Several years ago, I developed severe anxiety that lasted a full year. It was shocking, as I had never been an anxious person before that. I’ve since recovered, but I still hadn’t completely regained my prior calm… until now!
I’m going to be talking about anxiety and sensory deprivation tanks, but even if you don’t struggle with anxiety or wish to float in an alien pod, I think you’ll find the broader concept applicable to other areas of life.
Enter: Sensory Deprivation Tanks
I talked to subscribers about this last week, but here’s a brief summary of how these work: A sensory deprivation tank is an 8-foot long “pod” filled with water that’s super saturated with hundreds of pounds of epsom salts. The salt is several times more concentrated than the Dead Sea, so when you step in and lie down on your back, you’ll float. Your eyes, nose, and mouth will all be above water without any effort on your part. Not only that, but this pod has a lid on it that you can shut and you wear ear plugs. Better yet, the water is warmed to human skin temperature, so it’s barely noticeable.
You float in complete darkness and silence for 1-2 hours. It’s the most relaxing experience I’ve ever had, but what blows my mind is that relaxation is not limited to your time in the pod. It follows you home.
A study found that 12 sessions in a sensory deprivation tank caused full remission in 37% of people who had Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). That’s interesting, but this next tidbit is mind-blowing. Six months later, they maintained the remission. Now, 37% isn’t a super high success rate, but for those approximately 4 out of 10 people that experienced it, it is absolutely life-changing. I don’t currently have GAD, but I had it for over a year of my life, and it is miserable to feel anxious all the time for no reason.
After my first six floating sessions in a sensory deprivation tank, I think I know why it worked for those people. For the last week, I’ve felt calmer than I’ve ever felt before in my life.
Like those study participants, my sense of calm is not going to go away because I’ve relearned how to relax.
Feeling Anxious About Feeling Anxious
You can’t tell someone with chronic anxiety to “just relax.” That’s not the answer, just as you can’t tell a depressed person to “perk up” and expect that to work. When I had anxiety, my mind was constantly fixated on the feelings and sensations of my body (most notably, all the sensations that come with anxiety). After this spiraled for some time, I literally didn’t know how to relax anymore. I could not figure it out. I had forgotten what it was like to be calm and relaxed, and had no idea how to get it back. It took me over a year to figure it out, and I’m good at problem solving. This was a cyclical feeling problem, not a rational problem, hence my struggle.
Anxiety can cause anxiety. If you somehow become anxious about feeling anxious as I did, you’re at risk for an anxiety spiral. Then you have to figure out some way to break the cycle. I know of one way.
A sensory deprivation tank doesn’t just look like an alien pod—being inside one is like entering another world. Once inside, your mind is separated from the everyday sensations you’ve never been separated from. Sleeping doesn’t count, because it’s not conscious relaxation. Even if you can sleep, it doesn’t mean you know how to relax while awake.
In the tank, you have no sight, no sounds, and very little feeling if you lie still (as the water is warmed to skin temperature). You’re floating in darkness, awake, and there’s just nothing there. In such an intense modern world, this is one of the very few safe havens for the conscious mind. It’s potentially life changing for people trapped in a cycle of worry and anxiety. Meditation has changed many lives by this same mechanism; the tank just makes it an easier and more powerful process. In fact, if you do get the chance to enter a sensory deprivation tank, I recommend meditating while you’re inside for the maximum benefit.
I’m always seeking the right answers, and I always seem to arrive at practice as the recurring best answer. My theory on sensory deprivation tanks making such a huge difference for so many people who try them is simple: they give people who have forgotten how to relax a chance to relearn that skill.
When baseball players train, do they try not to hit the air around the ball or do they practice hitting the ball?
The answer is obvious—they try to hit the ball accurately, and they repeat this over and over until it becomes second nature. “Second nature” is the subconscious.
Repetition has always been the one and only way for humans to intentionally mould the subconscious to their liking. Mini Habits took this basic truth and drew the logical conclusion that consistency mattered more than anything else, including goal size. If consistency matters most, and it does for habit-related pursuits, smaller goals are always superior because they are easier to do consistently.
Lesson: Don’t try to avoid the wrong way. Repeat the process and result that you want so that the subconscious learns the correct way.
(Note: the above concept plays a big part in my upcoming weight loss book.)
Here’s the big insight that took me a while to figure out: Those who struggle with anxiety fail because they try to stop it. Picture a baseball player trying everything he can to not hit the air around the ball (hence hitting the ball). It sounds weird because it doesn’t make sense. You don’t hit targets by avoiding everything else but them, you hit them by aiming directly for them.
The way to calmness is not through avoiding anxiousness. Anxious people need to practice being calm. And therein lies the challenge. How does one “be calm?” Because many people have forgotten how to be calm and don’t know what to do, they feel like their only option is to stop being anxious, but that doesn’t work and often worsens the problem.
Meditation is the best mainstream way of practicing calmness, and it is indeed extremely powerful. But this whole floating on your back in a saltwater alien pod thing? It’s even better. It combines the mindful and calming effects of meditation with complete physical relaxation (due to effortless floating on top of the water) and sensory deprivation. It can reteach you how to be calm in mind by physically relaxing your body and removing all stressful stimuli. It’s calm practice! In addition, since float tanks typically use hundreds of pounds of epsom salt, which is magnesium sulfate, your skin absorbs some of the magnesium, which relaxes us at the cellular level. Magnesium supplementation was actually a key way I initially recovered from anxiety.
Here are my float experiences.
- The first float was amazing. A unique experience. It took me about 30-40 minutes to relax, but when I did, it was phenomenal and the effect lasted all day.
- Since I was relaxed from the first float, I entered a deeper relaxation faster on this second float. I was hooked.
- This was the most relaxing float yet. My relaxation kept accumulating!
- On my fourth float, I did a two hour session. It was interesting because I had the most issues. My ear plug let some water in, I got some of the salt water on my face and eyes, and I didn’t do a great job of meditating. But it still produced a great result. Unlike the other sessions in which I walked out like a zombie, I came out of the two hour session refreshed but alert. My theory is that like sleep cycles, my body got the relaxation benefit it needed and came out of it. I don’t know.
- Back to a one hour float, this was not exponentially more relaxing than the last ones had been, but it was just as great.
- I had the weekend off from floating, so this sixth float was on a Monday. I couldn’t wait to get back in the pod for an hour, and it was great. I was so relaxed that I fell asleep in the lounge afterwards.
I’ve also been struggling with a neck strain, and as you might imagine, floating and relaxing like this has been wonderful for reducing pain and accelerating healing. I’m smitten with “floating” mostly because it’s lowered my baseline stress level. I’ve also regained the ability to relax myself on demand. At the moment, I’m going so frequently because I love it, and also because it’s a 5 mile round trip walk, and I haven’t been able to exercise with my neck injury. It’s been a Godsend, and if you struggle with stress or anxiety, I urge you to try it.
As for the 37% in the study who were able to reverse their chronic anxiety, I think the reason is clear—their relaxation practice was effective. They learned how to be and stay calm in daily life. Once you learn how to do something, it takes a lot to forget it, which is why they remained calm after six months. As for why only 37% experienced full remission, I don’t know, but I would guess that some people weren’t able to relax inside the pod and enter into that deep meditative state (perhaps due to claustrophobia).
The float pod gives people an easy starting point for relaxation. When you’re in darkness with no external input, being calm and relaxed is SO SO much easier to do. Some research suggests that this type of environment even relaxes us biologically before we consciously do it.
There are certainly more questions about this odd practice, but I’ve seen enough to keep getting in that alien pod. I’m thankful for unlimited memberships, or else this would be a very expensive habit.