How cutting off the senses could help with anxiety

Neurophysicist John Lily spent his 86 years on earth investigating the mysteries of consciousness. His research projects included searching for alien life, the effects of LSD, and humans' connections with dolphins. He even managed to combine the two, dosing dolphins with acid during the '60s. What a time to be alive.

But before these underwater acid experiments, Lily invented something a little less controversial and a lot more influential.

The sensory deprivation tank, first developed by Lily during the '50s.

The scientist wanted to know what would happen to consciousness when it was disconnected from the physical body. The closest he could get was a pitch black, sound proof bath filled with heavily salted water and heated to exact body temperature.

In the intervening years these space age contraptions have become synonymous with new age health and lifestyle fads. Everyone's gone for "a float" - often only once.

But for some sufferers of anxiety, floating is more than a novel experience; it's therapy.

Angela Nicole, an Auckland based marketing consultant, has been a regular at Float Culture in Mt Eden for the past year.

She says it's one of the only things which helps with her severe anxiety and panic attacks.

"I see it as something that I can use when I'm really in a crisis," she told Newshub. "If I'm having a panic attack I'm really overwhelmed by sensory things and I know I can come here I can shut the lid nobody can get in touch with me for an hour.

"Yes I may be left alone with my thoughts but it gives my body a chance to get rid of the chemicals that have been running through it."

Angela has been taking part in a program offered by Auckland based floatation therapy start up, The Rest Project.

It's run by psychology graduate and float enthusiast Sam Thomas, and consists of 4 - 6 weeks of regular float sessions.

"The beautiful thing we think with anxiety sufferers is that people can actually experience their anxiety these really well trodden paths of worries that always stimulate this intense physical response, they can do that but in this novel experience where they are calm," Mr Thomas says.

In 2016 a study of 50 anxiety sufferers found a significant reduction in symptoms for those who took part in a seven week, 12 session float program.

Although it's a promising start, for most people sensory deprivation is still a bit of a novelty.

According to Mr Thomas, it takes more than a single float to see any sort of meaningful effects for anxiety sufferers, and as they are expensive with a single float session usually priced at around a hundred dollars, price and commitment could be a major barrier to float therapy breaking into the mainstream.

That being said, in a world where our senses are constantly under siege from sensory input, disappearing into ourselves for an hour can't hurt. It's worth dipping a toe in right?