Hopping In, Tuning Out and Turning Off
FLOTATION tanks, once associated with sensory-deprivation experiments in the 1950's and a decade later, with psychedelic self-realization schemes, have become increasingly popular tools to combat pain and reduce stress.
The tanks, typically nine-foot-long fiberglass pods or boxes filled with shallow, skin-temperature salt water, have been around in small numbers for nearly 40 years, largely as research devices.
Now, many people are installing tanks in their homes to help them relax. And in the past five years university researchers in Ohio, New York, Washington State and British Columbia have used the tanks to treat patients with arthritis, hypertension and cerebral palsy. Psychologists are recommending them to reduce stress, enhance athletic performance and modify behavior - helping people to stop smoking, for example, or to lose weight.
Flotation tanks still have their limitations, however. ''Warm, moist heat and reduced stress on joints are excellent forms of pain management, but floating is not a mainline therapy for rheumatoid arthritis at the moment,'' said Floyd Pennington, a vice president of the Arthritis Foundation, a national research and educational group with headquarters in Atlanta.
Increasingly, however, people stressed out by life's daily toils are turning to floating for relief. Tank sales have more than doubled in the past five years, although total number sold is still small, about 450 a year worldwide, according to the Flotation Tank Association. In addition, there are about 100 commercial floatation centers around the country, which charge between $20 and $50 for a one-hour session.
''I feel my creativity is really opened up after I float,'' said Adriel Heisey, a 31-year-old corporate pilot for the Navajo Nation in Window Rock, Ariz. ''My emotional ups and downs have moderated.''
Mr. Heisey, whose tank folds up to become a twin-size platform bed, said that he bought his first tank last year, but he hasn't broadcast that fact. ''It's so out of the mainstream, I don't tell a lot of people I have it,'' he said.
In using flotation tanks, the aim is to eliminate virtually all external stimulation and to create an environmental cocoon that reduces stress and tension. Physicians who use floatation tanks in treatment say that floating stimulates the production of endorphins, the body's natural painkillers.
The tanks are pools of saturated salt water, about 15 inches deep, encased with a clamshell or rectangular hatch that makes the units completely dark. About 1,100 pounds of Epsom salts are dissolved in 130 gallons of water, creating a personal Dead Sea for the floaters, who bob like corks flat on their backs. Unlike a hot tub, in which the hot water raises a bather's heart rate, the tank water is kept at normal skin temperature, about 94 degrees, virtually eliminating any sensation of hot or cold after a few minutes.
''Hot tubs are much more of a social thing,'' said Alison Whittaker, a 34-year-old fund-raiser in Corte Madera, Calif., who has owned a tank for 10 years. ''This is more of a spiritual experience. Usually, you float alone.''
Lying on your back in a silent, pitch-black tank (the floater also wears earplugs) is unnerving at first, and not recommended for anyone with claustrophobia. Experienced floaters say it takes a few one-hour sessions, the usual float time, to feel completely at ease. ''It's so relaxing that I've had people fall asleep in the tank or go off into some kind of meditative state,'' said Ms. Whittaker.
Flotation tanks are finding a broader market. Along with researchers, now individuals, health clubs, tanning salons, hospitals and physicians in private practice are buying them, usually for between $1,500 and $8,300. Enrichment Enterprises in Babylon, L.I., the nation's largest manufacturer, sold 175 tanks last year, compared with 100 in 1987.
''We have doctors who prescribe us to their patients,'' said Claire Coutier, an owner of Tranquility Place, a stress-management center in Santa Clara, Calif. In the past three years more than 2,000 people have used its tank, she said.
Nonetheless, floating has an image problem. ''In some people's minds, it's still a kind of flaky California fad,'' said Dr. Peter Suedfeld, a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver and a leading flotation researcher.
The so-called sensory deprivation tanks of the 1950's studied people's reactions to extended periods of isolation, driving some volunteers bonkers in the process. Contemporary tanks, equipped with stereo, interior lights and underwater jets, are more user-friendly. Because studies have shown that floaters in deeply relaxed states learn faster and retain more information, tanks are available with videotape players built into their hatches.
New studies on the effects of floating have produced intriguing results. In a recent pilot study at State University of New York at Stony Brook, L.I., for example, six young children with cerebral palsy who floated for 20 minutes a day over a two-month period increased their mobility and slept more soundly at night. In a separate study, Stony Brook researchers found that 15 patients with chronic hypertension reduced their blood pressure significantly after floating.
Floating may also speed recovery from injury. Two years ago, Frank Calfa was struck in the head with a wooden beam while building a church library in Old Westbury, L.I. As a result, Mr. Calfa, a 30-year-old engineer from Staten Island, suffered severe migraine headaches that failed to respond to the drugs his doctor prescribed.
''I was at wit's end,'' said Mr. Calfa, who as a last resort tried floating at a commercial float center in Bohemia, L.I. Since then, he said, ''The pain has lessened to the point where I only have to float about once every seven weeks. I feel great when I get out of there.''
Reaching that exalted state takes a little time and the willingness to learn how to relax, floaters and researchers said. ''You won't just step into the water and reach nirvana,'' said Dr. Wilfred B. Graham, a chiropractor in Ithaca, N.Y., who bought his tank two years ago for his own use. ''But afterward, you almost feel like you're on a high. You're so elated.''
Author: Eric Shmitt