Treatment in the form of floating in huge tanks of saltwater, so-called 'floating', is effective for chronic stress-related pain. This is shown in a study at Karlstad University, Sweden, led by Professor Torsten Norlander.
The research study shows that individuals suffering from stress-related health problems such as chronic pain, depression, or anxiety are often helped a great deal by floating. The effect remains four months after the treatment period. A control group, which did not participate in floating, experienced no improvement in their health. The study is part of a series at the Human Performance Laboratory and is research project run in collaboration with the Värmland County Council.
The patients who were treated with floating had had health problems for a long time. Several of them had been diagnosed with ‘burn-out.’ They had various stress-related symptoms like pain, exhaustion, depression, and anxiety.
“These are individuals who often have tried many different forms of treatment before. They are individuals who are in the greatest possible need of relaxation but who have the hardest time adopting methods of relaxation. They are so tightly wound up that the methods don’t work,” says Professor Torsten Norlander.
What happens, then, when these patients are allowed to float? It appears that floating is an effective way to trigger the body’s relaxation response. The level of stress hormones goes down during and after floating. Moreover, it seems as if the treatment has an even greater effect since prolactin, a kind of ‘life-force hormone,’ is released in larger amounts.
After a period of treatment totaling seven weeks, 22 percent of the participants in the floating group were entirely free of pain, and 56 percent experience a clear improvement; 19 percent noticed no difference, and 3 percent grew worse.
In terms of symptoms, the findings were as follows: 23 percent slept better; 31 percent experienced less stress; 27 percent felt less anxiety; and 24 percent were less depressed or came out of their depression completely.
What the researchers find particularly gratifying is that the positive effects were still in evidence four months after the floating treatment ended.
To ensure that the good results can be ascribed to floating as such, the researchers set up, on the one hand, a control group that did not take part in floating and, on the other hand, a subdivision within the floating group. One of these subgroups received normal attention and encouragement, while the other subgroup was given extra attention and encouragement.
“It might be suspected that it was the attention and encouragement that yielded results, so we wanted to try treating the two floating groups differently. But it turned out that there was no difference between the two subgroups of floaters: their results were equally good. On the other hand, the control group, which did not take part in floating, registered no improvement whatsoever,” says Sven-Åke Bood, a doctoral student in psychology and a registered nurse. This research on floating is part of his coming doctoral dissertation.
Stress is largely about how we worry about things that have happened and are going to happen. When an individual, instead, manages to reach a sort of ‘here-and-now’ state, the brain can rest. These researchers believe that floating is a way of achieving just such a state. In a dark and silent floating tank, the patient is cut off from many sense impressions. Besides the rest the brain gets, the muscles also become relaxed.
In one study the researchers found that about 12 floating treatments are sufficient to achieve results. The group that received 33 floating treatments attained only slightly better pain relief and blood pressure levels. It seems as if 12 treatments are enough to alleviate anxiety, depression, and other stress-related symptoms.
In another study the researchers examined whether floating can be combined with conversational therapy. Thus far it seems that patients who float achieve positive results more quickly during conversational therapy. Floating enhances the effect.
The research project, which has been underway since 2003, is being funded by the Varmland County Council and the Center for Clinical Research.
These research findings are being presented in the prestigious American scientific journal International Journal of Stress Management in May and in a specialist journal for pain research.