Flotation therapy is an alternative medical treatment that may seem like what William Hurt’s character was doing in the movie Altered States, but is actually a way of reducing high blood pressure and treating chronic pain. You may actually achieve an altered state of consciousness during flotation therapy, but for most people that altered state is going to be a lessening of their medical problems rather than turning into some kind missing link ape-man like Hurt’s character did.
Flotation therapy was developed in the 1950s by Dr. John Lilly. Lilly was a neurophysiologist as well as a shrink and he was experimenting with that same kind of sensory deprivation as practiced in Altered States. He found that the effect of feeling almost weightless while floating in water instilled in the person a sense of profound relaxation that even meditation could not bring about. Lilly also discovered that sensory deprivation also increased both the imaginative and cognitive abilities of the person floating in the water.
The flotation therapy tank typically is about 8 feet long and 4 feet wide. Usually the flotation tanks contain only about 10 inches of water. It is not exactly the same kind of sensation you get floating in the ocean or inside your pool. For one thing you don’t need to wave your arms during this alternative medical treatment to stay afloat. And afloat you are intended to be for as long as two hours. The medical treatment that a person actually gets through flotation therapy is that release of endorphins that causes runner’s high and allows a person to make it through severe pain when there is no escape. The release of endorphins are like a natural form of morphine.
The question that must arise is why the process involved in flotation therapy releases those endorphins. The tank is enclosed and very dark and you wear earphones to allow for complete and total silence. If you prefer, you can have relaxing music piped into your flotation tank. The question that has arisen is really never satisfactorily answered. You are completely alone and experiencing that weightless sensation and you just allow your mind to roam. It’s kind of anti-depressant medication; nobody knows for sure why it works, only that for many people it does.
Flotation therapy as an alternative medical treatment for chronic pain has been shown to reduce pain associated with tension headaches as well as neck and back pain. Flotation therapy may be even more useful in treating anxiety and stress. If for no other reason than that you can get away from the stresses and anxiety of the real world while you are inside the tank, this is true. The relaxation afforded by flotation therapy (obviously, this would not be true for someone suffering from claustrophobia) means a reduction in heart rate and an overall better sense of well-being.