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How Flotation Therapy Is Giving Me Hope With Complex PTSD

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Even if in the technology-driven modern world, most people don’t make enough time to do it, most of us take the concept of “rest” for granted. But what happens when you’ve been so traumatized you simply don’t know how to rest, and can’t rest? For example, something simple and enjoyable most people take for granted is watching a film. But imagine not even being able to feel calm enough and rested enough to concentrate on watching TV or read because your startle response and hypervigilance mean you’re in such a constant state of anxiety that you are always too on edge, thinking danger is just around the corner and about to happen at any moment, you can’t even engage in watching TV.

• What is PTSD?

Before I started floating just over a year ago, I had no appreciation of how to rest and relax, or what it even felt like. I struggled too much to do everyday things many people take for granted. But floating has helped me learn what rest means and just how important it is.

Now, I can do all sorts of things I couldn’t manage before I started floating. Floating therapy involves floating in a tank or pod of water (set to the body’s normal skin temperature) mixed with Epsom salts.

As human beings, we are all changed by the experiences we go through in our lives; however, when someone goes through repeated complex traumatic experiences, it has immensely profound impacts on the rest of their life. Despite achieving upper second-class honors in my university degree, trauma from various types of abuse has left me unable to work. I experience many types of complex physical and emotional health issues, many of which I will never get help for from specialist health services (not even privately) due to how complex they are.

Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can result from maladaptively stored traumatic experiences that become “compartmentalized” from subsequent traumatic experiences because the brain was unable to process them properly at the time the trauma happened. Complex PTSD results from repeated, and often inescapable, complex traumatic experiences. PTSD has been shown to physically reduce parts of the brain, such as change the size of the hippocampus, the part of the brain which is an important part of the limbic system, regulating emotions. The hippocampus has an important part to play in memory, learning and emotion.

Very sadly, many people — let alone doctors — have even heard of floating, so they just don’t know of its profound benefits. Dr. Justin Feinstein from the Laureate Institute of Brain Research in USA has dedicated his career to studying the benefits of  “clinical floatation,” and how floating can help with issues such as anxiety, depression and PTSD.  His talks (which can be found on YouTube and on his website, Clinical Flotation) from Float Conferences make incredibly compelling and promising viewing.

Personally, since I’ve started floating, I’ve noticed huge changes to many aspects of my life, trying to live as a very traumatized individual. I’ve never even been offered any treatment for my complex PTSD by the NHS.  However, standard treatments for PTSD offered to some people include medication, cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), exposure therapy, psychotherapy and eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) therapy.

Healing from PTSD involves bridging these “compartmentalized” memories with subsequent experiences and associations to facilitate neural firing. Floating provides a relaxed environment to allow this to begin to happen. Relaxing during a float decreases or inhibits stress hormones. Stress hormones, namely adrenaline, cortisol and norepinephrine are often chronically elevated in people with PTSD.

Floating also enhances and promotes activity in the right hemisphere of the brain. This is the side of the brain responsible for placing memories in context and the awareness of “now.” More research is looking into showing floating might release endorphins, which in themselves promote relaxation and rational thinking about specific traumatic events. There is increasingly promising research into how floating can help with PTSD.

Everyone I tell about floating and its profound benefits is hugely skeptical. Comments range from, “Oh, I can just have a float in my hot tub,” to, “I couldn’t do that, I’d feel too scared and claustrophobic.” Outside a float pod, I always need an escape route planned in my mind wherever I am in the event of having to flee from sudden danger. So, it’s perhaps very surprising inside a float pod I’m the total opposite — I feel extremely calm and the safest I’ve felt for an exceptionally long time. Now when I float, I can understand what rest, relaxing and calmness mean.

One possible way to explain why floating is helping my mental health healing and recovery so profoundly is that floating activates the parasympathetic nervous system (our “rest and digest” response when the body is relaxed, resting or feeding) and puts our sympathetic nervous system (which activates our “fight, flight or freeze” defense responses) on standby. Ordinarily, the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems work in rhythmic alternation; however, with repeated trauma, the usual homeostasis of the “ying-yang” between the two nervous systems is thrown out of balance.

Having been through a lifetime of repeated and  hugely traumatic types of abuse, my sympathetic nervous system’s “fight, flight or freeze” defense mechanisms would have been chronically overactivated, always hypervigilant, very readily startled and on the constant lookout for danger.

I was lucky enough to hear Dr. Stephen Porges give a talk at the Love vs. Trauma Symposium this summer. It’s beyond the scope here to even attempt to explain his groundbreaking Polyvagal Theory and its importance in the implications in recovery from traumatic experiences. However, it would be very interesting, and I don’t know if this has been studied, to see how floating impacts our vagus nerve and vagal tone.

The vagus nerve passes through the neck and thorax to the abdomen and oversees a vast range of crucial functions, including communicating nerve impulses to every organ in your body. It is responsible for initiating your body’s relaxation response. The vagus nerve tells your body to relax by sending instructions to many of the body’s organs to release enzymes and proteins which calm you down and help you relax again.  In this manner, but perhaps over-simplified, it could be seen to “undo” the fight, flight or freeze stress responses activated by the sympathetic nervous system.

The parasympathetic nervous system decreases our respiration and heart rate and lowers blood pressure (as well as increasing digestion). This activation of the parasympathetic nervous system produces a deeply calm and relaxed state in the mind and body, thus facilitating rest and recovery.

Within these deeply relaxed states where I feel extremely safe inside the float pod environment, I can only assume, to some degree, my brain is somehow subconsciously processing some of the traumatic experiences I’ve been through. My first float was almost a year after a near-death experience which left me very traumatized and I was refused help from community mental health teams (CMHT) to come to terms with this extra “layer” of trauma.

After that particular experience, the sound of sirens from emergency vehicles would induce feelings of extreme fright and terror. Therefore, it’s very interesting during my first float I heard the sound of sirens. When I mentioned this to the float centre owner, he said in the float pod I wouldn’t have been able to hear sirens from the road outside. After that first float, I didn’t then experience those feelings of fright and terror anymore when I heard the noise of a siren.

In the silence and darkness of a float pod when external stimuli are removed (the brain doesn’t have to process normal external stimuli – light, noise, orient in time and space and the body is free from gravity), brain wave states shift, and the brain can enter into deep states of conscious relaxation, such as theta brain wave states. Because of the level and extent of the trauma I’ve been through all my life, before I started floating, my sympathetic nervous system must have been chronically overactivated, chronically triggering increased physiological responses to stress.

The parasympathetic nervous system is a branch of the peripheral nervous system which connects the body to the central nervous system and the brain. This communicates pain, sensations and commands for movement. When the sympathetic nervous system is overactivated by repeated trauma and chronically stimulated by stress, over time, its functioning deteriorates leading to systemic health conditions.

If early trauma, neglect or abandonment reduces the brain’s ability to regulation stress through the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, this chronic sustained neurobiology can lead to chronic emotional dysregulation.

I’ve often felt high levels of muscle tension and fatigue, frequently elevated heart rate, high blood pressure and digestive problems. It’s no wonder I have so many long-term systemic health conditions. But since I started floating, I’ve started feeling so much calmer, more rested, I’ve noticed decreased muscle tension, decreased lethargy, my confidence has increased and shyness decreased. I’ve started being able to regulate my emotions better. I’ve engaged in risky coping mechanisms to numb my emotional pain a lot less frequently. I know how to experience peace, contentment, serenity and happiness. Although I am still profoundly struggling with many health problems, overall, my general well-being has significantly improved. I’ve come back to life. A sense of being alive again. Not that lethargic, groggy, constantly exhausted Sarah.  I’ve emerged from the shell I had retreated into. I’ve become a lot less sensitive to harsh triggers and less easily startled. Flashbacks are becoming less frequent and nightmares decreasing.

Within the float pod environment, the timeless sense of nothingness induces this state of physical relaxation and comfort (the spine and spinal cord decompress without gravity) and muscle relaxation.  This then allows the process of interoception to begin (the brain sensing the internal state of the body). Additionally, it allows for a safe opportunity with increased internal awareness to explore and get to objectively know and understand myself more as Sarah (in a relaxed state). Not only is this helping desensitize my brain to what were once extreme levels of anxiety, anxiety-sensitivity and panic attacks, but it’s giving me a sense of reconnection between my brain and body.

So much of my life, I’ve felt “shut off” or dissociated. I’m now experiencing “me” as ‘me.” I feel alive. I feel hope. It makes me believe the part of Sarah I thought had been destroyed forever by the terrible experiences I’ve been through, is still alive and still within me. That part of my soul I thought had been destroyed, unforgivably and very cruelly taken away from me. That part of being human and being able to experience calm, rest, pleasure and enjoyment and I’m learning to access that part of me through floating.

Floating is an unprecedented opportunity where stressors from the outside world are removed, to easily and consistently experience deep meditative dream-like states. That is something I cannot seem to experience outside of the float tank when external stimuli still activate states of hypervigilance and startle. But over time, the more I float, the most rested and relaxed I am able to start becoming at home outside a float pod.

For many years when my anxiety was very bad, I struggled to leave the house at all. Over time, but particularly since I’ve started floating, not only has my anxiety hugely improved, but my hypersensitivity to sounds and background noises are becoming vastly desensitized and I’m increasingly able to go to nosier, busier places and socialize more. Over the past year, I’ve made many trips to London on my own, compared to five years ago when I struggled profoundly with anxiety just crossing the road to the local shop. My confidence is growing all the time.

There is increasing research, but it’s postulated floating releases a large number of endorphins and dopamine. Floating also decreases cortisol (a stress response hormone). Other benefits I get from floating include relief from bodily discomfort and my numerous chronic pain issues, lowered anxiety, increased mood, creativity and increased productivity.

Because floating has helped me learn how to induce a better state of relaxation, I no longer rely on sleeping pills or prescribed medication to make me sleep. I’ve come off almost all of a vast number of medications for my mental health that weren’t even helping me, just inducing very negative side effects.

I don’t understand enough about sleep cycles and our different stages of sleep and what triggers dreams to occur during rapid eye movement (REM) sleep, but my Oura Ring, which tracks sleep, shows after floating for a week or so, I enter into longer and deeper stages of “deep sleep” and spend less time in REM sleep. I very often have horrific nightmares from past traumatic experiences, but after floating, the nightmares totally stop for a while and I don’t even wake up remembering all the bizarre dreams I usually have. After floating, I wake up so much more rested and refreshed.

In the health care system, it’s very sad most doctors think problems a traumatized patient perceives as something “physical” are often overlooked and you are told “it’s all in your mind” because of the abuse you endured. Most doctors don’t have the training about how trauma is implicated in deterioration of long-term physical health. The treatments they offer just don’t seem to work for me. I have a comprehensive list of both emotional and physical health issues, and when most of the specialist teams refused help, I started thinking outside the box and desperately searching for that “something to help.” I took responsibility and built my own wellness toolbox with multiple modalities. Things the doctors don’t know about. After all, at the end of the day, the only person who can truly help you is you!

But my problems are too complex for most of the doctors I see. Things like acupuncture and massage just weren’t for me and I didn’t notice any benefits. Massage even increased my pain significantly and left me emotionally distressed. However, even within minutes of my first float session, I was totally blown away by such profound benefits from it. When I did have a very brief intervention from the pain team, the pain consultant thanked me for everything I taught him about managing pain! He hadn’t heard of floating. Neither had anyone from the mental health team. This is quite sad considering how beneficial floating is both to my chronic pain and my mental health!

Although I was under the community mental health team (CMHT) for 15 years, their “treatment” for my problems very much advocated mindfulness, breathing exercises, distraction techniques and promoting “self-soothing.” Having been through so much repeated trauma, I’ve developed a high sense of “toxic shame” and for so long felt unworthy of self-compassion and self-care. I invested a huge amount of time, energy and money buying books and audiobooks on mindfulness. However, the more and more I tried to implement these techniques and integrate them into my life, the more and more I realized the techniques forced on me by the CMHT were not only failing to “work,” but were making me feel so much worse.

So, I started doing some research and reading. Anything I found out about how mindfulness can, in some traumatized people, increase distress, the CMHT refused to listen to. I repeatedly asked for specific help with specific aspects of the aftermaths of my traumatic lifetime. Asked for help with things like nightmares and flashbacks. Despite several psychiatrists diagnosing me with complex PTSD or PTSD, all my care coordinators claimed to not even be aware I had a PTSD diagnosis at all. Because of both the level of invalidation I was met with from the CMHT and simply the fact I’ve never had the help to process or deal with all the trauma I’ve been through, this then led to developing very obsessive and compulsive behaviors.

Again, I was also severely invalidated when I asked for help with this. Consequently, I’ve effectively been re-traumatized by the very specialist services that were supposed to help me! Recently, more specialized and expert mental health professionals I’ve consulted privately think this obsessive behavior is a direct response to deal with the feelings of threat and the fact I’ve got so much unresolved trauma I’ve never had help to come to terms with. It’s very interesting that for about a week after a float because I’m so much more relaxed and less anxious, my obsessive cleaning and compulsive tidiness significantly reduces, too.

I’ve tried a huge list of prescribed medication for my mental health, none with huge benefits, but all with drastic side effects. However, for me, floating both remediates and takes away some of the struggling from my debilitating symptoms and also enhances my mental well-being and mental wellness.

I know I’m too complex to ever get the treatment or help I need for both my unresolved trauma, but also many of my physical health problems too. I’ve made numerous attempts to end my life and have also engaged in a lot of self-harm. I hate and despise myself to the extreme. Floating (alongside other self-management techniques and wellness modalities I’ve discovered for myself) allows me to have hope and feel human again. Sarah. Floating makes me feel alive, alert and positive. I have hope and optimism at looking forward to what benefit I’ll get from my next float. It’s true you get a different experience from every float.

Floating takes away a lot of the hopelessness I have for the future, resulting from the repeated complex traumatic experiences that have left me feeling hugely hopeless about my life and my future. I am now building a more optimistic future, of which floating is part of my journey of healing and recovery. Whenever I have to have gaps of weeks or months between floating (for example, if I have an ear infection), I certainly notice my symptoms and struggling drastically returning.

Unsplash image by Alexander McFeron

Originally published: August 6, 2021
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