Virtual Reality Therapy Could Be Used To Treat Depression

The new therapy could one day help improve symptoms by teaching self-compassion.

02/17/2016 06:05 pm ET
Benjamin Torode via Getty Images
A new study finds that virtual reality therapy can boost feelings of self-compassion in patients with depression. 

Could virtual reality be the next frontier for treating depression?

A new study, published in the British Journal of Psychiatry Open on Monday, suggests that VR therapy could reduce depressive symptoms by boosting feelings of self-compassion and alleviating self-criticism. 

"Self-compassion is important in soothing feelings of distress, and without it distress can escalate and become unbearable," Dr. Chris Brewin, a professor of health psychology at University College London and the study's lead author, told The Huffington Post in an email. "We now know that many patients with depression and other disorders have real problems in being compassionate towards themselves, although they are often very good at being compassionate to others."

For the preliminary study, 15 adults with depression underwent three sessions of virtual reality therapy, which had previously been tested on healthy volunteers. 

In the virtual reality sessions, the patients wore a virtual reality headset which allowed them to see from the perspective of a life-size avatar. To create the illusion that the avatar was their own body -- an experience known in VR as "embodiment" -- the patients were able to see the body moving in a mirror the exact same way that they were moving. 

While "embodied," the participants underwent eight-minute sessions, during which they were told to express compassion toward an avatar of a distressed child. As the patient spoke kindly towards the child, the child calmed down and gradually stopped crying. Next, the patients were embodied in the child's figure, and then listened to the avatar of their adult selves expressing compassion towards them.

University College London
A study participant playing the role of an adult comforting a crying child.

The patients underwent three weekly sessions of this virtual reality exercise. Then, one month after the therapy, the patients answered questions about their moods and mental health. Nine of the patients reported reduced depression symptoms, and four experienced a significant drop in the severity of their symptoms. Some of the patients said that they were less self-critical in real-life situations after undergoing the therapy. 

“By comforting the child and then hearing their own words back, patients are indirectly giving themselves compassion," Brewin said in a statement. "The aim was to teach patients to be more compassionate towards themselves and less self-critical, and we saw promising results."

By comforting the child and then hearing their own words back, patients are indirectly giving themselves compassion." Psychologist Dr. Chris Brewin

Excessive self-criticism is often a central component of depression, and VR-based therapies may be uniquely equipped to target this aspect of the illness. 

"We think the responses people have to the [virtual reality] scenario are automatic and may bypass resistance to experiencing self-compassion, or to accepting compassion from a therapist," Brewin said. "VR can also be accessed remotely and may be useful for people who don't want to see a therapist or feel too ashamed to do this."

The study's sample size was small and there was no control group, so the findings are very preliminary. Still, they offer reason for optimism and directions for future research.  

"Virtual reality can offer new types of therapeutic experience that are potentially very powerful through the process of embodiment in avatars," Brewin said. He noted, however, "We also need to develop the technique further based on what our initial patient sample have told us."

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