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Could the Next Treatment for Depression Be Virtual Reality Therapy?

A new study suggests VR helps patients express self-compassion.

Photo via Flickr user Nan Palmero

Sometimes, your best therapist is yourself—or at least a CGI avatar of yourself. A new study published by the Royal College of Psychiatrists found that virtual reality (VR) therapy can serve as a possible solution for treating depressed patients by encouraging self-appraisal and compassion.

The experiment is designed to target depressed people’s tendency to self-criticize. A major symptom of depression is that people are not able to hold themselves in high regard, and consequently blame and punish themselves for any behavior or action they perceive to have a negative effect. In order to alleviate this tendency, patients are encouraged to practice self-compassion.

“Self-compassion is important in soothing feelings of distress, and without it distress can escalate and become unbearable,” Dr. Chris Brewin, a psychology professor and the study's lead author, told The Huffington Post. “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.”

In the experiment, 15 adult subjects with depression participated in three weekly therapy sessions in which they alternated between playing the role of therapist and that of patient. After donning a VR headset and body motion sensors, each subject played an adult who expresses compassion and affirmations to a distressed child. Then, the subject switched to take the place of the child and heard the same words, now expressed to them, in their own voice.

A month after the subjects completed the three-week program, they answered a questionnaire that asked them about their mental health. Nine of the subjects reported a decrease in depression symptoms while four reported significant improvement.

This is only a preliminary step; the sample size in the study was small and there are many other techniques to be tested, but the experiment lays the groundwork for a future in which therapeutic VR could be a viable alternative to in-person therapy options.

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