A Story of Depression, Anxiety and PTSD

Original Blog post from Colin of Float Boston, September 14th, 2014

“I remained happy, and carried with me the positive feeling into the next two days. It was almost a ‘celebratory’ feeling. One that has not been produced by any other medications, therapies, or methods of dealing with the individual diagnoses I live with. I didn’t feel the need for the anti-anxiety medications for nearly two days. Which, in my current state, almost never happens.” —Andrew

“Andrew” is a real person, though that’s not his real name.  Over the last two years he’s been clinically diagnosed with Treatment-Resistant Major Depressive Disorder, PTSD, and Anxiety Disorder.  He has worked with trauma therapists and all the resources in the Boston area, including MGH and McLean hospital. He’s even gone so far as to participate in clinical studies at MGH for current drug trials that are being studied for his particular diagnosis. To date, nothing has significantly improved his quality of life, and is left with very few options short of electroconvulsive therapy.

 

He contacted us, wanting to know if he could try floating before committing to anything so drastic as ECT.   Sara and I gave it a little thought and said, you know what, helping someone like this is exactly why we want to open FLOAT.   We offered a series of three floats over three weeks, if he would write up his experiences before and after so that we could share them here.

[After my third float] I felt calm and happy, an experience I can’t remember having in a long time. So much so that I was unfamiliar with it, and didn’t know what to do with the positive happy feeling. I know how to take care of myself in the dark troubling times, but over the last few years, have lost the innate knowledge of how to feel happy, and what to do with that time.

This is an anecdote – one person’s experience, and no kind of clinically controlled trial.  Please interpret with caution.  Still we were thrilled with the results, and are excited to share them here.

Andrew summarized his own benefits this way:

  • Deep relaxation, a loss of the immediate sense of anxiety while in the tank.
  • A loss of sense of time, which in turn removes the immediate sense of depression. There are no outside influences to “worry” about while in the tank.
  • A feeling of well being following the float, similar to the relaxation effects of anti-anxiety medications.  All three floats produced this effect with varying duration between a few hours and two days.
  • Reduction of “hyper-vigilance” associated with PTSD. There is a period of acceptance and lack of paranoia, a “regular” approach to outside stimuli.  Again, the duration of this effect varied float-to-float.
  • Consistent better and easier, more restful sleep. All three floats had the effect of removing nightmares associated with his symptoms. This was a great relief for those evenings, almost a “reset” of the emotional chatter while resting or sleeping, and produced better rest than any drugs he had tried. This was the primary and greatest relief of all three sessions.  Two of the floats (1st and 3rd) produced instances as long as two days of removed or reduced nightmares.

He floated one 90-minute session per week for three weeks. For each session he did not take his standard pre-emptive anxiety medication; this was with the approval of his regular treaters, as a healthy experiment. There were no concerns over foregoing the medication on these three days.

Floatation therapy helps people achieve total peace. Floating effortlessly calms the nervous system.

Floatation therapy helps people achieve total peace. Floating effortlessly calms the nervous system.

I approached the first float with a heightened sense of anxiety, as I did not know what to expect, or how the process would affect me. Also, I had a heightened anxiety at being out of my “comfort zone” not having a sense of the area, or the individuals associated with the float (Sara and Colin). While I was provided with excellent instructions from Sara prior to the experience, it may be beneficial to individuals with similar diagnoses to speak to the heightened concerns of the first experience.

His experiences in the tank were not unusual:

Not knowing what to expect, the initial warmth, darkness, and buoyancy created an initial concern over “doing it right”. Once I got used to the experience of relaxation, I was able to “let go”. It did however nearly hurt to let go the tense tight hold on my joints, specifically in the pelvic, lower back, shoulders and neck area.

This resistance to letting go – he described it as being like “fear” or “pain” – significantly lessened during the next two floats, as it became more familiar. Once he recognized the experience, it became easier to accept the “pain” associated with relaxation.

My body slowly letting go allowed my internal “chatter” to slow down. Focused on the body, and its experience, there was no internal focus on the anxiety or depression.

As his internal dialog slowed, he became increasingly aware of physical sensations like the slight difference in temperature between the areas of his body covered or not covered by water.  His internal dialog crept louder again, as the “wonder of the relaxation” became “odd and important”, but faded again fairly quickly.  It is not unusual in the tank for feelings of self-awareness to ebb and flow in waves.

During this period, my eyes were closed and colors appeared, along with an internal sense of “movement”.  This experience felt very similar to deep meditation, and after a while (the loss of time being a consequence of the float) everything slowed, and the relaxation, the internal chatter, and all the familiar fears and concerns disappeared. I remained in this state until the music began, and I [became] aware that the 90 minutes had passed. I don’t know how long the persistence of awareness was absent, as the loss of time was prominent, but it did feel lengthy.

After showering, Andrew reported an awareness of a sense of connection between his “higher” and “lower” brain, producing a feeling of calm and well-being.

One challenge I experienced after the first float, which happened with each float, was the feeling of being “thrust” right back into the daily grind, the noise, the annoyances, and the solidity of everything. However, I was able to “watch” my reaction to the real world, and maintained the feeling of “connection to the higher and lower brain”. The ability to “watch” rather than “react” was a great relief (and very similar to deep meditation, only informed by the body, rather than the mind). The relief continued for some time afterward, lasting nearly the rest of the day.

Andrew described one of the symptoms of his PTSD being hyper-vigilance, a feeling of need to be aware of everything in his environment as a constant possible threat.  He described this period of relief following floats, with durations between a few hours (after his second float) and two days (after his third) as a time when he could notice things like a new car parked down the street without feeling the need to keep track of it.

The evening after the first float, it felt as though I was able to “conjure” the connection of higher and lower brain, and relax into sleep. That night, I did not experience any nightmares, and woke feeling rested, and calm.

Andrew described the improved sleep as the most important effect, for him, of the float sessions.  Nightmares are a constant experience for him, and few other things have helped his sleep.  Drugs, notably, are able to suppress the nightmares only by rendering him unconscious without leaving any feeling of restfulness. Floating gave him that feeling, and without side effects.

By midday on the day after, the familiar anxiety, hyper-vigilance, and depression returned, but carried the knowledge that the reduction in severity was possible.  This acted as a reminder of the sense of relief, rather than “falling” deeper into the depression. This reminder did accompany my symptoms for a few days after.

His sense of wellbeing and “near happiness” consistently lasted nearly a full day, and sometimes into the next. The duration was not predictable, but it seemed to be connected to how quickly his relaxation occurred while in the tank, and how long the “letting go” experience lasted.  His second float took the longest time to relax and “let go”, as anticipation of the experience was “higher” – this is a common occurrence, having the second float experience be markedly different from the first. His third float was easy and deeper, similar to his first float, and resulted in some symptoms being totally absent afterward.

A few more resources:

Nearly 20 percent of veterans who have returned from Afghanistan and Iraq have post-traumatic stress disorder. Some have found help with an alternative treatment called "floatation therapy."

 

Justin Feinstein from the Laureate Institute for Brain Research (LIBR) talks about the ability of float tanks to help people combat anxiety at the 2013 Float Conference.