In Search of Sleep

In Search of Sleep

Written by Don Rowe 19.02.2016

In the search for sleep, insomniac Rebecca Isemonger entered the tank for three sessions at Float Culture. The benefits she discovered, however, were much more than just catching a couple of z’s.

There may be a rover on Mars, but scientists still don’t know why we sleep. Whether for the purpose of information consolidation, cellular regeneration, or bodily maintenance and renovation, we simply can’t avoid the inevitable plunge into unconsciousness that awaits like a miniature death at the end of every day. Or most of us can’t, anyway.

But for some people, falling asleep is like grabbing mist. The night doubles and triples in length, every moment contorted and stretched to tearing. Sleep won’t come, and any effort to force it’s arrival only makes it shy away more. Pressure builds as the reservoir of sleep-time starts to run dry. Six hours left, that’s almost enough. Five hours. Four. Three hours to sleep? Might as well get up and start getting ready for work.

For Rebecca Isemonger, insomnia crept in after shift work at a new hospitality job smashed her body-clock with a big old hammer. Deprived of sleep, she became anxious and irritable, her eyes itching and her head filled with fog.

“When you’re suffering from insomnia, you can’t switch your brain off,” she says. “It’s a little bit like going to sleep and thinking about every bad life decision you’ve ever made. Thoughts just loop over and over, and you’re thinking ‘What if this?’ and ‘What if that?’”

Isemonger started by removing the obvious things, like Facebook nightcaps and computers in bed.

“So I try not using electronics at night, and it’s not really working,” she says “I’m trying lots of different things, different methods for relaxation and sleep, breathing exercises and stuff like that, but nothing is working.”

Stuck working awkward hours, Isemonger inhabited a different, unhappy and sleepless world. Because sleep deprivation leads to elevated cortisol, the hormone associated with anxiety among other things, the insomniac suffers increased levels of stress, and finds sleep ever more elusive as their condition worsens. Isemonger was desperate for a good night’s sleep.

“One day I saw something advertising floating. An ad came up on my Facebook feed, and I couldn’t tell you why,” she says. “It said something like ‘Suffering from insomnia? Try floating!’. I saw it and thought ‘Hey, I suffer from insomnia, that sounds like me, that’s a great idea, I’ll literally try anything,” so that was my attitude.

The ad was placed by Anton Kuznetsov, owner and operator at Float Culture. Kuznetsov intuited that the anxiolytic properties of floatation might help to break the cycle of stress and deprivation that sustains insomnia. Although there is little hard scientific evidence concerning floatation therapy as a treatment for the condition, it follows that a reduction in cortisol and overall stress would be conducive to sleep. All Kuznetsov needed was someone to try it out.

“I decided to do it,” says Isemonger. “I thought if it works, it’ll be fantastic, and if not, I got to try something cool.”

“I like to learn about the things I’m doing. I think knowledge is power. So I watched the cartoon Float Culture made and learned all about the process. When I walked in, it was bigger than I expected. I thought it would be much smaller. So you shower, and then you get into the pod. For me, the process of the shower is part of the relaxation. It helps your body to unwind, and that’s something that they suggest you do if suffer from insomnia anyway, you should shower before bed. I got into the pod, and there’s music playing and a blue light on. I left the lights till the music stopped, then switched them off. Then I was in the dark.”

Sleep therapists the world over recommend sleeping in as dark an environment as possible. If you could put your mattress in the endless dark of a cavern three kilometres beneath the surface of the earth, that would obviously be preferable to sleeping under a halogen bulb. But for most people, heavy curtains and a closed door are about as good as you can do. In a float tank, however, the darkness is complete. And at first, it can be formidable.

“It was around that time that I was thinking ‘what the hell am I doing,’” says Isemonger. “‘This is the stupidest idea I’ve ever had!’ But you just have to go through that. You just have to listen to what your brain has to say, let it say all of that garbage, and then eventually it doesn’t have anything left to say. Up until now, I’ve never experienced that silence.

“I couldn’t tell you how long the float went, and that’s the beauty of being in a confined space without any ability to tell what’s happening on the outside world. That was totally unique for me. When the music started up again at the end of the session, I thought ‘Wow, well that was different’. By the time I showered, it felt like someone had tranquilised me.”

Exiting the tank, most people experience incredible feelings of calm, relaxation and quiet joy. For Isemonger, deprived of sleep and entirely fresh to floatation, the effects were even more potent. Every droplet of water bounced light like tiny jewels. The complimentary cosmetics were rich and silken. For some people, the aftermath of a float is like what happens after great sex.

“One of my friends wanted to know what it was like straight away,” says Isemonger. “And I had to tell her ‘No, tomorrow, I can’t’. I got home and it was the best nights sleep I’ve had in forever. I couldn’t even talk on the phone, I was warm and relaxed and just tired. It was the best nights sleep I’ve had in so, so long.”

But floatation is a practice, like any other. While moments of stillness certainly occur, often more frequently and with less effort than in traditional forms of meditation, floatation is not exclusively rolling waves of pleasure in an ego-less void.

“Unfortunately my second one wasn’t as good because I had expectations. When you have that expectation, you put the pressure on. I made a rookie mistake. I still got benefits from being in there. I didn’t come home with that same tranquilizer feeling, but absorbing all the different salts and the magnesium from the tank into your body, that’s still going to really help with the relaxation process.”

And, as I’ve discussed before, floatation therapy has other, more subtle benefits. Creative types the world over, from writers to fighters, utilise the tank for deep introspection and communion with the subconscious – a process Isemonger stumbled upon by chance.

“I’m an artist, so during my second and third floats I was visualising what I wanted to do with my paintings and stuff. I’d just finished at school at Whitecliff last year, and it was really great for that. When I got out, I still had a really great sleep. I had the best of both worlds. I just didn’t have that amazing moment of nothing.

“For anyone with insomnia, I highly, highly recommend floatation. And eventually, you’ll get that moment of silence. It’s just about going in without expectations or pressure, just like getting to sleep.”

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