When Alonna Bailey was surprised by her friend with a free float therapy session at Float Carolina in Waxhaw, North Carolina, just outside Charlotte, the thirty-one year old didn’t know what to expect. After all, all Bailey knew was that she would be floating for sixty minutes in a “pod” filled with warm water and 1,000 pounds of salt . . . in total darkness. Though she was skeptical, she gave it a try. “I’ll tell you this,” she says, “it was the best surprise I’ve ever received.”

Bailey, like many others who have tried float therapy, experienced a calming, meditative state while “floating.” While the treatment has been popular in the wellness world for several years, it’s only recently gained mainstream popularity. In 2011, there were just ninety-five float centers in the US. Today, there are more than 250.

For years, research has supported the health benefits of meditation—namely stress reduction and an increase in mindfulness, among many others. But many people believe that float therapy is, in essence, a shortcut to that euphoric, meditative experience. In fact, a 2018 study found that “a single one-hour session of Floatation-REST [Restricted Environmental Stimulation Therapy] was capable of inducing a strong reduction in state anxiety and a substantial improvement in mood in a group of fifty anxious and depressed participants spanning a range of different anxiety and stress-related disorders (including PTSD, Generalized Anxiety Disorder, Panic Disorder, Agoraphobia, and Social Anxiety Disorder).”

“It doesn’t just relax you, it recharges your body and mind in ways like you’ve never experienced,” says Caleb Backe, a certified personal trainer and health and wellness expert for Maple Holistics in Farmingdale, New Jersey. “The idea behind a flotation tank is to create sensory deprivation. The tank is heated to roughly mirror your body temperature, the salt in the water allows you to defy gravity, and sights and sounds are removed for a meditative-like experience. The high levels of salt are really where you’re reaping the most benefits. Raising magnesium levels helps to reduce stress, flush out toxins, and improve cardiovascular health. Additionally, the removal of sensory stimuli can help your body to reduce cortisol and improve your circulation, which can encourage muscle recovery, lower stress, and improve overall health.”

Eric Hamrick, cofounder of Float Carolina, says it’s truly about submitting to the float therapy experience to reap the most rewards. “If you enter with a clear and open mind, I can guarantee your experience will be very unique,” he says. “Clients are able to escape daily stressors and overstimulation, allowing themselves to focus inward toward a deep, meditative state of mind. Athletes of all levels, and those suffering from conditions such as fibromyalgia and arthritis, can all benefit from the decompression and tension release of the body.”

Clinical neuropsychologist Justin Feinstein, PhD, is so passionate about the health benefits of float therapy that he’s devoted his entire career to researching how it affects the body mentally and physiologically. Feinstein founded the only float lab in the US, the Float Clinic and Research Center at the Laureate Institute for Brain Research in Tulsa, Oklahoma. One of the studies Feinstein often refers to that shows the benefits of float therapy was published in 2006 in the International Journal of Stress Management. It was in that study that researchers found that of the group of seventy participants with stress-related pain, just twelve float therapy sessions reduced pain, stress, anxiety, and depression, improved sleep, and enhanced optimism. Those positive feelings and results lasted several months after the session, leading many to believe it’s a fantastic noninvasive and drug-free way to combat depression and conditions such as PTSD.

While research is still ongoing, scientists like Feinstein are looking at how float therapy affects the brain pre- and post-float and whether or not the brain itself can change over time with regular float therapy sessions.

For now, Bailey does not need any research to tell her that float therapy can have an amazingly calming effect on her body and mind. “In this fast-paced world we live in, even when we’re sitting still, we’re still doing something . . . . We’re rarely ever still and alone with ourselves like we are while floating. Floating for me was a really great mental relief. It was a great spiritual journey. I can truly see how impactful it can be over the long term for both your body and your mind.”