New relaxation techniques that use virtual reality (VR) may become a helpful tool in the fight against generalized anxiety disorder (GAD).
GAD: When uncontrolled and unsubstantiated worries rule
People who suffer from generalized anxiety disorder experience worry that is “constant, chronic and unsubstantiated,” according to the Anxiety and Depression Association of America (ADAA). When a GAD sufferer’s symptoms are controlled or mild, this person might be able to hold down a job and go about the daily tasks of life. But, when GAD is untreated or out of control, symptoms like fatigue, restlessness, and edginess can severely impact every aspect of life.
About 3.1% (or 6.8 million) of US adults experience GAD in any given year. Women are twice as likely to develop GAD than men. No one knows for sure what causes GAD—but family history, stress, and life events—all seem to play a role. Generalized anxiety disorder often begins gradually, though the risk tends to be highest between childhood and middle age.
Obstacles to treatment
Combined with traditional anxiety medications and behavioral therapies, stress reduction and relaxation techniques (i.e., guided meditation, deep breathing exercises, yoga, etc.) have proven useful at reducing GAD symptoms. However, there are many obstacles to practicing relaxation techniques, such as time, distance, cost, and other logistical concerns.
Not everyone with GAD, or depression, or high stress levels, lives near a hiking trail. Not every stressed out parent or caregiver can afford to hire a sitter and get to a therapy appointment. Not everyone can find a gym with yoga classes that fit into their work schedules.
Some might say that these people need to make health more of a priority—that they need to build it into their lives, and take better care of themselves. Proponents of VR relaxation, however, are out to build virtual, stress-reducing worlds that fit into any budget and schedule.
My view of reality virtually slipped away
I arrived at the booth feeling weary and completely overwhelmed by the conference buzz. An introvert by nature, exploring millions of square feet filled with over 40,000 strangers is exhausting, to say the least.
I’ve written about but never worn a VR headset. I was intrigued. As a yoga-buff who enjoys guided meditation but never seems to be able to find the time/space/quiet to get my Zen on, I felt some cautious optimism.
There are four different virtual landscapes to explore in the Guided Meditation VR app: a sunny beach, a vast canyon, a forest, or an ancient Japanese dojo. Suzanne Manella, vice president of marketing at Cubicle Ninjas recommended the beach for me, as a VR newbie.
At first, the scene looked more like my children’s video games than a place I’d go to meditate. But that initial adjustment into the world of virtual relaxation was short-lived. Within moments of listening to the waves crash onto the shores, and exploring the land, water, sky, the VR meditation helped me forget that I was on a busy conference floor.
First-time VR user Cathy Reed of Texas Health Resources experiments with Guided Meditation VR at HIMSS15; photo courtesy of Cubicle Ninjas
I heard a gull overhead, and, thinking I could find a glitch in the program, I looked up into the virtual sky to find it flying, and down onto the virtual sand to see its moving shadow. The same was true of the palm trees being blown about by the breeze – there were sound, movement, and shadow.
This world seemed real. I was completely immersed in a meditative experience that responded to me. I’ve never been able to achieve this on a yoga mat.
Source: Screenshot from company website
A gentle woman’s voice helped me let go of my worries. She encouraged me to let my thoughts come naturally, but not to hold onto any of them (which seems like a helpful skill for those suffering from GAD).
She also guided my breathing. Each inhalation and exhalation was visible on the water’s surface, and the auditory experience of the ocean breeze and the waves crashing seemed to slow or quicken with my breath. I received multiple messages through different sights and sounds, all of them making me more aware of my breath as it slowed.
Users of Cubicle Ninjas’ Guided Meditation VR application need an internet-connected device and an Oculus Rift headset. At HIMSS15, the company was marketing its Guided Meditation VR product for use in hospitals as a digital health device: before procedures to reduce anxiety and stress levels, after procedures to reduce pain awareness, and to target the boredom commonly associated with being hospitalized.
Josh Farkas, CEO of Cubicle Ninjas states:
Guided Meditation VR is a powerful tool for healthcare facilities to use as one component of their patient care model. Happier patients are known to heal faster, less likely to be readmitted, and more satisfied.
I see many other applications on an outpatient basis, particularly in combination with cognitive behavioral therapy for GAD. VR-enabled meditation might also be useful for those who have trouble concentrating—or aren’t sure what to concentrate on—or sitting still during meditation sessions.
The nuviun blog is intended to contribute to discussion and stimulate debate on important issues in global digital health. The views are solely those of the author.