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Image / Self

Have you tried sensory deprivation?

by Holly O'Neill
13th Oct 2020

A curious cynic, Holly O’ Neill is looking to separate the fads from the fascinating by trying out unconventional wellness practices.

They don’t call it sensory deprivation any more. What was once known as a sensory deprivation tank is now called flotation therapy, which sounds a lot less scary.

According to Justin Feinstein, a clinical neuropsychologist, the reason for the name change is that flotation therapy heightens your senses, rather than deprives you of them.

I’m in Slí Beatha Float House in Naas, the first standalone float centre in Ireland, ready to try flotation therapy. I’m about to get into a fibreglass tank that’s sound-proof, light-proof, eight-foot-six inches long, and filled with roughly the weight of a grand piano of Epsom salt.

I’ve heard mixed reviews. My mother and my editor had tried some version of it before and found it to be a complete bore. “I stuck my head out and asked was it almost over!” proclaims my mother. I speak to others who found it to be a very emotional experience.

The benefits are believed to be many: reduced stress, anxiety and heart rate, increased mental clarity, regulation of sleeping patterns, and more. A study of six flotation sessions with army veterans suffering from PTSD had a lasting effect for months.

Related: Five tips to really help you switch off when you leave the office

Pat Finlay is a co-founder at Slí Beatha Float House with lifelong friend Paddy Kearns. The space has two flotation pods, an Ocean Float Room (the same technology but in an open space, for those concerned with claustrophobia) and a salt cave for breathwork classes. “All sorts of people come here,” says Pat. “It’s mainly people using it for meditation, sports recovery, pain relief and to manage anxiety and stress.”

In 2015, Pat was back from a year in Australia. “Before I moved, I had an autoimmune disease called Guillain–Barré syndrome and was treated for it there. When I came back to Ireland, my health deteriorated again. I was suffering from chronic fatigue, swollen glands, chest infections and a skin condition that a specialist told me there was no cure for. A friend suggested acupuncture and after about three months, my energy levels were much better, my skin condition completely cleared. When I researched it I found that what had really worked for me was something called the relaxation response – when you leave fight or flight mode and into relaxation. I heard Joe Rogan speaking about floatation therapy and one of the first terms I saw a neurologist use to explain it was the relaxation response. I flew to England and tried it and knew I wanted to set up a float centre. When I told my best friend Paddy, he told me he’d been using floatation therapy for two years and goes twice a month.”

This, I think, might be the most Irish man story I’ve ever heard. My friends don’t get a coffee without WhatsApping me about it, let alone enjoy an obscure alternative therapy for two years without ever giving it a mention.

Once you get into the tank and have marvelled at your own buoyancy, flicked the lights on and off to see if you’re scared (I am a bit, initially), and rolled around, everything relaxes. When your thumb has stopped involuntarily scrolling, and your brain stops telling you to refresh your emails, you relax your shoulders, unclench your jaw, move your neck around, straighten your back, release your tongue from the roof of your mouth, and loosen your hands.

Related: Thinking of joining a book club? It may improve your wellbeing

And when you’ve really settled in, and you’re floating, naked and spread out like a starfish in a silent, black pod with a quiet mind, there comes a point when the temperature of the water, which is body temperature, becomes indecipherable from the air in the pod.

The lack of light and sound reduces your sense of touch, so when I reach that meditative state, it doesn’t feel like I’m in a pod, in water, or in anything at all. It’s like floating in nothingness or drifting in space.

I’ve tried flotation therapy twice now. The first time, I take the hour in the tank to think through some crashed happening in the rush hour traffic of my brain; because I am forced away from overstimulation, I have razor sharp focus. The second time, I make an effort to shut down my brain, completely relax and let go. Both nights, after floating, I sleep like a baby.

If you have 15 tabs open in your brain at any one time, three to-do lists on your desk, and find you’re doing everything and achieving nothing, flotation therapy is the one for you. If you’re sure you’ll fit into the boredom brigade with my editor and my mother, consider this, from a note David Foster Wallace left in the papers for his final novel.

The note presents boredom as something like healing: “Bliss–a second by second joy and gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious–lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom. Pay close attention to the most tedious thing you can find…and, in waves, a boredom like you’ve never known will wash over you and just about kill you. Ride these out, and it’s like stepping from black and white into colour. Like water after days in the desert. Instant bliss in every atom.”

Floatation therapy, one hour, €60, Slí Beatha Float House, Naas Town Centre,

Photography by for Michael Donnelly for Slí Beatha Float House.

This article originally appeared in the June issue of IMAGE Magazine, on sale now. 

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