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Stressed Seattleites can try rage rooms and float therapy, but do they work?

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The Mental Health Project is a Seattle Times initiative focused on covering mental and behavioral health issues. It is funded by Ballmer Group, a national organization focused on economic mobility for children and families. The Seattle Times maintains editorial control over work produced by this team.

Tamarah Taylor’s friend cajoled her to let loose in late August as they walked around a neighborhood block party in White Center, so she walked into a small tent in a corner as Flyleaf’s “I’m So Sick” played in the background. Feeling a little silly, she tentatively picked up a sledgehammer and smashed a red vase into smithereens. And then she raised it again and again.

Taylor has been frantically searching for an apartment the past few months. Facing high rent prices, she also decided to look for a higher-paying job. On top of that, her relationship with her roommates was souring. The stress was taking a toll on her mental health.

So she entered a rage room and, well, raged. The red vase wasn’t the only thing she destroyed.

Rage rooms, also called break rooms, are just one example of an alternative form of stress relief, alongside a diverse catalog that includes art and equine therapy, mindfulness practices like yoga, acupuncture, and float therapy sessions where people find calm in a meditation- like setting.

While not all of these stress relief forms are evidence-based, many people ultimately still find what they’re looking for — respite from the stress of a tumultuous world.

Rage rooms are relatively new, first reported in Japan around 2008. The idea is simple: People pay to enter an enclosed space wearing safety goggles, coveralls and work gloves, and unleash their frustrations by destroying dishes, coffee mugs, even old televisions or computers destined for the trash.

Possible destruction tools include a baseball bat, golf club or sledgehammer.

“I was in there for all of like three minutes and it was the best three minutes that I’ve ever had,” Taylor said. “It was so cathartic.”

Little research has been done on the therapeutic benefits of rage rooms. For those with anger management issues, mental health professionals suggest a different outlet.

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“Anger is a secondary emotion,” explains Paolo Laraño, a clinical psychologist who works in the Seattle area.

“It’s like cutting off [a] weed at the stem. Because your anger gets released for a little bit, but then the root is still there, the depression, the sadness,” he said.

Laraño also pointed out that anger is largely gendered in our society, with boys and men often taught that being aggressive or physically powerful is the best or only way to open up, whereas women largely minimize or hold in their anger.

Anecdotally, he has heard great feedback from female clients who found break rooms to be liberating — a place where they have explicit permission to be violent.

Adam Wannamaker is the owner of Smash(It) Seattle, a pop-up rage room — the same one Taylor entered in August. Wannamaker’s company has only been operating for a few months, but he’s found that Taylor’s reaction is pretty common.

“Even the people that have been hesitant,” he explained. “If you can get them into the tent, they’ll walk out like, ‘Oh my god, that was so much fun!’”

As Taylor put it, “I didn’t even know I needed that release until I broke that glass.”

Smashing things — even for a few minutes — is pretty active, working out your arms and back muscles. People often get sweaty, and feel tired afterward as the adrenaline wears off. It’s not your traditional elliptical but it is a form of exercise, which releases endorphins — hormones that help relieve pain and manage stress.

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If raging isn’t your thing, perhaps a quieter option can offer some stress relief. Some wear by float therapy, a unique experience where 1,000 pounds of Epsom salt transforms the density of the water, effortlessly suspending you in a warm bath.

Also known as sensory deprivation pods, Reduced Environmental Stimulation Therapy, or simply REST, the experience is a cocoon-like respite. Water is kept at a temperature similar to that of the human body, with sound and visual cues minimized, resulting in an incredibly quiet, calm space.

For those who are worried about feeling trapped or claustrophobic, Andrew Loppnow, the owner of Float Seattle, said that in his experience most people don’t feel that way once they’re inside the tank.

“Instead of feeling like you’re enclosed in a box or a pod, the feeling actually flips inside out,” he said. “You start to feel like you’re floating out in space.”

Loppnow also thinks of the experience less as sensory deprivation and more as sensory enhancement.

“It’s called your interoception, your sense of your body,” he said. “You’re going to get very in tune with your breaths and your heartbeat.”

Originating in the mid-1950s, the alternative therapy is the brainchild of neuroscientist John C. Lilly. It’s been suggested as a treatment for chronic pain, anxiety, depression, addiction, insomnia and a host of other mental health conditions.

However, over the years, research has turned up mixed results with small sample sizes or studies limited to qualitative work.

A 2021 randomized clinical trials published in JAMA Network Open found no long-term benefits among 99 patients with chronic pain after five treatment sessions. A separate meta analysis of 27 studies published in the journal Psychology & Health found positive physiological effects like lower blood pressure and cortisol levels. The researchers concluded that “despite some limitations of the original studies, flotation REST can be a useful stress management tool.”

Other researchers are investigating the potential benefits of float therapy in treating anorexia, tobacco dependence, burnout, and recovery for athletes.

Float therapy is not recommended for people with new tattoos, open wounds or recently dyed hair. People with kidney disease are also advised against it.

For Loppnow, the proof is in how he feels after a float. He started the therapy in 2014 during a particularly stressful time in his life. Now he tries to float at least once a week and sees it as a preventive tool that brings some intentional quiet to his life, similar to yoga or any mindfulness-based practice.

Laraño, the clinical psychologist, has also seen some of his clients gravitate toward float therapy.

“I could see the benefits of that weightlessness sensation … If they’re able to then take that and make it a part of their life where [people] can center themselves or just reconnect and ground themselves in their five senses. I can see that being an incredibly powerful thing.”

Float therapy and rage rooms can’t replace medical care or the personalized treatment a therapist can provide. However, Laraño said he’s a believer in therapeutic exercises that go beyond traditional therapy, including ones involving a sledgehammer or a float.

Mental health resources from The Seattle Times

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