Why Flotation Therapy?
A therapeutic session in a flotation spa typically lasts an hour. For the first forty minutes, it is reportedly possible to experience itching in various parts of the body (a phenomenon also reported to be common during the early stages of meditation). The last twenty minutes often end with a transition from beta or alpha brainwaves to theta, which typically occurs briefly before sleep and again at waking. Many use the extended theta state as a tool for enhanced creativity and problem-solving or for super-learning.
Flotation therapy has been academically studied in the USA and in Sweden with published results showing reduction of both pain and stress. The relaxed state also involves lowered blood pressure and maximal blood flow.
Floating can be passive or active, depending on the purpose. For relaxation, one simply floats and 'clears the mind.' Active floating has many different techniques.
One may perform meditation, mantras, self-hypnosis, utilize educational programs, etc. The idea of active floating is that, when the body is relaxed, the mind becomes highly suggestible and any action taken during these states will enter the information into the sub-conscious. Flotation therapy may be used to complement other body work and healing methods.
John C. Lilly, a medical practitioner and neuro-psychiatrist, developed the flotation spa in 1954. During his training in psychoanalysis at the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), Lilly commenced experiments with sensory deprivation. In neurophysiology, there had been an open question as to what keeps the brain going and the origin of its energy sources.
One answer was that the energy sources are biological and internal and do not depend upon the outside environment. It was argued that if all stimuli are cut off to the brain then the brain would go to sleep. Lilly decided to test this hypothesis and, with this in mind, created an environment which totally isolated an individual from external stimulation. From here, he studied the origin of consciousness and its relation to the brain.
Peter Suedfeld and Roderick Borrie of the University of British Columbia began experimenting on the therapeutic benefits of flotation usage in the late 1970s. They named their technique "Restricted Environmental Stimulation Therapy" (REST).
Epsom salt/ water solution is created with a raised density above the density of the human body, so that the subject floats with his or her face above the water. However, since the ears are submerged when the subject is in a relaxed position, hearing is greatly reduced, particularly when ear-plugs are also used. Skin sensation is greatly reduced because the air and water are the same temperature as the skin, and the feeling of a body boundary fades. The sense of smell is also greatly reduced.
Generally users of the therapy enter the pool nude. Although a swimsuit may be worn, the elastic material of a tight-fitting suit can create uncomfortable compressed stress points on the skin during the session. Due to the high epsom salt content the water is minimally changed and all users are expected to shower, soap up, and rinse clean prior to entering the tank. Bathing is again needed after a session to remove excess epsom salt from the skin.
The therapy device uses a circulating surface skimmer, cartridge filtration, and disinfection means, including ultraviolet sterilization and chemicals to keep the water free of microbes and sediment. A ring heating system can be used around the outer walls of the tank to warm the water so that it rises up the outside edges of the pool, travels towards the center, and then sinks under the tank user. This very slow water convection flow helps to keep the user centered, without them floating to the side and bumping into the walls during long float sessions. However, when the floater is still, the small waves caused by breathing also tend to center them in the solution regardless.
Research into flotation therapy (as opposed to just the effect of isolation) began in the USA at Ohio State University where floating was shown to improve creativity in Jazz musicians, accuracy in rifle shooting, focus before academic examinations and stress relief, among others.
Research in Sweden has demonstrated the therapeutic effect on stress and pain. The technique takes advantage of an atavistic ability that seems to be common to all humans to relax when floating at a comfortable temperature. The temperature is that which allows natural heat generation to escape without the need for muscle action to raise body temperature in homeostasis.
The floating posture, usually the supine position (although the prone position with chin supported on elbows is recommended for pregnant women), allows all the postural muscles to relax. The water pressure on the immersed skin is lower than the blood pressure and thus blood flow continues in skin capillaries. This is in contrast to normal bed rest where local contact pressure inhibits blood flow requiring regular adjustment of posture. When people cannot adjust their posture in bed, e.g in some illnesses, bed sores can result. When floating there is no tendency to adjust posture and a person can float immobile for many hours.
The natural tendency of the body in the floating posture at the correct temperature is to dilate the blood vessels, reducing the blood pressure and maximizing blood flow. The brain activity normally associated with postural muscles is reduced to a minimum. In this state, which we can call the floating state, natural endorphin's are released reducing pain. Lactic acid removal is accelerated. Flow in the lymphatic system is increased.
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