How virtual reality therapy is being used to treat depression
Instead of taking a pill, what if you could treat your depression with virtual reality therapy? Once thought of as simply a new means of entertainment, researchers and clinicians are finding that virtual reality can be extremely helpful in treating symptoms of depression. On this page you will discover how virtual reality therapy for depression is being used to help a growing number of people across the world.
What is depression?
Depression is a serious mental illness that affects approximately one in 15 adults every year, and one in six people will experience a period of depression in their lifetime. While some of those suffering from depression can still go about their daily lives, others may not be able to get out of bed and may even contemplate suicide. While you may have considered yourself depressed after a loss, depression is something different and is persistent, causing feelings of low self worth and loss of interest in hobbies and favorite activities.
Most often, depression is treated with medication, talking therapy, or a combination of the two. Electroconvulsive therapy is also an option for those with severe depression that haven’t responded well to any other treatments (although it sounds barbaric, great advances have been made to make this treatment more safe and effective). While these treatments are often effective, virtual reality is proving to be another helpful tool in the treatment of depression.
What is virtual reality therapy?
Virtual Reality Therapy (VRT) is the use of virtual reality (VR) technology in the treatment of conditions such as anxiety, depression, PTSD, phobias, and pain management. By using VR, users are dropped into a virtual environment and fully engrossed in the experience.
Most VR experiences involved a head-mounted display, headphones for sound or music, often with noise-cancelling properties, a rumble pad, and joystick or other navigational tool to move through the virtual landscape. Head-tracking systems help to surround the user in the virtual world and make the experience truly immersive. By including stimuli that engage the visual, auditory, tactile, and olfactory systems, VR is distinctly different from watching movies or TV, or even playing 2D games whether handheld or on a console. While it was originally developed for entertainment, new applications for virtual reality are being discovered all the time.
Treating depression with virtual reality therapy
Some of the most common forms of virtual reality therapy involve immersion therapy; the patient is repeatedly exposed to a situation until it no longer causes them distress. For soldiers returning home from war zones, being placed in virtual environments in order to work through traumatic experiences has proved effective in adjusting back to civilian life. Immersion therapy can also help those struggling with depression.
A common symptom of people experiencing depression is feelings of worthlessness, and sufferers are often very self-critical. Researchers at the University College London and ICREA- University of Barcelona wanted to find out if immersion therapy using virtual reality would help with these feelings.
The study involved fifteen participants between the ages of 23 and 61 who had depression. Wearing a head mounted display, the virtual world placed an avatar that moved along with the patient’s body movements in front of a mirror to use a technique called “embodiment.” Participants were asked to imagine themselves as the avatar they saw which was designed to look like each participant. The participants were then introduced to an avatar of a crying child. They were told to comfort the child and give them words of encouragement. They were told to tell the child to think of someone they knew that loved them or of a happy memory. As they did this the child started to calm down and stop crying.
After the participants had acted as themselves, the scene was then switched and the participant was asked to embody the child. While they did this, the adult avatar played back their comforting gestures and words to them. This experience was repeated for eight minutes once a week for three weeks.
The participants were asked back a month later to assess their symptoms. Of the fifteen participants, nine said they had experienced a decrease in depressive symptoms and self-criticism. Participants also said that they had started to feel more compassion for themselves. The virtual world was a way for the participants to practice giving comfort and compassion to themselves, and the study shows that there is evidence that virtual reality can help patients who are too self-critical.
Virtual reality therapy for depression related conditions
For those battling depression, it’s not uncommon to also have feelings of anxiety. Almost half of people diagnosed with depression are also diagnosed with anxiety. So while learning self-love and compassion is helpful for those battling depression, VRT can be used in other ways to address multiple areas of mental health.
One example of such a tool is the game Deep developed by Owen Harris. Harris created the game as a way to deal with his own feelings of anxiety. In the game the user is transported into a virtual ocean as a way to tune out the world and escape to a calm place. The system also involves a self-calibrating belt to match on-screen movements with the player’s breathing.
Breathing exercises have been shown to decrease feelings of anxiety and make those feelings easier to deal with. By using the belly belt, players can help time their breathing and get immediate feedback on how they’re doing. Users of the game have said that after only a few minutes of playing they have felt calmer and more relaxed. Other VR games and experiences aimed at transporting the user to a different space to induce calm and relaxing feelings exist as well, and as virtual reality becomes more commonplace, these therapeutic VR experiences will be accessible from the comfort of your home.
Virtual reality isn’t just for gaming anymore. By using new technologies, therapists and doctors are able to help patients battling with depression in new and innovative ways. Practicing self-compassion with virtual avatars can help patients with negative thinking patterns be kinder to themselves, and other VR experiences can help with relaxation and mindfulness. As the cost of the technology decreases and the availability and ease-of-use increases, VR will be able to have a positive impact on the mental health of more and more people. Virtual reality therapy for depression may one day be as prevalent as medication is today.
Please visit our Find A Therapist page for information on treatment centres offering virtual reality therapy for depression.