A look into Virtual Reality and Mental Health
If you’ve ever tried virtual reality, you’ll know how easy it is to fool your mind. You can almost feel your body moving when you’re riding a virtual roller coaster, you can feel the ground moving beneath your feet as it falls away and into the void leaving you staring down to dizzyingly far depths. My first experience with virtual reality was in my home, with my brand new HTC vive securely strapped to my face around a year ago. I knew it was going to be cool - but I didn’t know I was signing up to an experience that would confuse my body and convince my mind that the virtual constructs around me were real. I stood atop a mountain in ‘The Lab’ - a collection of VR tech demos by Valve - with a robotic dog companion by my side and stared down the vast cliff face; the feeling of unsteadiness and nausea was very real. Later, in a similar world in VRChat - an avatar based virtual world chatting system akin to Second Life - a friend told me to jump and jump in real life at the same time. My legs in the game were longer than mine really were and the disparity between the timing of the jumps caused my stomach to flip and I fell; hitting the ground to the laughter of those around me. So if Virtual Reality can have such a physical effect on us, what effect can it have on us psychologically? Limbix - a VR Startup in California endeavors to find out and has been developing VR programs for use in clinical settings over the last few years.
Limbix has begun rolling out medical grade VR headsets and devices to healthcare clinics and therapy practices throughout north America. These VR kits give therapists the ability to place clients in situations that they may find triggering and tempting in order to tackle issues like addiction and phobias. With Limbix, an alcoholic who is in recovery could be placed in a bar scenario and asked to practice refusing drinks in a controlled environment. A safe, healthy exploration of fears and triggers allows therapists to gauge where their clients are in their personal development and gives those clients a safe place to practice new skills.
Universities around the world have been studying the effects of Virtual Reality for a while now - one of the most notable is the University of Oxford who has been studying virtual reality for 15 years now as a part of their psychiatric programs and has been publishing their studies for free online. Oxford VR is a spin-off company from the University of Oxford that is focused on bringing the psychological benefits of VR to the general public; however thus far they have mostly run trials through healthcare providers and have been hard at work at ‘Fear of Heights’ - a VR program designed to assist people with acrophobia - a phobia of heights by placing them in triggering environments and having them adjust to the sensation of being high above the ground.
Both Limbix and OxfordVR have a focus on exposure therapy - exposing clients and patients to their fears and problems and improving through that exposure. Both of these programs have very active, practical therapeutic approaches to VR and psychology and that's all well and good - but what about using your own VR headset at home? Can VR benefit you in your day to day management of mental health issues?
The perk of VR PC home systems like the HTC Vive, Oculus Rift and Windows Mixed Reality systems is that they have access to the steam platform - and steam is rapidly filling with games created by both big companies and independent developers with a focus on mindfulness and facing your fears. Want to face your fear of heights through exposure therapy? Try ‘Richie's Plank Experience’ where you’ll teeter high in the air on a board of wood at the top of a skyscraper. Need to calm down and switch off? Try ‘Guided Meditation VR’. Need to practice being in social situations? Try ‘VRChat’ and jump into a virtual pub - just be prepared to meet some very colourful characters. My personal favourite that I feel has helped me the most with stress management is actually ‘Beat Saber’ - a ‘Star Wars’ inspired rhythm game that involves slashing blocks flying at your face to the beat of the music to varying intensity with colourful, glowing swords. Many people have hailed ‘Beat Saber’ for being a great game for exercise - but I've found the positive psychological benefits to be more important to me. ‘Beat Saber’ has the ability to make anyone feel like a complete bad-ass and improves focus and cognitive function - the same way exercise does but with the added bonus of being something someone can do in private at their own pace and in their own homes if they so choose. It’s a great confidence boost. There is something calming about hitting each block in succession, about letting yourself be swallowed up by the pacing of the music. For a few minutes, you can switch off your conscious thoughts and let yourself just feel the music. But physical exertion and focusing on colourful blocks isn’t helpful in every situation - so I also just enjoy VR experiences from time to time.
A VR experience is defined as any VR program with very little active input from the user. This can mean walking around serene environments, watching VR short films, meditating in environments and more. ‘Shinrin-Yoku’ is a free VR experience set in a peaceful forest inhabited by several animals that will enter and exit the scene around you; when I crave calm I may be found sitting in the middle of my VR room among the virtual flowers gazing off into the generated sky. This allows me to feel like I’m somewhere else for a while - somewhere no one can reach me where I can just shut off and enjoy the isolation, if only temporarily. Sometimes we’ve all wanted to just teleport somewhere else for a while - well, VR is as close as you can get to that right now.
The beauty of VR is that there is quite literally something in it for everyone. If you want to join a virtual yoga class with a real trainer - you can do that. If you want to watch how Volcanoes can create new landmasses - you can do that. If you want to walk the streets of your old childhood town - you can do that with Google Earth VR. If you really truly do want to find experiences that help you feel good, they’re there for you. But, if you’d rather use VR to fight fire breathing dragons or walk the halls of a terrifying haunted house - you do you; so long as you’ll be equally mindful of the situations you’re placing yourself in in VR as you are in real life, you’ll enjoy yourself.