Floating and Pain Relief

“…it’s beginning to look as if the specific remedy for any eruption of pain in your life is to find your way quickly to the nearest float tank, plop in, and spend an hour pumping up your endorphin levels and avoiding the pain-increasing effects of anxiety.” – Michael Hutchinson, from “Floating for Relief of Pain.”

“…a tank frees up all the pain due to gravity.” – John C. Lilly, developer of the sensory deprivation tank.

“Floating helped me with my post-shingles nerve pain… Every time I came to float, it would alleviate it for at least a week. And, you know, I’ve thought before, maybe it was all in my head. Maybe it was just all mental. But, if it helps, it doesn’t really matter how it helps. All I know is they say floating is good for relieving stress, and that pain and stress are probably related.” – Becky Hughes, frequent floater @ FLOAT STL 

“After not very long…My hip was no longer highly painful and I was limping so much less that I no longer needed to use my cane. I’m not going to say it’s 100% gone or perfect. But, for me, it’s astonishing.” – Maud Essen, frequent floater @ FLOAT STL 

These quotes beg the question: how? How does floating control our experience of pain? There is a lot we don’t know. We tend to believe that if it helps, it helps! But, just for fun, let’s get in to some of what we do know about how floating helps alleviate pain.

Considering the “how”

Some pain is intense and unavoidable. This is true. It’s also true to say we can learn to control some aspects of our pain. For instance, we can change our relationship to gravity, we can help our brains produce more pleasurable biochemicals, and we can learn to focus less attention on the pain. When we begin to experience real pain-free change as a result of experimenting with such things, we feel confident and empowered to learn ways to further manage the burden of pain! The floatation tank is an ideal environment in which to change your pain-experience by doing nothing more than float on your back in a comfortable and quiet environment. We hope you have fun learning and following along as we break down floating for pain management:

Freedom from gravity!

  • This first one is pretty straightforward. So much of our physical pain has to do with our body’s reaction to gravity. When you float in a float tank, your body is effortlessly suspended in water. While you are grounded in the water and not entirely free of gravity in the sense of drifting about in an anti-gravity chamber, your body gets to take a break from your usual intense relationship with gravity. Your musculoskeletal system and other physical systems don’t have to continue to react to or compensate for physical pain. Your body can simply readjust on its own.

When you float, your body will produce a pleasure-causing biochemical, called endorphins.

  • Endorphins! A runner’s best friend! You’ve probably heard of these guys, right? We often think of endorphins (officially called beta endorphins) as being associated with vigorous exercise or really good sex. As a result, we typically think of them as being associated with some external event. Well, this may be true in many cases. But, did you know that the relaxation you cultivate in the float tank stimulates the production of these naturally occurring pain relievers? They remain in your body for hours and are many times more powerful than the drug morphine.

When you float, your brain’s Reticular Activating System (RAS) becomes less active, which reduces stress. Stress reduction is associated with pain reduction:

  • Let’s get into a little neuroscience here. Think of your Reticular Activating System (RAS) as an alarm bell and internal spotlight that controls what you pay attention to in any given moment. If you are aware of mental or physical pain, then your RAS is causing you to focus on that pain. It’s a very old brain structure (reptiles have one), and neuroscientists say its purpose is to help you pay attention to novel stimuli in order to keep abreast of danger and harm. When you float, you remain alert, but your RAS is subdued because the float tank environment prevents it from being triggered by external stimuli. Instead, you become aware of what is going on inside – you become aware of thoughts, feelings, emotions, body sensations, memories. You can feel subtle shifts in your experience of pain, and become more aware of what feels helpful and soothing. The RAS is what makes people suffer from a “painful awareness” of seemingly out of control emotional, psychological, or physical pain. Floating is an environment where you can learn to override the RAS’s internal alarm and bring healing attention to aspects of your pain-experience in a way that doesn’t feel overwhelming.
  • Can we say a little more about how floating and the RAS are related? Sure  According to Gregg Jacobs, Robert Heilbronner, and John Stanley, who experimented with the relationship between floating and the RAS at Lawrence University, floating “facilitates physiological relaxation by decreasing sensory input to the reticular activating system. Since the reticular activating system receives less input, it sends fewer arousing signals to the cortex, which, in turn, decreases neural firings to subcortical regions of the brain responsible for the flight-or-fight response.” Translation: more floating equals less focus on pain, which equals less stress!

Last, but not least. I think what we always come back to is the significance of the individualized float experience. Each float you have will affect you, your body, and your experience with mental and physical pain in ways that are unique to you. If you have any experience with pain and pain alleviation during or after your float experience, please talk to us. We would love to talk to you and learn more about your experience! 

We hope you have enjoyed reading about floating and pain relief!

** The content from this blog post was informed by the wonderful book: The Book of Floating – exploring the private sea, by Michael Hutchinson. If you would like read a more in-depth explanation about the ways that floating can assist you with pain relief, please resource this book. We have a few copies for your enjoyment in our pre/post float area, and a stack of books for sale if you want to take one home. It’s easy to read, easy to digest, and offers lots of helpful information!

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