Complementary & Alternative Care


Mental health professionals are changing the way we look at treatment for the mind and body

By Caleb Talley

As our perception of mental health has changed over time, so too has the way we view mental health treatment. Talk therapy is still the most common form of psychological treatment. But new – and sometimes old – approaches can offer enhancements to standard treatments, depending on the need of a patient.

One such alternative treatment that has been around for years, but is experiencing a resurgence in popularity, is flotation therapy, or sensory deprivation therapy.

Each flotation tank is different, but they all afford a similar experience. Patients strip down, scrub themselves clean and cover any cuts or scratches with petroleum jelly. They then climb inside the tank – tanks vary from futuristic, cylindrical pods to deep-freeze-like chambers.

Inside, patients are suspended in body-temperature water for an hour at a time. Most flotation tanks contain enough salt – typically more than 800 pounds – to keep patients floating without any need to swim or tread water. They’re cut off from sight, as the inside of most tanks are pitch black. They’re cut off from sound, save for the sound of one’s own breath. And they’re cut off from their sense of touch, except for that of warm water on the skin, which fades away as the experience continues.

Inside the tank, a patient’s constant stream of sensory input is put on pause, coaxing the overstimulated mind to enter a meditative state. Patients forget how long they’ve been inside the tank. They forget which way is up. They may even forget they’re in a float tank at all. But once out, most feel a mixed sense of calm relaxation and sharpness.

Sensory deprivation is not for everyone. But neither is talk therapy. And offering both allows more patients to find the help they need, according Sherri Gansz, LCSW, of Cardinal Care Center in Farmington. Her facility is one of only a handful of places in the state where patients can find flotation therapy.

“Some people will never come in and talk to a therapist, but they’ll get in a float tank,” says Gansz. “There’s a certain amount of vulnerability when you come talk to a therapist. You’re going to lay out everything about your life. I tell people, ‘it’s like you’ve stripped naked and walked outside.’ Vulnerable people don’t let their guard down a lot. I think, for some people, it’s not an option and I respect that. That’s why I want to have options for people.”

Gansz discovered flotation therapy after struggling with stress and anxiety herself.

Sherri Gansz LCSW, of Cardinal Care Center, discusses alternative care.

Sherri Gansz, LCSW, of Cardinal Care Center, provides patients with options when it comes to complementary and alternative care.

“Out of the blue, I started having light panic attacks. I never had them before,” she says. “I understood what it was. I went into work, made some changes to my schedule, sat back and reevaluated, and they went away… But I started thinking about it: What does everyone else do for stress?”

According to Gansz, flotation therapy can be used to aid patients suffering from a number of issues, from insomnia to PTSD.

“I’ve found that when people are at a point where they’re very stressed and they can’t sleep, that helps them sleep,” she says, pointing to research that shows an hour in the tank is equivalent to roughly four hours of sleep. “Anything, to me, that can calm the mind and quiet your brain actually affects their mental and their physical health. I did not know how much my brain ran until I used the float tank.”

Gansz has opened her offices up to much more than just flotation therapy. Patients come to Cardinal Care Center for such supplemental treatments as music, yoga and even belly dancing therapy. She and her colleagues offer these services in addition to traditional treatments and medications in hopes that they can treat their patients’ minds and bodies.

“I was an outpatient therapist next to an inpatient hospital, and a lot of the clients that came in had tons of medicine,” she says. “And they still were – I thought – barely functioning, not even at a normal level. I’ve always been interested in general health and mental health together. If you don’t look at both sides, you miss a large portion of that.”

According to Gansz’s colleague, Carrie Jenkins, MMT, music therapy is an exceptional vehicle for treating a patient’s mind in ways that talk therapy and other treatments cannot, whether as a stand-alone treatment or a supplement. She uses music therapy to treat dementia patients with cogitative and memory care and the developmentally disabled with social and emotional skills.

“The beauty of music therapy is that it benefits anyone,” says Jenkins. “I would say almost everyone loves music. If we can find the type of music you like, we can use it in a therapeutic setting to help benefit you.”

Music therapy, according to Jenkins, treats the mind in ways that other treatments cannot.

“Music, itself, is what we call a global process of the brain,” she says. “When you have speech, it’s geared to one specific area of the brain. When you use music, you’re looking at rhythm, melody. It’s helping your brain reprocess things and get it out a little better. If one area of the brain is damaged – from a stroke or traumatic head injury – we can use music to reroute that and help them focus on different areas, so that we can be able to get out the information.”

With yoga, Gansz aims to treat the body, as well as the mind. Yoga, she says, is one of the ways patients can improve their physical health and mental health at the same time.

“Not everyone’s going to be able to do CrossFit or go to the gym,” Gansz says. “But you need something that incorporates movement, flexibility. A lot of doctors are suggesting it to their clients now because of all the benefits for the mind and the body. It’s great for stress, too.”

In belly dancing, Gansz finds that her patients are able to open up and laugh while doing something they might not ever consider doing on their own. In a way, she says, it serves as laugh therapy, which research has proven to be helpful through the release of endorphins.

“I wanted to do something that would allow people to laugh and have a good time,” Gansz says. “Life can be stressful, and we need an excuse for one hour to laugh, be happy and not worry with reality.”

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