Sensory Deprivation Tanks Scare the Hell Out of Me, So I Tried One

Woman floating in sensory deprivation pool
Peter Charlesworth/LightRocket/Getty Images
Peter Charlesworth/LightRocket/Getty Images

I'm not sure what’s worse: being too plugged in, or totally unplugged, and that's why sensory deprivation tanks scare the living sh*t out of me.

Not only do the pods look like alien-abduction devices straight out of Lady Gaga's "Bad Romance" video, but the thought of re-entering the womb is just creepy. On top of that, I can’t recall any time in my life being completely devoid of sight, sound, touch, taste, and smell -- in fact, I feel like I’m the opposite, on constant sensory overload. Going cold turkey? Sorry, have you seen Requiem for a Dream?

All that in mind, I decided to face my fears by visiting a float studio in my Canadian hometown of Regina, Saskatchewan. Here’s what I learned:

Sensory Deprivation Tank
Flickr/Jon Roig

It's not a Jacuzzi

Sensory deprivation is absolutely nothing like a hot tub, despite its sleek design and all that H2O. The water (265 gallons' worth) is mixed with a whopping 800lb of Epsom salt. Warm it all up to room temperature, and your boat is ready to float.

What I gathered from reading was that I’d be alert, but totally relaxed and in a dream-like state. An hour in the tank was as good as four hours of deep sleep. So I arrived at the studio (Smith & Best, if you're passing through Regina!), downed a glass of wine in the welcome room, and tried to get as mentally prepared as possible.

Rebirth is awkward

Climbing back into the womb is just as clumsy and weird an experience as it sounds. Swimsuits are discouraged inside the tank to keep the skin's stress points totally free, so I got buck-naked and tried to climb in without breaking a leg or spilling water all over the floor.

After gingerly closing the lid, I laid back into the warm-ish water and looked at the pod's inner walls washed in blue light. Soft ambient music played for a few minutes before fading away. This ain’t so bad! I thought. So I decided to take a literally blind leap of faith, by turning off the lights for the full sensory deprivation experience.

There will be panic...

I was not ready for that. It was way too much -- too quiet, too dark, too everything -- and I ended up frantically grabbing around the tank's walls looking for the light button. I didn't find it but eventually moved the lid up, accidentally splashing salt in my eye at the same time.

Relaxation level? Zero.

I sorted myself out and tried desperately to shut off my busy mind. Not easy. I thought about some emails I had to reply to. I thought about that scene from The Revenant where Leo wrestles the bear. I wondered if he would win an Oscar. You can see where this is going.

So I started to panic, knowing that I was wasting my time inside the glorious haven of a womb, and it would be over without achieving any zen.

woman floating in water

... but relaxation will eventually win out

That was obviously the wrong mentality to go in with. The experience is all about your mind, and turning the damn thing off. In the end, I knew I had to give myself a break, and once I decided not to care about the time, the emails, Leo's Oscar, my body started to drift.

I wasn’t totally unconscious, but I did dream lightly. And not to skip over any of the dramatic details of my floating and dreaming (I floated, I dreamed, there you go), but it seemed like no time at all before the music started playing and it was over. Sixty minutes -- gone, just like that. I had survived sensory deprivation, and I even felt -- dare I say it -- pretty refreshed.

The key, as I learned, is to take your time -- from getting in to getting out. Rushing around is a surefire way to miss out on the experience.

Finally, don't forget to wash up

Yeah, big lesson learned here when a few days later I noticed a rash all over my ears and neck from not rinsing my hair well enough (I had somewhere to be, but clearly not that bad). I've since read that some people like to use a little white vinegar on these areas afterwards, for this very reason. Rashes aren't fun, so take the time for a very thorough rinse.

All in all, though, the experience was a success. I tried something new and, in the end, conquered my fears. More importantly, the sensory deprivation tank (rash and all) showed me the importance of slowing down and smelling the... well, absolutely nothing. Now, where did I put my iPhone?

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Barbara Woolsey is a Berlin-based writer who now knows there is such a thing as Red Ear Syndrome. Follow her on Facebook and Twitter.