Manh Nguyen’s tension dissipates when he partakes in a tranquil floating session

The Northwest has always been perceived as an open-minded place, so it makes sense that the Eastside would be on top of one of the latest stress-relief trends: floating. The tranquil activity is done in a pod-shaped sensory-deprivation tank with about 10 inches of 93.5-degree water loaded with Epsom salt. The floater lies face up for an hour in the dark, void of all distractions.

Before you stick floating in the list of trendy health tricks that one day will be laughed at (like the pair of shape-up shoes gathering dust in the closet or that unopened Magic Bullet tucked conveniently out of reach on the top shelf), be warned. Science backs this bad boy up.

Anesthesiologist and pain-medicine physician Manh Nguyen has been using float tanks for a year and a half to recuperate after his grueling 24-hour-plus shifts at Valley Medical Center in Renton, where he’s been practicing since 2000. “I was always looking for how I could recover so that when my day off comes, I don’t feel like a truck hit me the whole time,” he said.

Nguyen first heard about sensory-deprivation tanks at his high school graduation in Mason City, Iowa, from a successful businessman who spoke at the ceremony. “The only thing I remember about his speech was the isolation tank, and I was curious about them,” Nguyen said.

Nguyen went on to study at the University of Iowa, and then went to medical school at the University of Washington. In his early days training at Harborview Medical Center, Nguyen would finish a shift and head up to the slopes to snowboard. Now, at age 46, his ability to bounce back isn’t quite what it used to be. “As I got older, recovery got more difficult. I’ve tried taking a nap to recover, but when I wake up I feel draggy or jet-lagged,” he said. Nguyen also tried medication, darkening rooms, tea, and yoga, but nothing worked well enough to give him a quality day after his long on-call nights.

For Nguyen, the most stressful part of his job isn’t the life-and-death scenarios; it’s the unpredictability.

20150901_FloatBellevue_074“The execution of my job is easy. I’ve done it thousands of times,” Nguyen said. “But not knowing when I’ll be woken up to crash a lady back for a C-section and essentially have two minutes to put her to sleep and pull the baby out — that’s the stressful part. It’s like going 0 to 100 in 5 seconds, then I have to come back down from that.”

Recalling the isolation tank speech from his high school graduation, Nguyen started to frequent Float Seattle in Greenlake, and the fatigue and crankiness that come with sleep deprivation started to, er, float away.

“With a float, I completely disconnect. The nerves that are grabbing on so tightly to the muscles suddenly become detached and relax. As this happens, stress chemicals get processed and circulation improves,” Nguyen said.

Nguyen notes that floating can be especially helpful for firefighters, emergency-room doctors, nurses, and other professionals who are asked to be alert and active at a moment’s notice. “As a professional, you have to make good judgements and not be overwound,” Nguyen said. “Our mantra in medicine is, ‘Do no harm,’ because the forefathers recognized that people who stay up at night and work really hard are so wound up they tend to harm first.”

A floating session allows Nguyen to uncoil from an adrenaline-filled night without the crash. “Floating restores the balance between nerve and muscle and is a central release of stress,” Nguyen said.

Studies back Nguyen’s anecdotal evidence. One study by Karlstad University researchers asked 65 participants to engage in a seven-week flotation program with a total of 12 sessions. Results showed that the stress, depression, anxiety, and worst pain levels in participants significantly decreased, and their optimism and sleep quality significantly increased.

Nguyen is aware of the new-wave image associated with floating pods. “There’s a lot of other things being said about this whole thing like, ‘You’re in utero,’ and brain wave-type stuff. For me, it’s the clinical outcome, the stress reduction, and having a great day after a stressful night,” he said.

Nguyen thought about installing a float tank in his Renton home, but the ease of using a professionally maintained, state-of-the-art pod like those in the new Float Bellevue (which is run by Float Seattle’s Sean McCormick) is hard to pass up.

Plus, Nguyen’s stress-relief method doesn’t require another person. “You don’t want passive treatment. That is, you don’t want someone else to do it for you, like a massage. It may feel good for a bit, but I tell my patients you want active treatment. You do it yourself, like yoga and this tank. It’s just you and suspension,” Nguyen said. “That’s the sign of a good thing: doing something versus having it done to you.”

For Nguyen, floating is just what the doctor ordered.