Can floating helps teens with anxiety?
Angst and adolescence have walked hand in sweaty hand since the beginning of time. Raging hormones, prodigious growth spurts, and emotional volatility don’t exactly make for smooth sailing during the teenage years. While a certain amount of anxiety is to be expected on the roller coaster journey to adulthood, for today’s teens the additional pressures of unprecedented connectivity through technology and increased academic and social expectations have only made it worse. Of course, it’s always a good idea to consult a qualified professional, such as a pediatrician or counselor, when you have serious concerns about your child’s mental health. In addition, there are a number of relatively simple things such as exercise, good nutrition and adequate sleep that can help alleviate stress and anxiety. At the Laureate Institute for Brain Research (LIBR) here in Tulsa, Clinical Neuropsychologist Justin Feinstein and his team are looking into one more: flotation. Floating face up in a tank of salty warm water in complete silence in the dark may just be the key to easing anxiety for some.
Technology, Teens & Anxiety
While stress has always been a part of adolescence, according to Tulsa counselor Sarah St. John, it seems to occur at a higher rate now. Increased competition in sports and academics and larger numbers of extra-curricular activities may all contribute, but St. John believes social media also plays a large role.
“Years ago, we didn’t have social media or even texting, let alone Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat or all the different things that keep popping up,” St. John explained. “You had down time. Teenagers can be talking to somebody and be getting text messages or other calls. They are never ‘off.’”
That constant connectivity is a new phenomenon, the consequences of which are not yet fully understood.
LIBR’s Justin Feinstein thinks that levels of anxiety and depression for teenagers have been growing for years. According to Feinstein, constant connectedness through social media is the likely culprit.
“There are a couple of things that have changed in human civilization in this past generation, and the biggest one that has affected pretty much all of us is technology – smart phones in particular,” he noted. “I’ve been amazed at how quickly it went from adults having smart phones to teenagers having smart phones to now children having smart phones. Very quickly, you’re going to see a generation of children who have spent their entire lives with this technology, and we’re only beginning to see the ramifications.”
While the impact of this often “24/7” connectivity is not known, Feinstein believes it’s doing something to the brain that primes the pathways for stress and anxiety.
“It’s really a holistic problem that we have on our hands with this technology,” Feinstein said. “We’re constantly in this perpetual state of connectivity. We’re interacting without ever giving our brains a moment to disconnect and relax. It’s affecting our sleep patterns. It’s affecting our social behavior, and I think it could be causing some of these increases we’ve seen lately in anxiety and depression, particularly in younger people.”
Floating to Reduce Anxiety
If constant connectivity leads to, or exacerbates, stress, anxiety and depression, then learning to disconnect could be a method of managing them. Meditation has long been used as a tool to quiet and calm the mind, but achieving this state of profound and peaceful “thoughtless awareness” can be challenging. What if there were a way to take away some of those barriers, eliminate some of the distractions, making it easier to reach this relaxed state? This is the question Feinstein is exploring in his flotation laboratory, and while this study is only in its early stages (and so far limited to adults), the preliminary results have been very promising.
“The idea here is can floating reduce anxiety?” Feinstein explained. “Right now, we’re trying to answer that from the short-term point of view. In other words, does a single float reduce anxiety levels in the short term? All of our preliminary data suggests it does, and it’s a very reliable effect.”
As Feinstein notes, although floating isn’t the same as meditation, it creates an ideal environment for practicing meditation.
“So much of meditation is about focusing your attention, oftentimes on sensations like the breath. Floating very naturally reduces all the external distractions that often get in the way of meditation,” he said.
Feinstein suspects that floating helps put the nervous system into an extremely relaxed state, without a lot of effort on the floater’s part.
“Every moment of the day our nervous system is exposed to stress through the environment. Every sound we hear, everything we see, every conversation we have, it’s stressing the nervous system in some way,” he noted. “This environment of floating naturally reduces all of this stress without your having to do any of the work yourself.”
The result is a strong physiological relaxation response – reduced heart and breathing rates and lowered blood pressure.
“We’re seeing reduction, as well, in the circuitry of the brain that seems to be implicated in anxiety,” Feinstein concludes.
While Feinstein stresses that it’s very early in this research to draw sweeping conclusions and that his research has been limited so far to healthy adults, he is hopeful about the potential broader applications.
“One of the other things I love about floating is it seems to bring the body into its state of equilibrium, and in a society of 24/7 connectivity, sometimes that’s all we need: a chance to reset, a chance to recalibrate,” he commented. “And oftentimes with teenagers, just with puberty and all of the hormones, they never get that moment to recalibrate and reset, and you can imagine all of the stress that goes in the nervous system in a teenager’s brain and body because of that.”
While Feinstein is reluctant to make any recommendations this early in his study, he does think there is little risk in giving floating a try.
“I can’t just say broadly, ‘If you have anxiety and suffer, go float,’” he commented. “But what I can say is these centers are opening up all around Tulsa, and I think it doesn’t seem harmful to give it a shot. The truth is you’re in full control of the experience. You can get in and out whenever you want. It’s a simple experience, so it’s not like it takes a lot of practice. We’ve had people float here who have never even swam before. It’s not hard because it’s only a foot of water, and the water does all the work for you.”
Floating in Tulsa
Debra Worthington opened H2Oasis Float Center six months ago. She used the same open design pools that Feinstein uses in his lab. Worthington is confident in floating’s power to alleviate chronic physical pain, anxiety and stress. She’s welcomed a number of teenagers to her float center since it opened. Clients are required to sign a waiver, and teens 16 years old and younger need to have a parent’s permission. For her younger clients, Worthington requires a parent to be onsite during the float.
“Every time I see a young person that comes in with any kind of issue, my heart opens up because it does make a difference,” she said of the float experience. “If we can influence them at that age before a lot of history sets in, and they can learn adaptive techniques and they can learn that they can actually feel better and achieve deep relaxation and peace, it makes a difference in the quality of these kids’ lives.”
If a first-time client self-discloses that he or she has struggled with anxiety, Worthington, who has a masters degree in psychology, takes a few minutes to talk with that client before the float, teaching a simple breathing technique that can be used to help keep them calm.
Worthington believes floating is a great tool for stress relief for people of all ages.
“The average person is undergoing so much stress in today’s lifestyle that the human body was probably never equipped to handle,” she noted. “Basically we describe it as like a computer. One hour in the pool and you’re going to get a brain reboot. Things get recalibrated. You get to go offline for probably the first time in all of your life, and your body is able to use all of that energy to attend to the things that it needs to because it’s not fighting, or trying to process, all of that stimulus.”
For more information on Feinstein’s research visit www.laureateinstitute.org/justin-feinstein.html.