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A Milwaukee Community-Academic Partnership Aims To Help Those With PTSD With 'Floating'

Float therapy - or floating - has become more popular in the health and wellness fields within the last few years. However, the practice actually goes back decades. 

The first upright freshwater float tank was developed in the early 1950s to explore the idea of consciousness. The more common lie-down commercial salt water tanks that we know today were invented in the early 1970s. While its popularity may have waxed and waned, floating is gaining traction as a way to help treat things like athletic recovery, chronic pain, anxiety, stress and insomnia. 

When someone goes into a float session, you go into a room that houses either a float pod with a lid or an open float pool. About 1,000 pounds of epsom salt in less than a foot of water allows you float weightlessly and let your muscles relax according to Andy Larson of Float Milwaukee. Most sessions last for an hour.

Credit Audrey Nowakowski
Andy Larson of Float Milwaukee stands next to one of multiple float pods that Float Milwaukee houses in their facility in Walker's Point. Each pod is housed in a separate room, which includes a shower.

“We keep the water about your skin-temperature so after a while you don’t feel the water, you just feel like you’re just hovering in space,” he explains. “If you turn the light off, the music off, you’ll have complete darkness, you can’t even tell if your eyes are open, all you’ll hear is your heartbeat, maybe your breath.”

Floating can also potentially benefit those who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder. The low sensory and weightless environment can help people with PTSD relax in a controlled environment, and this will be explored scientifically here in Milwaukee.

In a community-academic partnership between Float Milwaukee and the trauma psychology service at Froedtert and the Medical College of Wisconsin, they will collect preliminary research, recording how treating individuals with PTSD with float sessions can affect their psychology, physiology, and perceptions of the experience.

"When someone has PTSD their nervous system is on overdrive," notes Dr. Terri deRoon Cassini, lead psychologist for the trauma psychology service at Froedtert and the Medical College of Wisconsin.

She was invited to try float therapy and after her first session she realized the potential application this could have for patients with PTSD.

"I felt like [floating] could really benefit the relaxation component of treatment, really helping people bring down that anxiety set point because it's so high when individuals have PTSD.” - Dr. Terri deRoon Cassini

"We really need to have some neurobiological benefit of whatever [PTSD] treatment that we're doing to bring that nervous system down. And after floating I felt like this could really benefit the relaxation component of treatment, really helping people bring down that anxiety setpoint because it’s so high when individuals have PTSD,” she notes.

This prospective cohort pilot study will recruit a small number of subjects with PTSD to float for three sessions. Over the course of their sessions, intermediary symptom assessments will be conducted, along with recording the personal perceptions of the benefits of floating according to Dr. deRoon-Cassini.

Credit Audrey Nowakowski
The float pools at Float Milwaukee are the exact same design as those used in clinical research across the country. The pool allows a more open and controlled environment in a room that is kept warmer to maintain body temperature.

Larson notes that participants can choose between floating in a pool or a pod.

"To think about if someone already had PTSD or anxiety and you're introducing them into this float world, it's a lot more anxiety-inducing to see this clam shell that you're going to close over you versus an open pool with the light on that you can totally control," he explains.

Both Cassini and Larson hope that this study will lead to more research and even bigger controlled studies. In terms of outcomes, Dr. Cassini hopes floating can improve one major area of their study subject’s lives — and that’s sleep.

“One of the most troubling pieces of having PTSD is difficulty sleeping, both falling asleep and staying asleep. I know in the literature and anecdotally there’s been reports of people really benefiting their sleep after floating, and so I'm really interested in seeing if that also improves,” she says.

Credit Audrey Nowakowski
A painting by local artist Maria Groshek hangs in the lobby of Float Milwaukee.

Larson says that floating is one of many ways for people to step away from life's stressors and reset. His biggest hope is that more people will learn about the benefits of floating and add it into their self-care routine.

"We ultimately want people to get help, whether it's complimenting something else they're doing ... or whether it's the only thing that works for them," he says. "We just want people to have that option and know it's out there."

Audrey is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.