I Spent One Hour In A Sensory Deprivation Tank To See If Float Therapy Would Wash Away My Angst

by Alex Cavallo

I don’t like to be alone with my thoughts — it can get scary in there! I’m not talking about “I hear the voice of the canine familiar of Satan commanding me to kill” scary; these days, it’s more like a struggle with the stresses of everyday life compounded by existential angst.

And I’m more prone to existential angst than most. So I decided to try float therapy.

There’s been a lot of buzz about float (or “floatation”) therapy lately, though the wellness trend actually dates back to the ’50s. According to the New York Times, the first float tank was created in 1954 by a neuropsychiatrist named Dr. John C. Lilly who was interested in studying the effects of sensory deprivation on the brain. Dr. Lilly’s design was eventually adapted for use in the field of health care in the 1970s by a computer programmer by the name of Glenn Perry.

Fast-forward to the ’80s when the float therapy wellness trend was booming, the likes of Anthony Bourdain and John Lennon crediting the tanks for healing their ailments — that is, until the AIDs panic effectively shut down the practice. (People were mistakenly afraid of shared water, believing you could contract the virus through it.)

However, like all trends, floatation therapy has proved to be cyclical, and in recent years it’s become more prevalent than ever before.

I’ve tried actual therapy more than a few times, but I never really got much out of it. (This could be because I usually think I’m smarter than my therapist, which is probably something else that requires expert analysis.) I figured trying float therapy couldn’t hurt. I’ll admit I was skeptical about it, as I am about any and all new age-y wellness trends, but decided to give it a try.

So What Is Float Therapy?

So What Is Float Therapy?

Float therapy involves entering a sensory deprivation tank filled with water that’s salty enough to make your body completely buoyant so that you’ll float effortlessly. The tanks come in various designs, from pods with lids that seal over you like a giant clamshell (terrifying) to self-contained chambers.

Once inside the tank, the floater is completely sealed off from the noise (physical and metaphysical) of the outside world. Usually, the tanks are completely dark as well as silent, ensuring that floaters are completely and utterly alone with their thoughts.

This does not sound soothing or rejuvenating to me. This sounds like a nightmare. However, testimonials online and from my own friends who have tried float therapy assure me that not only is it not a nightmare, it’s one of the most spiritually cleansing things you can do for yourself.

I once visited a psychic over a bachelorette party weekend, who informed me that I had the dirtiest aura she had ever read — and went so far as to offer to travel to my home to clean it for me. (I politely declined.) I suppose a little spiritual cleansing might do me some good.

As a float therapy rookie, I’m not sure what to look for in a sensory deprivation chamber (least stimulation possible?), so I choose one that is relatively close to my office with largely glowing online reviews. Good enough for me!

One hour of sensory deprivation at this place normally runs $125 (which doesn’t strike me as all that much cheaper than therapy with a certified counselor), but I take advantage of the discount for first-time floaters and pay $80.

The Experiment

The Experiment
Courtesy of Author for LittleThings

Before my appointment, I’m already stressed. The float place recommends arriving at least 10 minutes prior to your scheduled float time — apparently they flick on the sensory deprivation tank right on time, and you need to allow yourself time to prepare. I am always late, and I manage to get there just as my appointment is set to begin.

When I get there, I’m confused. Instead of a luxurious spa storefront, I find myself looking at an unmarked door. To the right is a doorbell panel on which the buzzer is simply marked “3rd Floor.” I suddenly feel as if I’m walking into a trap involving black market organ smugglers who plan on stealing my kidneys as I float, and I worry I’ll awaken not in a warm bath but in a tub of ice. However, I’ve already spent $80 on this experiment, so what’s a kidney or two? I buzz and am granted entrance.

When the elevator doors slide open, my fears are immediately assuaged. I step into a lovely, softly lit lobby that’s obviously designed to promote a sense of zen and calm. A friendly older woman sitting at the front desk greets me warmly and leads me to my personal floatation room. I brace myself when she opens the door, not entirely sure what I’ll see.

Courtesy of Author for LittleThings

The first thing I see is… a curtain-less shower. The room has muted lighting that washes over a bench piled with fresh towels and some kind of bureau containing a variety of lotions and toiletries, including two different types of earplugs, one of them wax. (The woman tells me to be careful not to lose the wax variety in my ear canals, which has apparently happened to previous guests, and I immediately resolve not to use wax earplugs ever.)

My spiritual float guide, as I’ve decided to call her, tells me that I’ll need to shower both before and after my float, as I can’t enter the chamber without first rinsing all products from my hair and body. The rules I received in a prefloat email also stipulated that I was not to shave before my float, I was not to be on my period or have recently received a colonic, and I was not to consume alcohol or caffeine less than two hours prior.

There was also a note about only one person per float chamber per session, which was A-OK with me. Aside from all my existential angst, I also have a passel of fun bodily inhibitions, so the idea of floating buck naked beside a buddy doesn’t strike me as a good time.

Courtesy of Author for LittleThings

My spiritual float guide points to a white door with a plastic handle to the left of the shower, which I hadn’t even noticed upon my initial scan of the room. The door is closed, so I can’t see what lies beyond. It looks a bit like the entrance to some kind of space pod.

(Side note: After a terrifying and non-parentally sanctioned viewing of Fire in the Sky at a sleepover in elementary school, I became obsessed with UFOs for a time. I took out every book on the subject available at my local library and read them cover to cover. At night, I became afraid of not only the possible existence of aliens but also that pile of books in my bedroom — so much so that I made my mother come in and cover them with a blanket so I could sleep. So the notion of outer space doesn’t exactly fill me with a sense of tranquility.)

Courtesy of Author for LittleThings

When my spiritual float guide opens the chamber door, the futuristic space vibe is confirmed. The small chamber is lit by an eerie blue light, which reflects off the still water and white walls. She directs my attention to the ceiling of the chamber, which is dappled by twinkling lights meant to resemble, I suppose, the night sky.

Enya-like instrumentals play inside the chamber, which I thought was meant to be completely silent as well as completely dark. I inquire as much and am shown a panel of knobs at water level with which I can turn the music, blue light, and starry sky off and on as I choose, depending on my comfort level.

I am not very comfortable.

Courtesy of Author for LittleThings

Once she’s explained all the rules — which include stepping out of the chamber as soon as I hear the “exit music” play, at which point cleansing chemicals will enter to sterilize it for the next guest — she leaves me to my float.

I’m now afraid of somehow not hearing the exit music and being exposed to toxic sterilizing agents (though she assures me that won’t happen), but it’s too late to turn back. I disrobe and step into the lovely shower to rinse myself clean before my float.

I’d honestly be happy just spending my full hour standing in the shower, but shower therapy isn’t a thing (as far as I know), so once I’ve deemed myself clean, I enter the chamber.

Courtesy of Author for LittleThings

I enter on my knees, as instructed by my spiritual float guide, then position myself on my back. I float instantly and with no trouble due to the high volume of salt in the warm water. (A friend of mine recently took a trip to Israel and sent pictures of herself floating blissfully in the Dead Sea. I imagine this to be similar, except I’m in Midtown Manhattan and surrounded on all sides by a strange pod-like structure. Also, I’m naked.)

I initially decided to float with the music, stars, and light all switched on. Right away, I realize there is no way I will be able to relax while bathed in the strange blue light, and I turn it off.

It’s a little better with just the twinkling starscape above, the soft strains of New Age music all around. However, I’m having a hard time getting comfortable.

People I’ve spoken to about float therapy have described experiences ranging from falling asleep, to seemingly entering an elevated mind-state, to feeling like you’re back in the womb. I am experiencing none of those things. (I can’t recall my time in utero, but I can’t imagine it included mood lighting and music.)

Courtesy of Author for LittleThings

I’m also struggling to relax because I am expending a lot of energy willing myself not to pee. My spiritual float guide didn’t explicitly say anything about not urinating in the sensory deprivation chamber, but I feel like it’s probably frowned upon.

I stare up at the stars and attempt to center my thoughts. I’m not sure how to do that, and my spiritual float guide didn’t provide instructions.

I wonder how much time has passed. I resist opening the chamber door to check, as I suspect it’s been about three minutes.

I turn off the music so I can be alone with just the stars and my thoughts and try as hard as I can to achieve a zen state. It’s not working.

Perhaps a change of position? I attempt to adjust my hands above my head to mimic a position of leisure and splash salt water onto my face. Instant burning in both eyes. There is a small bottle of fresh water inside the chamber for “refreshing my face,” and I assume this qualifies. I frantically spray fresh water directly into my eyes while muttering “ouch, ouch, ouch” and can’t help but wonder what part of this is meant to be therapeutic.

I wonder again how much time has passed. It feels like hours. Have I entered another plane upon which time is fluid?

I turn off the starry sky and am plunged into darkness. I am fully alone with my thoughts and my burning corneas inside a silent, pitch-black chamber. I still haven’t peed, and this feels like an accomplishment.

I lie as still as possible and wait for… something to happen.

Nothing is happening.

I’m just finally beginning to feel as if I might finally drift off to sleep when a lilting melody breaks the silence. The exit music! I frantically splash to a sitting position, push open the door, and scramble out of the chamber.

Post-Float Ponderings

Post-Float Ponderings
Courtesy of Author for LittleThings

As I shower again to wash the salt from my body, I reflect upon the experience. I am fairly sure that I did not ascend to any sort of zen state — not that I have any idea what that might feel like. I suspect that if that bachelorette weekend psychic were present, she’d tell me my aura wasn’t any cleaner, just saltier. But then again, that same psychic told me I’d soon marry a man named Mitchell who was in the oil business, and four years later, I’ve never even met a Mitch, oily or otherwise.

I take advantage of the spa’s selection of fragrant soaps, put my clothes back on, and meet my spiritual float guide back in the lobby.

“How was it?” she asks expectantly. I don’t have the heart to tell her my resounding impression is one of stinging eyeballs, so I fib a little and say while it was certainly amazing, I wasn’t sure I was able to fully lose myself in the experience. She seems happy with my answer and tells me that it takes a few times, and she recommends starting off with at least two sessions a week.

At $125 a pop, I think I’d rather hire that psychic to come cleanse my aura. I smile and tell her I’ll think about it. I take the elevator downstairs, where the hustle, chaos, and noise of New York City await. I feel like myself, though my skin might be a little softer post-Epsom salt float. I feel just fine.