On the January 30, 2023 episode of The Higherside Chats, Dr. Justin Feinstein – clinical neuro-psychologist, expert in the neuroscience of fear, and president and director of The Float Research Collective, laid out his thoughts on why float therapy is such an amazing option for the mental and physical health of those who choose to partake. As a neuroscientist with over 50 peer-reviewed publications in leading journals, Dr. Feinstein has an interest and focus in making sure that his regard for floating and thinking behind the benefits of float therapy are evidence-based.
Dr. Feinstein’s findings show that it’s not so much “sensory deprivation” as it is the ability to be more intentionally aware, by not being surrounded by so much “outside stimulus.” He talks about being “alone with yourself” as a positive benefit, despite floaters initial concerns around the idea of it. His research concluded that “when left to their own devices,” people who originally didn’t want to be in a room by themselves for even a few minutes, “ended up spending 75 minutes, on average, per float” when typical float sessions are about an hour. He believes this is due to the calming environment elicited by the float experience, where the nervous system “just relaxes” like “a reflex. Floaters may experience a deep state of relaxation and enjoy floating as an additional mindfulness practice. He states that,
“All of our research indicates that when you are floating, you feel the visceral body, you feel the breath very intensely…It puts you in a very basic state of sentience. And when you’re focusing on things like breath, suddenly what people are trying to achieve in these sort of mindfulness-based meditations, where they are focusing on the breath, becomes amplified…meditation becomes so much easier in this environment.”
All of these benefits for the nervous system will be seen in the arena of sleep improvement. There’s data that says, “floating will improve the quality of your sleep and make it easier to transition into sleep.” This means that not only will the floater get to sleep faster, but they’ll sleep better all-around too. This advantage is seen in even a single float, and will often last for a couple of days after the experience. Part of the reason for this could be from the brainwave state that the floater is able to encounter. The Delta brain waves, which correspond to “deep, dreamless, no REM sleep” states, have been found in those studied – but while conscious and awake in the float. In other words, the brain itself is able to get into a mode that is, in a common sense, only found while getting really good sleep. And it is in sleep that a great deal of our healing takes place, as well as the management of our consciousness.
Two of the main foci of Dr. Feinstein’s work has been in the realms of treating pain relief and treating addiction, both of which can tie-in with his interest in being able to help those with mental health concerns. Indeed, some early uses of float-tank therapy were with Navy SEALS who were dealing with not only physical pain but PTSD as well. “Floating is one of the few places where you’re in these zero gravity-like states and you’re able to decompress the spinal cord.” He goes on to say, “all those muscles around the spinal cord relax, the tension is released, and now the spinal cord can actually decompress from the forces of gravity. And that’s a really unique state, and lots of patients with chronic back pain are reporting immediate benefits from floating that will often persevere for a day or two” after the float experience – similar to what was reported with sleep. Just as the nervous system is able to release when separated from all the outside stimulation, the muscles are able to release as the buoyancy of the water carries the weight of the body without causing any undue tension. Dr. Feinstein found that, “within an hour of entering the pool, your stress levels dramatically reduce and your muscle tension [also] dramatically reduces.” This is especially true for those who suffer from back pain.
In addition to this relief, patients on opioids have reported that the “effects” of floating “are as good” as the medications, without them “feeling zombified after.” They don’t “feel sedated.” They come out “clear-headed, clear-minded, and ready to ‘take on the world.” Indeed, Dr. Feinstein says that float therapy is making a “dent” against needing benzodiazepines and opioids and that he and his team are actively “trying to fight” against having “adverse events and addiction” that can come with other treatments and modalities. He even sees float therapy as an “antidote” to technology addiction and the “constant connectivity of modern society and not needing to self-medicate.”
Under the right circumstances, float therapy can be an amazing antidote for individuals struggling with symptoms of trauma. The traumatized brain will have the amygdala, which helps process emotions, hijacked so that individuals are emotionally experiencing fight, flight, or freeze feelings – even well after the initial threat is no longer a direct menace. With less nervous system overload during a float experience, people are able to get their minds focused more on the present moment, which is vital in the treatment of trauma.
Individuals with trauma often also have problems that arise from constant pain – emotional or physical – stuck in the body. Being able to provide relief from this pain and suffering drastically increases the quality of life for an individual. Even those with chronic conditions such as depression and anxiety have been shown to have rewarding experiences after a single float session, with effects that can last for a few days afterwards. These individuals found distinct “reduction[s] in stress and anxiety,” Feinstein reports, and a “boost in mood” even in patients with depression. This feeling persevered over several days.
Feinstein also found, specifically, “highly reliable reduction in…’state anxiety’…on average about a 14-point reduction on the Spielberger State Anxiety Inventory from pre-to-post float; and we found this in all the different types of patients we studied. It seems that it’s a really great environment for inducing a state of homeostasis in the nervous system. And there’s very few technologies that I’m aware of that could do that as rapidly and as effectively as floating.”
While not claiming floating to be any sort of panacea, something that will completely rectify all difficulties and diseases instantly, Dr. Feinstein did relate that floating has “such a reliable benefit with so little downside.” He has spent years applying his neuroscience background to seeing and proving the many, many benefits of floating. Whether it is just trying to relax and disconnect from the proverbial hustle-and-bustle of contemporary living, or one is having to deal with pain on the physical, mental, and/or emotional planes, floating can provide relief as well as healing and it is a healthy option, free of addiction and the harmful side-effects so often found in pharmaceuticals.
*Author’s note: Dr. Feinstein said that most of his research was done in an open pool float experience (instead of a closed pod), which is the float environment we have at Stella Luna Counseling and Wellness .
If this scientific post is making you curious about the benefits of a flotation experience, we would love to usher you into the tranquility, calm and mental alacrity that comes from floating. Learn more about our newly installed float tank in Cleveland by visiting this page . Have questions? We’re all ears – contact us here . Lastly, you can make a reservation to enjoy our float tank – by yourself or with someone you’d also like to enjoy the experience – by booking an appointment here . Thanks for reading!
Some relevant article links:
Flotation Restricted Environmental Stimulation Therapy for Chronic Pain
The Elicitation of Relaxation and Interoceptive Awareness Using Floatation Therapy in Individuals with High Anxiety Sensitivity
Preventing Sick-leave for Sufferers of High Stress-load and Burnout Syndrome: A Pilot Study Combining Psychotherapy and the Flotation tank:
A list of other podcast episodes Dr. Feinstein has participated within
John has a Bachelors in Communication from Cleveland State University and has made a career in child and adolescent mental health, working in residential, community, and day treatment settings in a variety of roles. He also has a rich work history which includes retail, performance, fitness, and construction.