What is sensory deprivation?

Mental Health

As our lives get ever-more complex, it becomes harder and harder to fully switch off. But there is one sure way to combat overstimulation…

Let’s just say that finding a true sense of calm in modern times can be… challenging.

News headlines refresh constantly – a barrage of seemingly urgent information. WhatsApp notifications ping loudly. Little red numbers adorn Instagram and Twitter icons, each one competing for our attention. Try to ignore your inbox, and you’ll be pestered with private messages. To-do lists feel never-ending, while mental notes stack up internally with nowhere to go. Some call it the ‘age of distraction’, and with so many worries and responsibilities, our minds can feel like a noisy pinball machine.

But what if there was a way to dial down the noise? A way to cut yourself off from not just screens and sounds, but from your own thoughts? There is one solution to chronic over-stimulation, that has been growing in popularity in recent years. It’s called sensory deprivation.

What is sensory deprivation?

As the name suggests, it involves literally depriving your senses of stimulation. This could be by wearing a blindfold to block out light, or earplugs to create silence. More advanced techniques involve limiting your senses of smell, taste, and touch. It was made popular in the 1950s by neurologist John C Lilly, who invented a dark, soundproof tank that allowed people to float for long periods in complete sensory isolation.

What is a flotation tank?

In this specially designed bath, you float in less than a foot of salt water, which is heated to skin temperature. The feeling of weightlessness, silence, and darkness (the tank door is usually closed) induces a deep sense of relaxation. Over-stimulation can lead to heightened feelings of stress and anxiety, but time in the sensory deprivation of a flotation tank can lower your cortisol levels and increase your endorphins, which boosts your mood.

What are the benefits?

Because sensory deprivation gives you time to think without distraction, it can have a powerful effect on your mental health. Some people even use it to enhance their creativity and improve problem-solving skills.

Flotation tanks are known to significantly reduce anxiety symptoms and improve your mood after just one 60-minute session. One flotation tank study looked at people with generalised anxiety disorder and found that symptoms such as depression, sleep difficulties, irritability, and fatigue were reduced.

My friend Jo Love told me about her recent visit to The Pod at Results Body+Mind health and wellness service, in Bath. “It’s unlike anything I’ve ever experienced,” said Jo. “I felt both physically and emotionally held. I can’t wait to go back – I’ve booked my husband in for one as well!”

Understandably, some sceptics are concerned about feeling trapped, and safety. The good news is that the sheer volume of Epsom salt in the water means that it’s impossible to do anything other than float. You can even – and many do – fall asleep safely in the tank. As for the closed door, most people get used to it within a few minutes because it’s just so relaxing. But open-door tanks are available in some spas.

One key benefit of sensory deprivation is that it works in a similar way to meditation. If you’ve ever struggled to let your mind go blank, then employing sensory deprivation techniques might help. Some people have reported a feeling of inner peace, a sense of euphoria, and in some cases, spiritual experiences.

Time in the sensory deprivation of a flotation tank can lower your cortisol levels and increase your endorphins, which boosts your mood

Associated risks

I asked psychotherapist Paula Coles about the negative effects of sensory deprivation and she explained: “On one end of the continuum there may be extreme relaxation, but on the other, there is the possibility of an increase in anxiety, and even disturbance or hallucinations.”

She also pointed out that meditation isn’t necessarily helpful for individuals who might find themselves stuck in ‘fight-or-flight’ mode as a result of past traumatic experiences. For this reason, she advises (in line with current National Institute for Health and Care Excellence guidelines) that individuals with social anxiety, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), or complex trauma, should only approach sensory work and meditation with the help of an accredited professional. But if you feel mentally well, then a sensory deprivation experience could be just the cure for your overactive mind.

Tips for at Home relaxation

Installing a flotation tank at home is expensive, but you can book hourly sessions at spas across the country. However, most people can manage minor stress by learning to manipulate their senses without the need for a flotation tank. Here are Paula Coles’s tips on using elements of sensory deprivation to manage stress:

1. Take in a nice view while wearing noise-cancelling headphones. This allows you to really luxuriate in the visual aspect without distractions.

2. Create a safe space in your bedroom by removing things that trigger stress. It could be the sight of your work clothes, or the sound of a clock ticking. Calm your senses as much as possible.

3. Lie down in a dark room and put on an eye mask to minimise distractions. Breathe deeply and notice all the sounds that you hear.

4. If at any point you feel uncomfortable, stop.

Find out more about Paula Coles on Counselling Directory.

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