more aware of your body internally. It may sound totally bizarre and even contradictory here that I’m saying it offers me such profound relief from my suffering. It does seem strange to me too. I think somehow it just offers me a sense of connectedness to my body (which I despise and hate) and that in itself is part of the calming process I go through when I float.
I thought I would feel claustrophobic before I tried floating as I always need an escape route planned but being in total quiet and total darkness inside a float tank is literally often the ONLY time when I feel very calm, safe and I can enter levels of relaxation I’ve never experienced before or even dreamed of. I’ve tried a float cabin once but found the experience no way near as beneficial as the safe and secure feeling in a float pod.
Sadly because of all the trauma I’ve been through I self-harm to cope with the stress and tension I feel. Obviously when I’ve self-harmed it means I then won’t be able to go floating for quite a while until the wounds heal properly. I’ve previously travelled to Pangbourne, London, Southampton and Hove and Brighton to float. Floating has been a massive motivator not to self-harm which is just a very quick-fit with short term release compared to the incredible benefits to my mind and body that lasup to a few weeks I get from a float.
I’ve not been officially diagnosed with OCD, but because of some of the obsessive behaviour I have floating also gives me a break from things that I feel compelled to do and certain obsessive behaviours. It also makes me want to stop my hands from getting so sore from the amount I wash my hands.
I am never far at all from my phone or iPad I’m keen to learn and I forever seem to be googling questions my inquisitive mind asks. Usually not having a vague idea of the time causes me distress. However, in the float tank I know I’m in there for an hour and my mind stops wanting to look at my phone, I stop wanting to know or check the time.
I constantly have a “stressed-out” feeling. I think that my mind and thoughts are always in overdrive. I’m constantly looking out for danger, hyper-vigilant. I have an overactive startle-response. Experiencing severe and prolonged traumatic events can lead to over-activation of the fight-or-flight, over-activation of the parasympathetic nervous system and chronic activation of the sympathetic nervous system. My HPA axis must be in overdrive!
If I try and rest at home I just can’t. Often my thoughts and emotions scare me so much I can’t tolerate doing “nothing” as I end up looking at my phone or finding some other distraction. As I said earlier on, I’ve been trying with mindfulness and breathing exercises for years – only to find it always just makes me more panicky and intensifies my emotional distress levels. In a float tank where there is no light, no noise – it’s such a restful environment for someone like me. Like none-other. Before I tried floating – I didn’t really even know what it felt to be able to relax and feel calm and still!
It improves my sleep too, from a couple of nights after a float to a just over a week. Sometimes 3 or 4 hours sleep a night is “good” for me due to physical pain. One float in particular I’d been in so much pain I’d not slept more than 3 hours per night for 2 whole weeks and I came out the float tank literally laughing because my pain wasn’t there for the hour in the float pod and I felt so mentally and physically rested and so happy. I’d been so low for a while because of my pain levels I couldn’t remember the last time I had laughed at all. I was laughing that day, and I felt so happy I continued to laugh in the shower and getting dressed! Literally like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders (both physically and mentally).
And from what I know about neurotransmitters - because I find floating so helpful then perhaps there’s no wonder I keep coming back for more!! Studies have shown that floating stimulates the release of various neurotransmitters. One being dopamine which is related to the reward-centre in the brain. Floating has also been shown to decrease levels of the stress-related hormone cortisol. Just an increase in endorphins and decrease in cortisol in itself has incredible pain reliving powers on the body.
Floating is known to alter brain waves states – many people’s brains enter into theta or delta states. Which are deep meditative conscious relaxation states. (And in case you’ve never heard of them – I would also recommend trying “binaural beats” – these seem to help me a lot too – I won’t explain here but it’s worth googling!)
I am aiming to float more frequently now there’s somewhere so close to where I live - it’s really got the potential to be a life-changer. If I sleep better, am in less pain, and little breaks (in the tank) now and again then it will just give me some time-out from my hectic mind, stress and suffering. It will improve the quality of my life and I’ll be able to do more things I enjoy (and need to do!).
It’s very true that they say each float session you do is different. For me, whether that be pain relief, relaxation, mood enhancement etc. floating gives me a sense of hope. As soon as I step out of a float session, I’m straight away looking forward with optimism to find out what benefits my next float will bring me…
… Go on, give it a go, and if you don’t like it then just get out early and don’t go back!
If you are interested in finding out more, https://www.clinicalfloatation.com is well worth looking at. Most float centre websites also explain how floating can help and what exactly it is, as well as how it started.
With thanks to Michael Cordova from Floating Point Float Centre for input to this article and answering my many questions!