What is float therapy? New anorexia treatment showing promise

TULSA, Okla. — A new treatment for anorexia may soon be on the horizon, and it’s probably not what you’re expecting. New research out of Oklahoma suggests the key to beating this common eating disorder may involve a lack of light and plenty of salt water.

Anorexia nervosa is a dangerous eating disorder characterized by low bodyweight, an irrational fear of gaining weight, and a distorted body image. On the surface, anorexia seems to be all about one’s diet and what they put in their body, but it’s also a condition with a heavy psychological element. Those living with anorexia often see themselves as worthless unless they can maintain their ideal weight.

The nuanced and layered nature of the disorder has made it historically difficult for doctors and specialists to treat, but researchers from the Laureate Institute for Brain Research (LIBR) report significant progress in the development of an innovate new novel technique for treating anorexia nervosa.

The study authors have identified several immediate and sustained effects tied to Floatation-REST (Reduced Environmental Stimulation Therapy) among inpatients with anorexia nervosa. Also commonly known as “float therapy,” fans of “Stranger Things” may recognize this non-pharmacological treatment.

It entails floating effortlessly in a shallow pool of warm water saturated with Epsom salt, in a lightproof, soundproof, humidity and temperature-controlled pod. While sensory deprivation tanks have been depicted in various forms of media for a variety of storytelling purposes, this new type of soothing therapy is increasingly picking up popularity in real life among the general public as a stress reduction tool.

Woman on diet eating broccoli on plate
(© markoaliaksandr – stock.adobe.com)

For this study, the cohort of anorexia nervosa inpatients randomized to receive floatation-REST therapy reported feeling immediate and repeated reductions in body image dissatisfaction and improved anxiety relative to a control group of anorexia nervosa inpatients who had been randomized to receive care as usual. The control group’s symptoms remained unchanged. Also, body image improvements in the floatation-REST group persisted after the treatment ended, lasting up to six months.

“This breakthrough offers a new therapeutic direction in treating anorexia nervosa, a psychiatric disorder known for its challenging prognosis and high mortality rate,” says psychiatrist Sahib Khalsa, MD, PhD, Director of Clinical Operations at LIBR, and senior author of the study, in a media release.

Anxiety is a common co-occurrence in anorexia nervosa that does not respond well to standard anxiolytic medications such as benzodiazepines,” Khalsa adds. “The large anxiety reductions induced by float therapy in these patients suggest that this tool presents a potent opportunity to treat anxiety via non-pharmacological means in anorexia nervosa. Additional research is needed to examine the anxiolytic effects of float therapy in other eating disorders.”

“These findings also make way for new forms of treatment for eating disorders which, in conjunction with traditional treatments, may help to alleviate diagnostic features of AN that are more difficult to treat, such as body image,” comments co-first study author Emily Choquette, PhD, a clinical psychologist and postdoctoral scholar at LIBR. “The reliable and sustained effect of floatation-REST on body image dissatisfaction suggests that it may be studied as a tool to augment the effectiveness of traditional psychotherapies.”

Again, anorexia nervosa is a condition many patients struggle with their entire lives. It is a severe and persistent psychiatric disorder, and the search for effective treatments remains a work in progress.

“This study underscores the importance of continually seeking innovative approaches and broadening the horizons of existing therapeutic options,” concludes Dr. Scott Moseman, MD, CEDS, Medical Director of the Laureate Eating Disorders Program. “These findings may pave the way for new forms of treatment, such as float-assisted psychotherapy, which aim to further enhance the body image and anxiety improvements obtained via existing evidence-based interventions.”

The study is published in the journal EClinicalMedicine.

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