Treatment Series: The Float Tank
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Some of y’all might find the following story a little cuckoo. And that’s okay. I understand that climbing into a sensory deprivation tank for 90 minutes might not be everyone’s cup of tea. I’m a skeptic by nature (and by nurture) but figured that visiting a floatation tank would be worth my time, especially because there are no significant risks. Why not, right?

Here’s the scoop. I was in Portland, Oregon in January to visit the city and spend time with my dear friend K., who was a college roommate in New York City over a decade ago (yikes—where’d the time go?). She told me about a place in the city where you could “float,” and she sold me on it. I booked a session for later that week.

I’d just left Seattle after a bookselling conference, and, as much as I was loving the Pacific Northwest, I wasn’t feeling my best. Every time I fly, I run the risk of getting a migraine due to the altitude (a trigger for many). Factor in the long hours of the conference, the time change from East Coast to West Coast, and the general stress of travel (even though I love it), and the typically humid, gray skies of the region, and you have a recipe for migraine. I felt pretty crappy for a few days but did my best to rally and explore the cities I visited.

The day of my float, I woke up with a horrible migraine. There went my plans of grabbing breakfast and taking a bus to the floatation place. I lolled on the couch until my medication set in and ate a light breakfast (a full two hours before floating, per the company’s instructions). Happily, my migraine lifted fully as I walked to the spa where I would float. I was sleepy and a little out of it (typical for me when it comes to the postdrome) and arrived at the spa just in time.

Here’s what it was like. I was shown into a private room where there was a stand-up shower next to a large rectangular-prism-style tank. The tank was probably about eight feet long and three or four feet wide. It was half-full with extremely salty water—the tanks contain enough salt so that you are floating almost on top of the water. (In fact, the water is very close to its salination point, meaning if any more salt were added, I would be immersed in clumps of wet salt!)

I took a shower in the stall, using oil-free, unscented soap that was provided. Then (yes, without clothes on) I stepped into the tank. The water in a float tank is less than a foot deep. I scooched in until I was sitting in the tank, my legs fully extended in front of me. I took a deep breath, closed the lightweight door through which I came, and lay down in the water. It was pitch black.

The water in a float tank is kept at skin temperature—this allows you to soon not realize where the air on top of your body stops and the water under you starts. It’s fascinating. Because you are equally supported from above and below, there’s no pressure on any joint, bone, or muscle in your body. I was able to put my arms above me, resting gently next to my head. This is a position that’s uncomfortable for me when I lie in bed, but it was blissful in the tank. I took deep breaths and tried to just be aware of my body. My neck and back, which always hurt a little bit, felt so comfortable I was able to become unaware of them completely.

When you are in pitch blackness, your brain starts to hallucinate a little bit (nothing scary!), and I started seeing gorgeous colors like fireworks whether my eyes were open or closed. I eventually drifted into that strange phase you enter shortly before you really fall asleep, when you’re still aware of yourself but are dreaming at the same time. I stayed in that phase for awhile.

The first time I wondered how long it had been already, I thought, “Wow. This is cool, but I’m supposed to be here for 90 minutes? I’m guessing it’s been about twenty so far.” Right as I was sure that no more than 20 or 25 minutes had passed, I started to hear the quiet music they pipe in to make you aware that your float time is coming to a close. “No way,” I thought. “No way have 90 minutes passed.”

I took my time getting out of the tank. I took a warm shower, washing my hair and skin twice to get rid of all the salt. I dried off and looked at my watch, which was sitting on the counter. Surely enough, it had been two hours since I arrived. I was completely shocked. It was rare, if not unprecedented, for me to lose track of time while not working on a project of some kind. I was just totally alone, and it was great.

In the past, we have had articles on mindfulness meditation here on Migraine.com. I feel like floating could correspond well with these articles. To surrender yourself to a stimulus-free environment is fascinating and extremely relaxing (for me, at least). I’m not sure there’s any research on floating and migraine, but I’d venture to guess that the migraine brain, so used to feeling attacked by stimuli, would bask in a sensory-free environment for a couple of hours.

I left feeling more calm. My body felt the way it does after a really great massage or a fabulously relaxing yoga class—I was energetic but calm, and my muscles hummed and I was pain-free.

Floating enthusiasts claim that regular floating can significantly improve chronic pain conditions, enhance the creative process, and more. There’s no float tank where I live, so I can’t see for myself how multiple floats affect my physical and emotional health, especially as far as migraine goes, but if you have some cash and the curiosity, I’d encourage you to give it a shot.

Have you ever floated? What was it like for you? Did it have any affect on your migraine or other chronic pain conditions?

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