Have you ever had that feeling where you’re lying in bed, you should be able to relax ready for sleep, but you can feel your heart pounding, and can’t seem to stop worrying? Our worries can often feel more extreme at night, when we may be left with only our thoughts and our bodies for company. Anxiety is a wide-ranging problem, affecting people in all walks of life, in different ways and to varying extents.
We’d like to tell you about some very interesting research into anxiety which is being pioneered in the USA by Dr. Justin Feinstein. Justin Feinstein has a PhD in Clinical Psychology, with a specialisation in Neuropsychology. He is an assistant professor of psychology at Oxley College of Health Sciences, and directs the ‘Float Lab’ at the Laureate Institute for Brain Research (LIBR). He was recently interviewed on Radio Tulsa.
Dr. Feinstein became fascinated with anxiety, and the way that we feel it in our bodies, for example a raised heartbeat and difficult, shallow or uneven breathing. He noted that these sensations can often lead to a spiralling state of anxiety, as we recognise the symptoms and often become more uncomfortable as a result.
Dr. Feinstein became aware of floatation early in his medical career. Many people are aware of Dr. John Lilly as the founder of floatation. The 1980 sci-fi film ‘Altered States’ is often described as loosely depicting John Lilly’s life, though Justin Feinstein describes the film as the “The ‘Jaws’ of floating”, and a misrepresentation which scared a lot of people away from floating.
Justin Feinstein draws our attention to another doctor and founding father of floatation: Jay Shirley. John Lilly and Jay Shirley worked together on the early versions of the floatation tank, but while John Lilly’s interest was focused on consciousness-exploration, Jay Shirley was much more interested in the clinical benefits of floating. The two men diverged, and Shirley began working to establish floatation as a research methodology.
Floatation used to be described as ‘sensory deprivation’, but Justin Feinstein sees this as a misnomer, since floating enhances internal sensations. In its purest form, you float in the dark and quiet (of course if you don’t like this idea you can leave the door open and the light on – you are in control). The Epsom Salts give a feeling of weightlessness; the water and air temperature are carefully controlled to be at skin temperature. Without the input of light, sound or temperature, we no longer need to assess our surroundings and ‘calibrate’. After a while you can no longer feel where your body begins and ends, which is a feeling unique to floating. As Feinstein says, “you don’t have to do any work, the environment does all the work for you.”
Dr. Feinstein describes floating as a ‘forced homeostasis’, where “all of the different systems that regulate life functioning are completely taken care of.”
He is particularly interested in the way we detect changes in our bodies, for example the raised heartbeat and changes to breathing. This is called interoceptive awareness. We have a series of dedicated pathways and brain areas responsible for mapping fluctuations in our internal state. Feinstein says “floating is… shining a spotlight on these internal sensations”.
Feinstein and the team at LIBR would like to help people who suffer from anxiety. They believe that in the float environment we can learn to build positive associations between noticing our bodily sensations (such as heartbeat), and a state of relaxation, to “recalibrate the anxious brain back to a healthy baseline state”.
There are obvious challenges associated with using electrical testing equipment in a wet and salty environment, and so they have had to adapt and specialise. They use very small wireless sensors which can measure data in real-time for example EKGs to monitor heart-rate, EEGs to measure brainwaves, as well as MRI scanners for pre- and post-float brain scans. One of their aims is to work out how floating affects connectivity within the brain.
They have started early phase clinical trials, studying a large cohort of people with various anxiety-related disorders. Feinstein describes the preliminary findings: “at least in the short term, this does create a very profound state of relaxation, and it’s really reliable – in fact we didn’t have a single patient who didn’t find it to be really relaxing”.
*** Update – the research described above has now been completed and published. Read the published LIBR research here. ***
Larger-scale cinical trials should start in 2018; we are grateful for their dedication and hard work, and we’ll certainly look forward to hearing more about how they get on.
You can listen to the whole interview with Justin Feinstein here.