Virtual Reality Therapy: A New Frontier in the Battle Against Depression

Virtual Reality Therapy: A New Frontier in the Battle Against Depression

pink and white vr goggles

In this day and age of increased mental health discussion, the range of mental health clinics career opportunities is extensive, and more people are making a conscious effort to look after their mental well-being as much as possible. One of the ways that people are looking after their brains is through engaging with a therapist to use talk therapy or other psychological methodologies to work through their concerns, and stresses, or just to have a place to vent regularly.

As research increases while social stigma around mental illness steadily decreases, more advocacy and methods of looking after one’s mental health are discovered, supplemented by technological advances that allow people access to these resources in a way that fits everyone’s unique life situation. For this reason, recent developments in the use of virtual reality for therapy have proven effective and constitute another avenue for people to engage in.

Major Depressive Disorder

The study revealed that Virtual Reality (specifically Extended Reality or “XR”) may have a significant impact in improving the mental state of people suffering from Major Depressive Disorder, also known as MDD or clinical depression.

MDD is characterized by several persistent symptoms, including chronic feelings of sadness or low mood, a loss of interest in activities and objects that used to cause joy, an excessive or recessive appetite followed by associated changes in weight, a marked decrease in speech speed, movement, and cognitive function, the inability to sleep or excessive sleep, fatigue, feelings of worthlessness or misplaced and excessive feelings of guilt, impaired concentration, and frequent thoughts of death or suicidal ideation.

Many things can cause clinical depression. A person’s brain chemistry can lead to a deficit in the neurotransmitters that create a sense of joy and fulfillment. There is also a genetic precedent for MDD, as people with a biological parent or sibling suffering from major depressive disorder are three times as likely to develop the condition. Abuse and trauma sustained during childhood have been shown to increase the likelihood of developing MDD later in life, however, trauma of stressful life events can also trigger the condition in adults that have increased susceptibility to it.

man in black shirt sitting on chair

The Study

The study in question was published on August 31st 2023. The study was conducted on 26 participants, all with MDD, and experimented with the use of Extended Reality to initiate a kind of therapeutic method called “Behavioural Activation” (BA). BA is the practice of engaging in positive actions with the hope of manifesting a matching conscious state.

The study saw the 26 participants randomly split into two groups, the Extended Reality Behavioural Activation (XR-BA) group, and the regular BA group. Both groups answered the Patient Health Questionnaire (PHQ) -9 before and after the study to gauge results. Higher scores on the PHQ-9 are associated with “symptom-related difficulties, sick days, and healthcare utilization.)

While both groups of participants showed decreased PHQ-9 scores by the end of the study, the XR-BA group demonstrated a more significant score decrease at the beginning of the study as opposed to the BA group, whose decreased score was not as concentrated.

In simpler terms, one group used Virtual Reality devices to engage in their therapy while another group engaged in their therapy traditionally. Both groups showed increased positivity after the trial, but those in the Virtual Reality group showed an increased positive change in earlier stages of the trial.

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What Does This Mean?

At the very least, the study confirms one thing - virtual reality technologies are an effective therapeutic tool. The findings of the study show that XR-BA is a “feasible, non-inferior, and acceptable enhancement to traditional BA” and that its use supports enhanced expectation of recovery, as well as stronger placebo effects.

This may seem underwhelming, after all, if both methods of Behavioural Activation therapies are effective then why bother with the use of Extended Reality?

There are many barriers to people getting treatment to care for their mental health, many of which come from mental illnesses themselves. A person with major depressive disorder may be unable to get out of bed, feed or clothe themselves, as they suffer from intensely low energy levels. Having access to this method of therapy means that a person with this disorder can access simple therapies like BA, from the comfort of their own home. The simulated reality environment triggers initial benefits through placebo effects, that can then empower the patient to continue therapy on their own.

Virtual Reality to Objective Reality

We perceive the world mentally. Stimuli triggers the firing of synapses through our various neurological structures that then determine our feelings, sensations, and actions. Virtual reality allows us to engage in a more controlled world, where we can stimulate certain feelings and experiences to have a longer effect on our mentality over time.

For example, an agoraphobic could use this therapy to simulate leaving their house, thereby tricking their brain into overcoming the anxiety associated with the outside world. People with a fear of heights can expose themselves to heights in a controlled setting by putting on the VR headset and beginning a simulation of standing on the edge of a building.

Virtual reality represents a new generation of exposure therapy, increasing accessibility, and offering the solution of control to scenarios that are difficult to replicate in real life. Aside from this, virtual reality also presents a new realm of socialisation and interactivity, both of which are proven methods of treating mental illness.

The bottom line is that VR isn’t likely to “cure” anyone of their mental illness, and not only because mental illness has no cure, but because it simply doesn’t work that way. However, what VR does incredibly well is increase the likelihood that someone will engage in therapies and behaviours that will make those first steps on the journey of recovery and treatment that much easier. They say every journey begins with a single step. If that journey is therapy and treatment for mental illness, VR makes that first step a short train trip.

woman in black sweater holding white and black vr goggles

This content was first published by KISS PR Brand Story. Read here >> Virtual Reality Therapy: A New Frontier in the Battle Against Depression

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