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Michele Oberly

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virtual reality (VR) anhedonia
Therapy and Support

Positive Scenes in Virtual Reality (VR) Offer Hope for Those Suffering Anhedonia

A recent pilot study shows that Virtual Reality (VR) can help people with anhedonia experience positive affect. Anehodia describes a lessened ability to experience joy and those who suffer with it are at an increased risk of suicide. It is common across mental disorders including depression, social anxiety, schizophrenia, and substance abuse disorder. 

Due to factors such as fear of positive emotion, it has proven very difficult to treat, and most therapies have been largely ineffective because of their focus on negative affect. Even cognitive behavioral therapies that focus on positive reinforcement are hindered because anhedonia sufferers may lack the motivation to engage in rewarding activities.

Viewing positive imagery in VR has shown to increase positive affect in participants in pain management and anxiety studies. Because the immersive qualities of VR allow greater access to reward circuitry and require minimal effort to engage in positive activities, researchers of this pilot study hypothesized that virtual reality would help lessen anhedonia in depressed patients. 

Six participants with clinically significant depression experienced VR behavioral activation with imaginal recounting in 13 hour-long sessions over a period of seven weeks. After viewing positive scenes in VR, participants were instructed to choose one scene and write down the positive emotions and sensations they experienced while immersed in that scene. Then they were asked to recount a personal memory with similar positive emotions in order to transfer the VR experience to their own lives. 

Results showed a significant decrease in anhedonia. This is encouraging news for further study of a possible treatment to a disorder that lacks effective treatments. VR can help sufferers savor pleasurable moments and offers access to pleasurable activities with minimal access, thereby counteracting the lack of motivation to engage in activities.  

virtual reality (VR) for depression
Therapy and Support

Going back in time to heal yourself, a VR study on self-compassion.

Words are powerful and the way we talk to ourselves can have profound effects on self-image, how we interact with others, and how we handle life’s stressors. And even if we understand the value of compassionate words, we may find it much easier to extend them to family, friends, and strangers than to ourselves. 

Our internal voice can be overly harsh and critical at times, but for those suffering from depression, that negative self-talk can lead to a debilitating cycle that is difficult to escape. A recent Science Focus article on VR’s impact on mental health highlights a recent study that seeks to dampen this voice. Professor John King and Dr Emma Jayne Kilford at University College London are creating a virtual reality intervention that supplements face-to-face therapy with the goal of strengthening one’s ability for self-compassion. 

The intervention consists of a virtual room that includes two avatars – a child and an adult. The avatars can be designed to look like the participant presently and as they looked in childhood. Before entering the virtual room the participant learns a “compassion script” that includes three strategies to improve the mood of someone in distress – validating experience, redirecting attention, and activating a positive memory. The participant then enters the room in the role of the adult with the task of speaking to the child until the child’s distress is lessened.

Next the participant enters the room as the child and watches the play-back of the avatar representing their adult self. As the child avatar, the participant is experiencing receiving compassionate words from his/her adult “self”. 

A larger trial is now taking place, based on initial results of a sample of very self-critical or depressed patients. The initial results are promising, showing a reduction in depression and self-criticism and improvement in self-compassion. 

Foretell Reality can not only create scenarios for practicing self-compassion but as a multi-user platform, we can create role-play scenarios with other participants to increase empathy, which is fundamental to implicit bias and other types of training or therapy exercises.  

virtual reality (VR) group therapy
Therapy and Support

Virtual Reality Group Therapy Shows Benefits in Recent Study

Patient benefits of cognitive behavioral group therapy (CBGT) are well-supported and include group cohesiveness and interpersonal learning. And from a therapist perspective, the delivery of treatment to multiple patients at once is time-efficient.  CBGT is a particularly effective treatment for depression, but due to factors such as inaccessibility and social anxiety, a significant number of patients with depression drop out of therapy or do not attend at all. 

To reduce barriers to treatment for depressed patients, digitally-enabled formats are on the rise in healthcare. Virtual reality group therapy (VRGT) allows patients in any location to gather and interact in a computer-generated environment that feels real.  Two VR studies have shown a decrease in depression symptoms in widowers and patients with disabilities, but neither study used group therapy as the format, nor were the studies specifically developed for depressed patients.  For the first time, a recent qualitative study assessed the views of stakeholders (patients and therapists) on CBGT experienced in a virtual reality format.  

The study’s findings were generally positive and coalesce around several themes. Patients cited the ease of attending a session from home, which is particularly useful for those with physical disabilities and social anxiety. The use of an avatar was also generally regarded as positive, since depressed patients may not be motivated to tend to their personal appearance and appreciate the anonymity that the avatar provides. Avatar usage may increase engagement because “a patient talking about their problems cannot see whether other patients are judging them or look bored and disengaged.” Patients and therapists both cited the anonymity of avatar-based group therapy as minimizing patients’ social anxiety because it takes away the fear of being recognized. 

Foretell Reality has developed an avatar-based, multi-participant virtual reality platform specifically designed for group therapy. We work with our clients to customize the software to fit their needs. Click here to view a short video or here to schedule a live demo.

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