New Promising Research on Flotation Therapy for Anxiety Sufferers

New Promising Research on Flotation Therapy for Anxiety Sufferers

By Sean Sparks October 15, 2016 Edit

Are there differences relaxing in a float tank compared to a bath tub, chair, or bed?

Dr. Justin Feinstein, clinical neuropsychologist and director at the Laureate Institute for Brain Research (LIBR) float clinic and research center, is conducting clinical research to answer that question. Pilot trials have begun in patients who suffer from an anxiety disorder, specifically PTSD, panic disorder, and anorexia nervosa. Pre- and  post-fMRI brain scans are being used to compare the areas of the brain that are affected between a relaxation chair group versus a float group. Preliminary studies are showing how connectivity between specific brain regions correlates with the degree of post-float anxiety reduction.

What is an anxiety disorder?

According to the Mayo Clinic, “experiencing occasional anxiety is a normal part of life. However, people with anxiety disorders frequently have intense, excessive and persistent worry and fear about everyday situations.” Anxiety is the most common type of psychiatric condition affecting about 40 million Americans. Anxiety disorders are nearly twice as common as depression, although they often go hand and hand. Unfortunately, only about a third of those with an anxiety disorder get treatment, usually due to avoidance.

What are the different types of anxiety disorders?

According to Helpguide.org, there are six major types of anxiety disorders.

  • Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD) – People with GAD are chronic worrywarts who feel anxious nearly all of the time, though they may not even know why. Anxiety related to GAD often shows up as physical symptoms like insomnia, stomach upset, restlessness, and fatigue.
  • Anxiety attacks(panic disorder)  – characterized by repeated, unexpected panic attacks, as well as fear of experiencing another episode
  • Obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD)  – characterized by unwanted thoughts or behaviors that seem impossible to stop or control
  • Phobia – an unrealistic or exaggerated fear of a specific object, activity, or situation that in reality presents little to no danger
  • Social anxiety disorder – a debilitating fear of being seen negatively by others and humiliated in public
  • Post-traumatic stress disorder – an extreme anxiety disorder that can occur in the aftermath of a traumatic or life-threatening event

Past Research on Flotation

Past research done on healthy participants has shown to significantly reduce stress and anxiety compared to pre- and post-float. Physiological forms of stress and anxiety, such as cortisol, heart rate, and blood pressure, also go down. Flotation has shown to improve sleep, as well. Dr. Feinstein characterizes flotation as, “a physiological treatment that is reducing all of the anxious states within our body and within our mind.”

What is interoception?

Interoception gives us information regarding the internal condition of our body. During a float, environmental input, including vision, hearing, speech, movement, tactile sensation, and proprioception, are dramatically reduced while all the signals coming from the internal body are heightened, especially the heart and breath. Dr. Feinstein says, “rather than a form of sensory deprivation, it’s actually a form of sensory enhancement, but for the internal body.” He proposes the question, “how do you go into a float tank with a lot of stress and anxiety, put your brain into this sensory reduced state, and you come out feeling a lot better?”

What is the Salience Network?

In 2007, William Seeley, a neurologist at the University of California, San Francisco, and collaborator Michael Greicius identified a salience network in The Journal of Neuroscience. In Quanta Magazine’s article, Inside a Brain Circuit, the Will to Press On, Seely says,”our brain is constantly bombarded by sensory information, and we have to score all that information in terms of how personally relevant it is for guiding our behavior.” He continues, “the more salient something is, the more it captures our drive system, which directs behavior. An object or event is salient if it is significant to an individual. The signals can come from inside the body, such as pain or hunger, or outside, such as the sound of a distant siren while driving in traffic. The salience network is thought to be central in prepping the brain for action, such as when a driver must respond to someone darting across the road or a student readies herself for a pop quiz.”

In his speech at the 2016 Float Conference, Dr. Feinstein says, “the salience network comprises two brain regions, the right anterior insula and the dorsal anterior cingulate.” According to Atkinson Pain Research Laboratory, the right anterior insula seems to provide “emotional awareness”. This meta analysis shows that the dorsal anterior cingulate is activating in negative emotion, pain, and cognitive control. It has been found that the level of connectivity between these regions correlates with how anxious people are during a brain scan. Not only are these areas important for people that suffer from anxiety, it was also shown in a recent meta analysis with over 16,000 individuals that irrespective of diagnosis, the brain regions most heavily implicated across mental illness are the dorsal anterior cingulate and the anterior insula. Since floating appears to modulate functional connectivity in the brain’s salience network, Dr. Feinstein wants to know, “what happens to the salience network after the float?”

A New Pilot Study

Dr. Feinstein is trying to understand the effects of reduced environmental stimulation on the brain, meaning reduced light, reduced sound, and reduced pressure on the spinal cord. Forty healthy participants, between the ages of 18 to 52 years old were able to choose from floating in the pool or chair for 90 minutes. Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain scans were taken prior to the first and after the third float to determine what areas of the brain are being affected. Each participant floated in the pool or chair three times and were asked, “overall how was your float experience?” The subjects could answer anywhere from extremely unpleasant to extremely pleasant. All but one person that floated in the chair found it mildly unpleasant. Everyone else found the chair and the pool mildly pleasurable to extremely pleasurable. People were also coming out of the float pool saying that they felt more serene, more so than the chair group. A significant drop in anxiety was also documented specific to the float pool group.

How Does Floating Relate to Anxiety?

“After floating in the pool, there was significantly less connectivity between the right anterior insula and the dorsal anterior cingulate. These brain regions are known to be critically involved in mental illness and the generation of anxiety, providing evidence that floating is modulating a vital neural circuit for mental health. The degree of post-float connectivity was significantly correlated with the same degree of post-float anxiety reduction, thus providing a potential biomarker for the anti-anxiety effects of floating.”

A Promising New Treatment for Anxiety Sufferers

Although this is preliminary research, there is strong evidence from clinical fMRI brain scans showing that flotation therapy affects the same regions of the brain in healthy people that suffer from anxiety. Since this is a relatively new area of study for neuroscience, more studies are needed to learn what other populations may benefit from floating. If you are interested in using flotation therapy as part of a plan to help with anxiety, remember to consult with your doctor first, especially if you take prescription medications. You can search online for a float center near you at Floatation Locations.