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Don’t touch the wet paint

How flotation therapy and sensory deprivation helped to keep my mind quiet.

Photo by Fischer Twins on Unsplash

One of my primary school teachers once said studies had been conducted into human behaviour showing we instinctively want to do the opposite of what we’re told. The example he gave was of ‘wet paint’ signs and how most people would actually try to touch the paint to test it’s wet. Looking back, I have no idea if he was spinning a furphy or if that research is true, but it’s certainly applicable to how my brain works.

Case in point, my complete inability to sit still when I’m on a long-haul flight, trapped in an alumnium tube for hours on end. Or if someone says “don’t look now, but…”. Yup, I’m the one looking. Every. Time. Similarly, if there is something I shouldn’t think about, then it’s right there, front and centre in my brain and creating all sorts of chatter that’s difficult to ignore.

Like many people, I have a busy brain which is often difficult to silence. I practiced yoga regularly until I sustained an injury a few years ago, but that was a really useful way to align my body and mind and turn down the volume of that mental chatter. More recently I took a meditation course in acknowledgement of the need to be more proactive in my mindfulness and self-care. I was the person running into the class just as it started, finishing a phone call about the latest work emergency and not-so-discretly checking my text messages during the class. Despite those distractions, meditation was incredibly helpful with quietening my mind and I felt more balanced as a result.

Unfortunately I fell out of that habit when I stopped working. I can’t even blame that on stress; perhaps it was the lack of a regular routine once I stepped off the corporate treadmill. A friend gave me a much-needed kick up the ass, though. I was telling her how my busy mind had kept me awake since 230 for a few consecutive mornings, leaving me feeling pretty shit. “How’s your meditation?” she asked. Ooops. Lesson learned. I’ve been meditating every day, sometimes twice daily, for almost a week and my sleep is so much better. Meditation isn’t for everyone, but if you do practice or are curious, I can thoroughly recommend a couple of apps – Calm has a meditation of the day and audio books with guest readers (hello Matthew McConaughey) or Insight Timer which has a huge library of free meditations.

One particular thing is creating stress and mild anxiety for me, and of course it’s the one thing I find very difficult to put out of my head. So I decided to try flotation therapy in an effort to turbo-charge my skills in pushing all thoughts of that issue far away from my mind. The science behind flotation therapy is pretty simple: Sensory deprivation creates an environment that’s perfect for quietening an over-stimulated mind and then to enter a deep, meditative state. It also helps reduce the levels of my arch enemy, the stress hormone cortisol, and release endorphins which are the body’s feel-good hormones. The water for floating is dense in Epsom salts and magnesium, which are both very good for your skin and muscles.

I’m deeply claustrophobic. I discovered that when crawling through a long and very narry cave in South Africa many years ago. I can look back and laugh now, but at the time it was pretty hectic. A lot of floation chambers are, basically, huge water-filled coffins. That was never going to float my boat (geddit??), so I found a place near me that has dedicated high-ceilinged non-claustrophobic rooms for floatation therapy.

After a thorough briefing, I was ready to begin. First, I had to shower and shampoo but not condition my hair. In went the earplugs and then I entered the flotation chamber. I had a little floaty type thing to keep my head up and that helped me lie in a fairly natural position. I had full control of the lighting. As I was a bit too scared to be in complete darkness, I left on the star lights in the ceiling, which was pretty nice.

The floating itself was amazing. It was a bit like lying on semi-set jelly. There’s so much salt in the water that I was almost on top of it rather than in it. There was music playing for the first 10 minutes. After that, it was silent until the hour was almost up, when the music returned. Until then, my breath was the only sound. I thought the hour would take forever to pass, but was determined to stick it out. At the start, I needed to banish all thoughts of that issue I’m not supposed to think about from my mind, but that seemed to happen quite quickly. I reached a very deep state of relaxation and I think I was in it for quite some time. When the music returned I was genuinely surprised at how quickly the time had passed.

I felt really energised when I got out of the tank. Then it was a quick shower to rinse off and to condition my hair before a herbal tea and a few moments to come back to earth before driving home. I slept incredibly well that night and have been feeling good ever since. I still struggle to banish the thoughts I shouldn’t be having but I feel I’m more in control of them.

Apparently, the floating experience only gets better after the first session. Perhaps it’s all marketing, but it was sufficiently impactful for me that I’m going back for another float tomorrow. I may never be able to fully banish those thoughts or quieten my mind completely, but I feel that floating, alongside good diet, exercise and meditation, is another useful tool to help me manage it and deter my instinct to reach out and touch that wet paint.

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