*image courtesy of The Float Conference
Dr. Justin Feinstein is a clinical neuropsychologist and the director of the float center at LIBR, the Laureate Institute for Brain Research, located in Tulsa Oklahoma.
Dr. Feinstein has been the lead researcher for floatation therapy in North America and one of the leaders in the world, working with patients and treating them with clinical floatation applications, studying biometrics and psychological parameters.
Flux is a researcher and PhD student out of Boulder, Colorado who has been working with Dr. Feinstein within the field as well. Flux specializes in molecular biology, neuroscience, and mental health.
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What is neuropsychology?
The fundamental essence of neuropsychology is trying to understand brain-behaviour relationships. How does a certain brain area contribute to our behaviors? And in the case of psychopathology, our abnormal behaviors?
“For me, what’s always been an area of interest and passion is anxiety and fear and how much it drives so much of our lives,” says Dr. Feinstein. “Even people who aren’t necessarily suffering from a disorder, it’s just ubiquitous.”
He’s interested in learning about the brain areas that allow anxiety to cascade into these dysfunctional states and then looking at ways to intervene on those circuitries within the brain to help the patients who are suffering.
Discovering floatation therapy
When he stumbled upon floating, it was with that goal in mind, and in many ways floating kind of found him, he says. “I was in the laboratory working with patients, and one of the researchers in the lab had floated and tried to report to me what had happened.”
What he found interesting in those initial conversations was that she did not describe floating as a form of sensory deprivation; she actually described it as a form of sensory enhancement. She felt connected to her inner body in a way that she never had been before, and she found it extremely relieving of the stress and anxiety that had been permeating her life.
“It got me thinking about floating as a tool to reconnect you to your own internal body,” says Dr. Feinstein. What they were finding in their research at the time was that in patients with anxiety, it was this connection that was most disturbed.
The courage to float
It took him about three months to build the courage to actually try his first float. He was apprehensive due to the unknowns. Many people worry before their first float. Are you going to lose a sense of control? Will you feel stuck or trapped?
When he finally floated, about fifteen minutes in, he started to laugh, because he had to acknowledge that the experience he was having was the exact opposite of the anticipatory anxiety that he had experienced beforehand.
The people it can help the most are the ones who are generally more apprehensive to use it, says Dr. Feinstein. There are many barriers of entry, including claustrophobia. To mitigate this issue, Dr. Feinstein and his team created what they call an open float pool in their lab, which has no enclosure whatsoever.
This is also why he made a point of changing the name from sensory deprivation to floatation rest. Many people find the term “deprivation” anxiety provoking, and it’s actually not the most accurate description for the experience.
Interoception and sensory enhancement
While it’s true there is a sensory reduction aspect to floatation therapy that we understand, there’s also another aspect to floating that increases interoception, which is our sense of the internal state of the body.
“To me this is the part of floating that has not been well explored,” says Dr. Feinstein. “This enhancing aspect is so important, because what’s happening is, for the first time you’re able to feel your bodily experience completely disconnected from the severe anxiety and stress that is permeating your nervous system.”
It’s important to have this juxtaposition of a relaxed physiological state in combination with feeling sensations of your heartbeat or your breath, because patients with anxiety disorders typically feel their heartbeat or breath under conditions of anxiety, and that’s the association they have.
When they’re floating, the patients are getting a completely new association with these internal sensations that oftentimes drive their anxiety experience. By associating relaxation with the feeling of your heartbeat, by associating relaxation with the feeling of your breath, this is a brand new association formation for these patients.
“That’s where I think it could have tremendous therapeutic value,” he says, “Because then they could go back out into the real world and when they feel their heart beating and their breath constricting, they could come back and realize that these sensations don’t have to be aversive and anxiety inducing. In fact, they could remember back to the float and realize these sensation could symbolize complete relaxation and connection with your body.”
This is the part of floating that is oftentimes missed when people use terms like ‘sensory deprivation.’ “It’s this profound connection with the life-functioning happening inside your body moment by moment, and it’s almost in some ways a reflexive state of mindfulness without any effort whatsoever.”
In this way, floatation therapy is exposure therapy in a safe environment, exposing patients to those feelings of what it’s like to be anxious but in a very calm and controlled state of mind.
What is exposure therapy? A common way of treating some kinds of anxiety disorders is by exposing the patients to the thing or things they are afraid of. The idea is to reprogram the relationship to the anxiety-provoking responses that are generated by the stimuli.
These patients are typically extremely sensitive to the sensations of the body. Feeling the heart flutter, they might assume they’re dying of a heart attack. They have catastrophic misinterpretations of these internal body sensations.
What floating seems to be allowing these patients to do, sometimes for the first time in their lives, is actually have these internal sensations but not have the reflexive anxiety response. “It seems to be short circuiting it,” says Dr. Feinstein.
“What the data is showing in the early studies is that it’s creating a completely relaxed physiological state,” he says. Indicators like blood pressure and heart rate are going down, and respiration and brain waves are slowing. Floatation is inducing a physiological state that is the exact opposite of anxiety.
The research still has a long way to go, but current findings are very promising. “We’ve done a few studies across the many disorders of anxiety and stress, patients with post-traumatic stress, generalized anxiety, panic disorder, social anxiety, agoraphobia, the whole spectrum,” says Dr. Feinstein.
Depression is the most disabling condition in the world. In 2017, the World Health Organization released a report on depression and mental illness in the world. Over three hundred million people worldwide have experienced some depressive symptoms in the past year.
The work that Dr. Feinstein and his team are doing is extremely important and shows great potential for anxiety reduction in patients resistant to other forms of treatment. And they’re just scratching the surface of what’s possible.
What is neuropsychology?
Interoception and sensory enhancement
The anti-anxiety effects of floating
Depression is the most disabling condition in the world
What is the active ingredient of floating?
Future research in floatation therapy