1 in 4 adults will experience anxiety at some point in their lifetime, according to research from Pfizer. General Anxiety Disorder (GAD), as it is more formally known, can produce a host of symptoms which can ruin a person’s quality of life. This includes inability to concentrate, disturbed sleep and becoming easily fatigued.
Traditionally GAD has been treated with a combination of medication and / or psychotherapy. According to a recent study “Virtual Reality in the Treatment of Generalized Anxiety Disorders” published in “Studies in Health Technology and Informatics” virtual reality (VR) technology could play an important role in helping to support those treatment options.
The use of cognitive control strategies which involved challenging negative thoughts as they arise and physical control strategies which involve controlled breathing relation, have been proven to be effective in treating GAD. The main problem with these approaches is that style can be difficult for patients to learn. The use of VR combined with biofeedback seems to offer a potential way of treating these problems.
Overview Of The VR Anxiety Study
The study was conducted by Italian researchers from the Applied Technology for Neuro-Psychology Lab, Research Institute Brain and Behaviour, Centre for Studies in Communication Sciences and ICE-NET Lab, in collaboration with Dutch researchers from Maastricht University.
The study involved 20 patients who all had General Anxiety Disorder (GAD). The VR treatment was provided in a controlled environment using a biofeedback enhanced virtual reality system. This VR system could be used for both controlled exposure and for relaxation. This approach was complimented by a mobile phone app which allowed the patients to experience the VR experience at their own convenience, in an outpatient setting.
The 20 patients were assigned at random to one of three groups.
- VR and Mobile Group which includes the biofeedback system
- VR and Mobile Group without the biofeedback system
- A control waiting list group
How VR Can Be Used To Treat Anxiety
The VR experience that the patients went through included an exploration of a beautiful tropical island. The experience was conveyed through a head mounted display (HMD) combined with head tracking. The participants followed a predefined path which took them to three different relaxing areas. These included a campfire, beach and waterfall.
When they visited these areas they would be told to relax by watching waves, flickering campfire fires or a waterfall. At the same time the biofeedback system measured the heart rate (HR) of the participants. This feedback from the participants HR controlled elements of the visual environment. For example, as the participant stared into the fire, if their HR fell, then the fire would also reduce in intensity. When the optimal HR was achieved the fire would extinguish.
The mobile phone version of the experience provided a similar mechanism, but without the ability to control movement throughout the island.
Wider Use of VR To Treat Anxiety
As detailed earlier stress is a huge problem in modern society, afflicting quarter of the population. These has a wide range of societal impacts from the impact on families to economic productivity. Stress is an even more prevalent problem.
The implication therefore of an easy to use VR treatment for anxiety and stress would be huge. Already, Life VR has introduced a mindfulness VR experience which offers a non-linear pathway to relax.
The study also highlights one of the key challenges that people face when trying to treat medical conditions, which is the difficult in learning how to apply the techniques. In another recent study VR was used to help individuals who suffered from Autism to better cope with social interactions. The VR experience allowed one of the supervisors of the study to offer feedback and tips in real time, as the participant practiced different social situations. In the future this kind of real time coaching could potentially be enabled by some form of AI avatar.
The Use Of Biofeedback In VR
The application of the technology developed in the GAD study could be extended beyond the treatment for anxiety. The use of sensory input, in the form of biofeedback, could be used not just for medical applications but also for entertainment and games.
When we think of VR we generally assume that input will come through sight, hearing and possibly tactile experiences. But other sensory data can also be used to influence the virtual experience. For example, in an entertainment context HR data could be used to maximise how frightening a particular experience was. The experience could alter itself depending on what elements were shown to actually frighten that particular person.