Whether you're struggling with a substance use disorder or well on your way to recovery, you've likely heard of people using flotation tanks or sensory deprivation chambers to treat addiction. In fact, some flotation tank facilities even advertise sensory deprivation for addiction treatment. However, before you jump on the opportunity to boost your recovery, it is important that you know how sensory deprivation works, what it does, and how it may or may not affect your recovery.
What is Sensory Deprivation?
A flotation tank or sensory deprivation chamber is an enclosed tank, typically heavily insulated to maintain a completely dark and soundproof environment. The chamber is filled with water and Epsom salts heated to body temperature, causing the body to become weightless. The result is that when you step into a flotation tank, you see nothing, feel nothing, and hear nothing.
Isolation tanks were first developed in 1954, by Professor Dr. John C. Lilly who was working on sensory deprivation. He wanted to study the brain free or interruption or stimulus, but later began to combine his isolation chamber with other experiments. Later, isolation tanks were picked up by NASA to prepare astronauts for the weightlessness of space.
To use an isolation tank, you simply step into the chamber and close it. Heat and air pumps maintain a steady temperature, and you can rest in the water, hanging motionless with no effort. With no physical stimulus to distract you, you are free to think, to focus on whatever you want, or to meditate.
This, in turn, has many benefits which may help in your recovery.
In 2004, a study incorporating 27 previous studies and 400+ test subjects were used to test the efficacy of REST (Restricted Environmental Stimulation Therapy) on stress-reduction. The outcome was positive, with the control group showing no improvement and the flotation tank group showing marked reductions in stress, improvement in sleep quality, and reduced anxiety. While the study has yet to be followed up with a larger-scale clinical trial, the results are promising.
The Meditation Effect
Flotation tanks put you into a weightless and sensory-free environment, are often deeply relaxing, and allow you to meditate very easily. Many people use tanks for meditation, using breathing techniques and focusing the mind to relax the body. This enhances the stress-reducing experience of the sensory deprivation chamber, but also builds mental discipline.
Meditation is commonly included as part of REST therapy.
Improvements in Sleep and Pain Reduction
Flotation tank therapy is often used to treat pain and insomnia, with some studies showing that patients see a decrease in pain symptoms and severity after use. Studies also show that people who use flotation tank therapy may see as much as a 30% increase in sleep after treatment. These studies have all been small, some of them too small to show the actual efficacy of flotation therapy, but are promising for the future of the treatment.
Is there an Effect on Therapy?
Flotation chambers have been used to supplement therapy or for psychological experiments since their creation. In the 1950s, their creator used the tanks to test the effects of LSD in a sensory-free environment, the U.S. Army tested them, and China supposedly used sensory deprivation chambers as part of a brainwashing trial. Many of the tests conducted on flotation chambers came after scientists noticed that persons using the chambers were more susceptible to influence shortly after leaving the chamber or while in the chamber. While the latter part is true, sensory deprivation chambers cannot be used for brainwashing or hypnosis. But, they may have a positive impact on how you receive therapy by making you more open to suggestion and more open to listening to an outside voice.
Unfortunately, with no real scientific data to back it up, there's not much that you can say for certain, so it's not a guarantee.
Does Sensory Deprivation Help Addiction?
Sensory deprivation chambers have been used to treat nicotine and cigarette addiction for nearly a decade. But, can they be useful in treating stronger addictions? While many people are increasingly adopting sensory deprivation to treat opium and alcohol addictions, the jury is still out. We don't have enough scientific evidence to prove if sensory deprivation is helpful or not. Why? Very few studies have been performed on whether or not REST or other flotation tank therapy actually helps with recovering from a drug addiction. Those that have been published are often very small and don't use enough quality assurance factors, such as a larger test group, peer review, or standardized results.
However, there are a few things that you can consider without a direct scientific yes or no.
Stress Relief – Stress is one of the number one causes of addiction and relapse. Using flotation tank therapy to destress can help you relax your mind, help your brain to produce endorphins like serotonin and dopamine, and can help you to relax so you can handle new stress and cravings more easily.
Meditation – Meditation is heavily linked to improved mental health, discipline, and stress relief. It's also commonly used in addiction treatment alongside mindfulness. Studies show that mindfulness-based meditation programs can significantly improve addictive behavior, reducing the chance of relapse in people who continue to practice. Because flotation tank therapy has a strong meditation element, it may similarly impact persons suffering from addiction.
Mental Discipline - Sensory deprivation requires you to be alone with yourself, to focus on something, and to continue to go into treatment even if it's unpleasant or scary. Like with meditation, this requires and builds a certain amount of mental discipline, which can help you in other areas, such as when facing cravings or when making decisions.
Enhancing Self-Image – Self-image or ego is an important part of psychological health. But, it's also something that's heavily damaged by substance abuse. Flotation tank therapy forces you to be alone and often forces you to come to terms with yourself. With no distractions and no way to distract yourself, you can build your self-image, which can help you to move past addiction.
Most of these benefits of flotation tank therapy are shown in small studies averaging a few months in length and including a few hundred people. This means that most are not extensive or large enough to be widely accepted by the medical community.
While the jury is still out on whether flotation tank therapy helps with addiction treatment, it certainly doesn't hurt. However, flotation tank therapy is not addiction treatment. You can use it as a supplement to cognitive behavioral therapy or a full treatment program, but you cannot expect it to be successful on its own. Isolation tanks do have numerous benefits which can help you to get through withdrawal and into recovery, but they are not a treatment on their own.
If you choose to use flotation tank therapy as part of your treatment, make sure you do so to complement a science-based therapy program, like the addiction treatment programs at Anaheim Lighthouse.