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The Mystery of the Floatation Tank

1980. William Hurt’s first leading role was in a science fiction movie called Altered States which created a flood of interest in the floatation tank that continues 30 years later. In the movie, Hurt’s character uses the floatation tank to enhance the effect of the drugs he’s taking to achieve higher consciousness. Thanks to the movie and to widespread media attention, this idea of using the floatation tank to achieve a higher state of consciousness was seized on by millions and floating became very popular with people looking to have an experience.

Nationwide interest in the floatation tank prompted scientific research into its benefits. During the 1980s when floatation tank popularity was at its height, very promising research was presented that showed the floatation tank offered a wide variety of benefits such as relieving back pain, improving creativity, reducing headaches, reducing the pain associated with late-term pregancy, improving athletic performance and more. Time magazine reported on pro sports teams and Olympic athletes using the floatation tank and improving their game. The future looked very bright for the floatation tank.

Then AIDS panic hit, and many people feared they were at risk by using the floatation tank. Interest took a dive, leading to manufacturers and businesses going under, discouraging further promotion of the many benefits of the floatation tank. However a handful of manufacturers and promoters weathered the storm and helped to bring the floatation tank into the 21st century. The floatation tank has found popularity in many European spas, though a revival is yet to be seen in the US where it all began. If the internet is any indication, then much of the current American interest in the floatation tank is from young people wanting to use the floatation tank to enhance their drug use.

I’ve been researching publicly available information for the past six years and have seen very little reporting on the therapeutic or athletic benefits of the floatation tank. Many spa owners who provide the service have inadvertently undermined themselves by focusing primarily on the relaxation benefits, which puts the floatation tank on equal footing with massage in many people’s minds. When this comparison is made, massage usually wins since there’s not much mystery to massage, whereas the floatation tank is still commonly misunderstood, even after being widely available for over 30 years.

The floatation tank used to be referred to as a sensory deprivation tank, an outdated term that has a negative connotation. However, there’s nothing scary or unpleasant about floating like an astronaut in skin-temperature water that leaves your skin silky and your mind clear. When I asked my nine year old stepson why he enjoyed the floatation tank despite the fact he was afraid of going to bed with the lights off, he replied very matter-of-factly “In the tank, there’s nowhere for the monsters to hide.”

I discovered the floatation tank in 1999, before I watched Altered States and long after the AIDS scare was put to rest. Not knowing anyone who had done it before me, I went in merely curious, without any expectations. What I learned my first time is that the deep relaxation caused by floating weightless in 800-1000 lbs of dissolved Epsom salt caused my brain to release so many endorphins that after an hour, I emerged from the tank euphoric. I left the spa feeling like I was walking on the moon – just a fraction of my weight. I understood why the tank captivates many people who seek an experience.

Two years later, I returned to the floatation tank for a very different reason. I had been experiencing intermittent sciatic pain for six years and it was getting worse each time. In the spring of 2001, it was so bad I was barely able to walk. I went to see a chiropractor but the adjustments caused me even more pain. I was on pain meds but they weren’t helping. Then I remembered the relaxing experience I’d had a couple years earlier and hoped I could get some relief, especially since lying in bed was so painful that I’d barely slept in days.

To my amazement, the floatation tank took me from a 9 on the pain scale to a 0 in less than an hour. I was able to avoid back surgery thanks to the floatation tank. I still have a pinched nerve, but I no longer struggle with debilitating sciatic pain. A few years later, my wife and I opened a spa where we provided floatation tank services. This gave me the opportunity to witness 100s of people get impressive relief from acute stress, back pain, muscle pain, fibromyalgia, sports injuries, arthritis and more. I know now that my experience wasn’t a fluke and that the floatation tank is no mystery, but rather a powerful and natural tool for a wide variety of valuable benefits.


One Response

  1. Dave Conroy says:

    Frank,
    That was a terrific piece you wrote on floatation. I am looking to open a center myself for the same reasons you indicated. Fortunately i haven’t floated for pain relief, however, i truly believe in its benefits in that regard. Helping people help themselves is the way i see it. Get in touch if you’d like to share some ideas. Be well!!

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