Flotation REST is a form of Reduced Environmental Stimulation Therapy (REST) that uses a shallow pool of heavy water about the size of a large bed. The water is made heavy by super-saturating it with Epsom Salt (MgSO4 ) to the point that a person floats on his or her back effortlessly on the surface of the water like a cork. The water is heated to skin temperature and the pool is enclosed in a lightproof, soundproof environment.
This device, invented by Dr. John C Lilly, effectively removes external stimulation and creates a neutral environment that gives the feeling that one is floating comfortably in space. In using this type of therapy one is given a private room with a shower where one can disrobe, shower, and step into the pool enclosure. After sitting in the water and lying back to float on the surface, one can then turn out the lights.
The reduced stimulation encountered in the flotation pool refocuses the individual’s attention to internal stimuli. At first this includes the novel sensations of floating effortlessly in darkness and quiet. The sensations of the body become much more salient making flotation REST a walk-in biofeedback device. This natural biofeedback initiates a self-regulation process leading toward relaxation.
This relaxation is augmented by the transcutaneous absorption of magnesium that elicits the release of muscle tension. As physical sensations become less salient mental activity can come to the fore. For those not used to being alone with their thoughts this can be difficult. However, even unpleasant thoughts become more palatable as the body enters a more deeply relaxed state. Eventually even the parade of thought subsides and the mind arrives at a meditative state.
The Flotation Fibromyalgia Connection
Fibromyalgia is a disorder characterized by widespread musculoskeletal pain, described as a constant dull ache, typically arising from muscles. It effects 2% of general population and women are much more likely to develop it than are men by a ratio of 9:1.
It is a devastating and often unpredictable condition that causes dreadful pain and impacts life by interfering with the ability to do the simplest things. While fibromyalgia is not well understood, current thinking is that it is the result of central augmentation of pain sensitivity, either triggered by a traumatic event or developing gradually.
In addition, it has been suggested that sufferers of fibromyalgia have a magnesium deficiency caused by stress and lack of restful sleep that subsequently triggers nerves to respond to even minor stimuli (London, 2007).
The Fibromyalgia Flotation Project selected Fibromyalgia for study because the characteristics and symptoms of this disorder correspond closely with conditions that were reported to benefit in prior flotation REST studies.
|Characteristics/symptoms of fibromyalgia||Beneficial effects of flotation REST|
|Linked to stress both as a trigger and as a causal factor||Stress reduction|
|Muscle pain||Decreased pain in general|
|Muscle tightness (pattern of muscle knots called tender or trigger points, sometimes tension headaches, temporomandibular joint disorder, and irritable bowel syndrome)||Decreased muscle tension
Decreased pain caused by muscle tension
|Mood disturbances (depression and anxiety)||Lessening of anxiety
|Inability to achieve restful sleep. (people with fibromyalgia often awaken tired, even though they report sleeping for long periods of time. Sleep is frequently disrupted by pain, and many patients with fibromyalgia have other sleep disorders, such as restless legs syndrome and sleep apnea, that further worsen symptoms.)||Improved Sleep|
|Magnesium deficiency||Magnesium absorption
(from the MgSO4 solution)
Tina was chronically tired, bedridden much of the time and suffered pain that felt like body-wide bruising. It hurt to have any one touch her. She was depressed and anxious, unable to work and continually stressed about providing for her two young sons. The doctors of the National Health Service (Tina resides in the UK) could not tell her what was wrong with her. Finally, in 2001 Tina was diagnosed with Fibromyalgia and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome by a private rheumatologist outside Britain’s socialized medicine system. Her fibromyalgia was linked to a serious car accident in 1998 in which she suffered a significant whiplash injury.
Fibromyalgia is a devastating and often unpredictable condition that causes dreadful pain and impacts life by interfering with the ability to do the simplest things. It led to Tina losing her friends, her job, and her ability to enjoy life. She had to consider her fibromyalgia at all times and continually try to adjust her life to it, always anticipating some new symptom, new pain, or flare up of the familiar pains.
Tina was unsuccessfully trying to control the searing pains throughout her body with a prescribed cocktail of diazepam, naproxen, ibuprofen gel, tramadol and Fentanyl patches. After a near fatal overdose of Fentanyl convinced her to try another approach, she decided to visit friends in Phoenix, Arizona. She had been struggling to do graduate work in psychology and had become interested in deep states of relaxation and healing. She had read about flotation REST as a way of achieving Theta brain states and was interested in trying it at a float center near her friends.
In using this type of therapy one is given a private room with a shower where one can disrobe, shower, and step into the pool enclosure. After sitting in the water and lying back to float on the surface, one can then turn out the lights. At 43 years old, Tina tried her first float and described entering the pool as being “like stepping into a warmth that was hard to describe. I felt held, secure, safe, enveloped and surrounded by this wonderful water that was so good to feel against my painful body. I had immediate pain relief and no breakthrough pain for 17 hours after my first float.
After that first experience Tina tried to float every 2 weeks, but back in the UK she had to travel 55 miles to the nearest facility so sometimes it was less frequent. After seven floats she estimated that her pain overall was reduced by about 90 percent and felt that, if she were able to float more regularly, the pain would be down to nothing because the relief seemed to be cumulative. With each float, Tina experienced progressively deeper relaxation as well as longer lasting pain relief.
Gradually she was able to hang on to this relaxed feeling in her daily activities, which allowed her to be more objective about her pain when it returned. Now that her symptoms are minimal for long periods, Tina, who is working to finish her Ph.D. in psychology, feels that flotation is allowing her to do introspective work on the psychological causes of her pain and enabling her to see fibromyalgia as an extension of stressors in her life.
Brigitta, a Swedish participant in the first Fibromyalgia Flotation Project, had such a positive experience with the three float session of that study that she decided to continue float sessions on her own. She had been diagnosed with fibromyalgia at 45 years old but had had much pain for many years before that. The pain was in her neck, shoulders, legs and back. She also frequently suffered from dizziness and had very little energy to do much of anything. Over the years she tried a variety of treatments. Pain medications did not agree with her stomach so she had physical therapy, warm baths and exercise. At one point her symptoms improved after three weeks at a Rehabilitation Center. Unfortunately, the National Health Service of Sweden wouldn’t cover more than that so she regressed again. Acupuncture was also an effective treatment but again the funding for that disappeared.
Brigitta was 70 years old when the Fibromyalgia Flotation Project recruited her. After her flotation experience, her pain was considerably less and her mood was much improved. She reported the she “felt much better both in my body and my soul.” She continued to float once a week for five more months and then cut down to every third week as that seemed all that was necessary to keep her pain in check. At age 72 she is floating once a month and will continue to do so as long as it keeps her feeling so good. She says the pain is not completely gone but is significantly less and she has many days without pain at all. “Flotation,” she says, “has made my life considerably better. I feel that it’s easier for me to take each day as it comes, which means that life gets easier. I feel much more positive and happy, and many of my friends confirm that.”