Floating For Insomnia and Improved Sleep Quality

Most of us, at some point in our lives, have struggled with tossing and turning in bed all night, or waking up with a start at 3AM, unable to get back to sleep. When this pattern builds over time, people begin to experience symptoms of sleep deprivation, which is known to have negative effects on cognitive and immune function, energy, and performance. Sleep deprivation can trigger a slew of stress-related illnesses. It can be a trigger for depression, make you vulnerable to other psychological struggles, and contribute to excessive sick-leave absences from work.

According to the National Sleep Foundation, sleep deprivation officially becomes chronic insomnia when difficulty falling asleep, returning to sleep, and staying asleep (even when you have a chance to do so), occurs at least 3 nights per week for at least 3 months. This ailment affects approximately 40 million Americans annually, is more common in women and older adults, and often has to do with reacting to some form of environmental or physiological stress. And, guys…it sucks. I’m not going to sugarcoat it. It sucky, sucky, sucks. There was a time in my life when I was struggling with sleep, and I did not realize until doing this research that it met the conditions for insomnia. I wish I had known about floating at the time!

The National Sleep Foundation recommends relaxation training, light therapy, stimulus control (this is basically limiting your non-sleep time in the bedroom to break the association of wakefulness and bed), and CBT (cognitive behavioral therapy) to improve sleep. Here at FLOAT STL, we believe that floating has the potential to be as helpful as these recommendations. Our hope is to facilitate a series of floats that will help you slough away the sleep deprived suckiness to help you shift from exhausted to rested.

Floating offers an optimal rest experience. That is unquestionable. In The Book of Floating, Huchinson states, “in the words of one prominent scientist, ‘[floating is] a method of attaining the deepest rest that we have ever experienced.”

Yet, like any wellness experience, myths and embellishments abound. For instance, there is a rumor “floating around” (wink wink) that two hours of floating is so restorative that it can can replace a full nights sleep.

But, there isn’t solid evidence to suggest that you could feel fully rested by henceforth foregoing your eight hour nights and instead floating for an hour or two. The skeptic in me chuckles and thinks, “this rumor just doesn’t seem right.” I suppose someone would have to nail down a group of people who would be willing to float for two hours each day but forgo a full nights rest for a few weeks. Actually, that might be a pretty cool study, unless the floaters started to experience sleep deprivation…which…well…lets not go down that road.

So, having thought about this topic of sleep, I decided to take on the inquiry: How does floating affect our sleep? What is out there? I did a little research and found a few studies that elucidate a scientific link between improved sleep and floating. This is a relatively long blog, so please read on if you are interested. Browse the italics if you’re just curious to know the highlights!

Floating for Improved Sleep Quality

In the peer-reviewed article, Beneficial effects of treatment with sensory isolation in floatation-tank as a preventative health-care intervention – a randomized controlled pilot trial, researchers Kjellgren and Westman inquire about how floatation therapy (which is, for all intents and purposes, nothing more than hopping into a flotation tank, just like you can do here at FLOAT STL!) impact several psychological and physiological variables that significantly contribute to wellness. One variable is, of course, sleep quality. Just for you to get a sense of whether you can generalize this study’s findings to yourself, the researchers used 65 “relatively healthy” adult participants (approximately aged 45 years) taking part in a health-care program for employees at their places of work. Most of these adults engaged in occasional nicotine and alcohol use, but according to several measures, did not report significant physical or psychological distress. Half of these adults became the non-floating “control group” (meaning, they simply did not introduce any intervention into their wellness regime but still completed pre-and-post experiment inventories), whereas the other group floated twice a week for 7 weeks for 45-minutes and completed pre-and-post inventories to assess for change (14 float sessions in all). The research showed a “significant effect” for sleep quality, meaning that sleep quality significantly improved for the floatation group but did not improve for the non-floating control group.

Hear that? After fourteen 45-minute float sessions, floating significantly improved sleep quality for relatively health adults!

Benefits of Floating When Insomnia is a Symptom of “Burn-Out Depression.”

“Burn-out depression” is not an official diagnosis in the DSM (the diagnostic and statistical manual for mental disorders, a.k.a a mental health diagnostician’s bible). Still, it is a well-known syndrome in the mental health field, made up of a bevy of exhausting symptoms, like: fatigue, reduced energy, loss of self esteem, problems with the organization of daily life, anxiety, feelings of low-spiritedness, and (I’m highlighting this for the purposes of this article) sleep disturbances not relieved though rest.

As a part of his dissertation, Bending and Mending the Neurosignature: Frameworks of influence by floatation-REST (Restricted Environmental Stimulation Technique) upon well-being in patients with stress-related ailments, researcher Boon sought to replicate findings about increased well-being (including improved sleep quality) after floatation-REST therapy. This study followed 70 participants, half of whom formed a control group and the other half of whom formed the floatation-REST group. The design was structured similarly to Kjellgren and Westman’s research, as Boon’s floating group floated twice a week for 45-minutes for a total of 6 weeks (a total of 12 sessions).

Whereas Kjellgren and Westman’s participants were “relatively healthy” adults, some of Boon’s participants struggled with “burn-out depression” and “stress-related pain.” So, again, to get a sense of whether you can generalize these findings to yourself, Boon’s subjects included people who were experiencing symptoms of chronic stress. According to Boon’s dissertation, “the results showed that 12 floatation sessions had the effects of reducing the extent of the pain, perceived stress, anxiety, and depression, and that the quality of sleep and optimism increased.” Boon then performed a second study in which he used 32 participants, many of whom had a diagnosis of “burn-out depression” and “stress-related pain.” These participants also floated twice a week for forty-five minutes for a total of six weeks. Boon’s second study showed that in addition to other positive psychological factors, sleep quality increased after 12 flotation sessions. 

The discussion portion of Boon’s research has some interesting things to say about stress-related struggles and sleep. He describes that “healthy” floater’s sleep quality improved by 23%, and that this effect remained consistent for four months, but then tapered back to normal. Whereas for floaters who struggled with “burn-out depression” and “stress-related pain,” sleep quality also improved by 23%, and the effect remained consistent at the four month follow up mark and then continued to improve even after the four month follow-up mark. Very cool, no? Basically, this means that if you are generally “in good health,” floating will help to improve your sleep, but that at some point this effect will taper off. However, if you are struggling will a stress-related ailment, such as burn-out depression and stress-related pain, floating will help to improve your sleep, and this improved sleep pattern will continue to improve into the future.

Boon completes his discussion section by having some very scientific (looks like Greek to me!) things to say about sleep and neuromatrixes (what are those?). All in all – the research shows that floating will help you improve your sleep quality!

Last, but not least: Words from Floaters about Floating and Improved Sleep Quality

In the article, Psychotherapeutic Treatment in Combination with Relaxation in a Floation Tank: Effects on “burn-out syndrome,”  researchers Kjellgren, Buhrkall, and Norlander sought to deeply understand the link between floating and sleep quality, based on subjective reports of their participants. I do want to share this sidebar: this research is qualitative, whereas the first three studies I described were quantitative. Meaning, the first three articles I’ve shared were “randomized controlled” (i.e. the gold standard in research for identifying reliable evidence). If, as a field, floatation center leaders want a scientific community to back them when they say, “floating helps to improve your sleep,” then they have to show several replicated “randomized controlled” trails that produce the same results. So, this last article, being qualitative, may not show scientific “proof,” but it is full of inspiring quotations from the floaters themselves. This research was pretty cool because the participants floated for 45-minutes and then had follow-up psychotherapy sessions with a licensed therapist.

Please enjoy this excerpt from the researchers discussion of floating and improved sleep:

“Clients reported generally improved sleep during the course of treatment, in particular, during nights that followed flotation-REST. The clients experienced an effortlessly relaxed state while lying in bed, as well as a deliberate and unintentional ability to influence the level of relaxation by imitating the resting body position experienced in the tank and composing their respiration. The quality of sleep was enhanced by a deeper, more tranquil sleep, with fewer awakenings during the night, and a sense of renewed energy upon awakening in the morning.”

Quotes from participant floaters:

  • “I do not sleep during the day, I do not need that anymore”
  • “I fall asleep, I have never had problems with that, but I have had my TV as a kind of reason to wake up, so that I can break or distract my thoughts with the TV. I have not needed to do that since I started here”
  • “Before I started here, my sleep was a disaster. I would go to bed and I was really tired so I did fall asleep. But I would wake up after an hour and be totally awake”
  • “I fall asleep faster. I do not have to lie there and wait for the sleep to come. So I felt early on that this was an effect”

I hope you’ve enjoyed all of this information about floating and sleep. I certainly enjoyed writing it. When I check in with my past self (the one who really struggled with achieving restful and restorative sleep), all of this feels like very exciting news! If I wasn’t so concerned about coming off as a total geek, I’d tell you that in my mind’s eye, she’s jumping up and down, saying, “just try it! It helps! Just try it! It helps!” But, that would be embarrassing, so I’ll keep that to myself…

In the end, it looks like whether you struggle with insomnia or situational sleep deprivation, floating can do wonders. It can restore your body to its natural restful rhythms and provide the conditions necessary to usher in a good nights sleep.

Take care all, and have a beautiful nights sleep tonight 🙂

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