Is a trip to a ‘mental health gym’ enough to de-stress a working mom during a pandemic? One writer investigates
By Katherine Martinelli
As a working mom of two young kids, it goes without saying that I’m stressed. And I’m not alone: Even before the pandemic, nearly one-third of Americans reported experiencing an anxiety disorder in their lifetime and 17.3 million suffered from depression each year — and when broken down, the figures for each are higher for women. I have been diagnosed with both within the last few years.
COVID-19 has exacerbated these issues, especially once schools statewide shut down last March, disproportionately affecting mothers who suddenly found themselves responsible for even more. My doctor husband certainly wasn’t going to be the one to step back in the middle of a global health crisis.
Eight months into this pandemic, I haven’t been alone in my house for even a moment since March. Friends and family have suffered loss that I haven’t been able to be present for. Attempts to work result in late nights (yet the pandemic unemployment assistance has dried up). And then there’s the state of the world: wildfires, floods, the passing of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the presidential election are just some of the things that keep me up at night.
All of this is to say I needed some “me time.” So on a recent Sunday afternoon, I arrived at a nondescript business park in Farmington Hills to hit the gym — but not in the way you may think. I was visiting a gym that promised to boost my mental fitness.
Inception, which opened in 2016 and recently launched a second location in Los Angeles, bills itself as “the first 21st century mental health gym.” It’s the brainchild of Detroit native David McCullar, who struggled with anxiety, depression and panic attacks before turning to neurofeedback, which provides real-time responses to a person’s brainwaves that are designed to train their brain to respond better to stress. The technique helped McCullar so much that he decided to make a career out of offering it to others. He partnered with his mom, Tina McCullar, to offer several alternative stress-battling modalities in one place.
Walking into Inception — with a stiff back, knotty shoulders, a tense jaw, an aching head, a pulled thigh muscle and mind abuzz — I wasn’t sure what to expect. At the very least, I figured a visit there would allow me a few hours to myself (no small thing when a trip to the dentist is as close to I get to a spa day). And if their claims of providing “deep relaxation, clarity and a sense of euphoria” proved true, too, that would just be icing on the cake.
I had signed up for the “Inner Reset Circuit,” which consists of 30 minutes each in the Magnesphere, brain training and flotation-therapy sessions. I wasn’t really sure what any of this meant, but I was intrigued.
My first stop was the Magnesphere, a leather chair with two large rings on either side that looks like something Professor X from “X-Men” might spend time in. The claim: It’s supposed to calm your nervous system and put your body in a relaxed state. I sat down and reclined, ready to see if the “very precise, extremely low-level electromagnetic fields” emitted by the rings could work their magic on me. The lights were dimmed, nondescript but relaxing music was turned on low, and I was left to sit by myself for 30 minutes.
For the first 10 minutes or so I shifted in my seat. I wiggled. I wondered what I was going to do with half an hour of nothingness. Was I supposed to feel something? But I breathed deeply and tried to let myself sink in.
And I did.
Suddenly I felt calm. I dozed off a few times. I stopped thinking about anything stressful. My to-do list stopped popping up. When the session ended I felt deeply relaxed and content. I surprised myself.
Next was the NeurOptimal Brain Training, which is supposed to help train your brain to respond better to stress and therefore create a greater sense of calm, focus and clarity. I walked into another room and had sensors placed on my ears and scalp, which are supposed to detect turbulence in your brain, then reclined in a zero-gravity massage chair, put on headphones with relaxing instrumental music — and waited to see what would happen.
Once again I had 35 minutes to sit in a darkened room doing nothing. When the sensors pick up brain turbulence the music skips a beat — it’s a quick, nearly undetectable blip that you may not even notice but supposedly your brain does. Based on my usual stress level, I expected it to sound like a skipping record, but I guess the Magnesphere had blissed me out because the music wasn’t interrupted all that often (or at least I rarely noticed it).
I breathed deeply, tried meditating (something I’m usually terrible at), and did my best to clear my mind. Unlike other massage chairs I’ve experienced, which feel more like a child kicking the back of your seat than massage, this one used a combination of gentle sweeping motions and pleasantly deep pressure to actually relax my body and ease tension.
By the end I was even calmer and ready for the session I was most excited about: the float tank, a tub of salty, body-temperature water that Inception claims will ease pain, anxiety and inflammation. While I fondly remember floating in the Dead Sea, this time I had trouble getting comfortable and remaining present. I even had to use the spray bottle full of fresh water to douse my eyes, which had gotten painfully salty even though I didn’t remember getting water in them. When the session ended I happily got out and enjoyed a leisurely hot shower with zero interruptions — which alone was worth the trip!
Despite my restlessness during the float tank, I felt pretty spectacular afterward. Overall, I had to admit that much of my tension had melted away and I felt calm, alert, and if not euphoric, certainly cheerful. It’s worth noting that while a single trip to Inception may relax you and melt away stress, the intention is to visit on an ongoing basis — just as one trip to the gym might make you feel good but won’t yield consistent, long-term effects.
Two days after my visit, my jaw and shoulders were tight once again, but the good mood has persisted and I am already thinking about when I can return to Inception to sample their other services, which run $99 per package and include three services.
I’m not fully convinced of the science behind the results — was it the biofeedback and electromagnetic fields that brought the sense of calm, or was it simply the time to myself without screens or screaming children? In the end, though, I don’t think it matters. I took time for myself and had a brief detox from the world, and that alone was worth it.
Inception – The First Mental Health Gym
31410 Northwestern Hwy G, Farmington Hills