If you grew up in the 90s, the idea of virtual reality brought thoughts of an apocalyptic future. The idea that someone could immerse himself or herself into a machine-based world, and somehow be better for it was the reason why movies like The Matrix were made.
But basic forms of virtual reality have been around for a long time. Plenty of 90s kids, and even 80s and 70s kids, played with the toys that you wore like binoculars while flipping through images. The difference with VR nowadays is its level of technological advancement and the degree to which it has pervaded modern life.
Companies with eerie-sounding, apocalyptic names like Oculus have made VR a mainstay for many individuals, including those who are struggling with mental illnesses like anxiety. With programs that immerse the user in a serene, meditative experience, people who use them report positive outcomes for anxiety. Keep reading to learn more about how virtual reality can become part of your toolkit for dealing with anxiety and other issues associated with mental health.
1. The “Virtual” in Virtual Reality
If you have ever cooked a batch of cookies but realized that you needed to substitute, say, M&Ms for chocolate chips, you may have said, “They’re virtually the same!” If you use a smartphone or tablet, you probably use a virtual keypad multiple times a day.
According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, “virtual” refers to something that is “being such in essence or effect though not formally recognized or admitted.” So a virtual keyboard, the one that appears on the screen for you to touch, is a keyboard in everything but formal recognition.
Reality refers to being appropriately oriented to the world, which we inhabit. When someone is really out of touch with what is going on like if politicians try to give themselves raises despite a budget deficit, you might say that that person is living in an alternate reality.
Reality is informed by our senses, like our basic five senses of touch, taste, smell, hearing, and sight. We experience the world around us through those senses, along with other insights, like a sense of balance. When we can manipulate the sensory information that our brains process, we can, at least momentarily, change the reality that we experience.
In reality, chocolate chips and M&Ms are not the same things. But they do resemble each other closely enough that you can substitute one for the other when baking cookies. When they reach your senses, namely your senses of smell and taste, you may not be able to tell much of a difference.
Virtual reality is when you feed “virtual” information to your senses. Today, virtual reality is usually achieved by computer technology through programs that simulate real-world experiences. These programs immerse people in experiences that are not actually happening, but they seem real enough to the users that they may experience the application as if it is real.
Back in the 90s, the most impressive movies were the ones that provided a 3-D experience, via the cheap plastic spectacles that you got when buying your movie ticket. Now, 3-D is more of an expectation for any blockbuster movie, or pretty much any screen-based experience.
VR programs are no exception. Far from the cheap plastic toys that flipped through slides of images while you held the toy to your eyes, today’s VR toys, virtually without exception (pun intended), operate in 3-D. In fact, plenty of VR toys allow you to walk around in the 3-D setting and experience it as you would in real life.
Users who are engaging with a VR program don’t just experience a three-dimensional program; they also experience a life-sized one. The people that may come and go appear to be the same sizes as people that you might encounter any day walking through a crowded mall or busy sidewalk.
Care is taken to make VR programs as close to reality as possible. While some elements may still be lacking, like a sense of balance or proprioception, in every way possible, the programs are incredibly lifelike. If you use a program set on a beach, you might feel like you are really there, to the point of being able to smell the salty air.
Well, a lot, actually. There are VR programs that are specifically tailored for people who have anxiety, and people who use them report undeniable results. What’s more, mental health professionals and academics are publishing studies about how VR programs are helping people who have anxiety.
Expect to see a lot more literature and studies in the coming years about how VR can be used to treat a variety of different mental health conditions. Also, expect to see VR hardware that is specifically designed to help people who are struggling with mental illness.
In the broadest sense, anxiety is an emotion that people commonly feel like part of the human experience. If you are on an airplane, you might feel momentary anxiety when the plane is about to take off or land. But like other emotions, like sadness, it can be experienced over a long time, leading to a mental health condition.
Anxiety, in terms of mental health, is a prolonged state in which an individual continually feels hyper-aroused and often fearful. Constant feelings of anxiety interfere with daily life, sometimes to the point where the person does not want to get out of bed or leave the house.
A panic attack is a sudden and overwhelming feeling of terror that can cause the person’s heart rate to accelerate, and his or her skin feel clammy. Sometimes, people who experience a panic attack mistakenly believe that they actually have a heart attack!
The panic attack peaks within a few minutes and usually ends within 10 to 15 minutes. Anyone who experiences panic attacks should seek medical attention, which will likely include a visit to a mental health professional. They can become life-limiting and, in cases of chronic, long-term attacks, can even shorten people’s life expectancies.
We live in a society that is chronically distracted, to the point that people often speak of needing to get on their phones so that they can be distracted! For people who struggle with anxiety, this inability to focus and constant distraction is amplified, sometimes so severely that the individual loses the ability to form and sustain relationships.
The idea of using a computer program to help people who already have trouble focusing seems counter-intuitive. But VR programs that help with anxiety can help the person relax enough that he or she achieves better focus for hours after use.
If you spend any time on social media, you are probably aware of the idea of social anxiety. Social anxiety is a condition in which someone’s fear prevents him or her from being able to interact with other people. Relationships and achieving a life that the person sees as meaningful can be particularly challenging.
Selective mutism is an anxiety disorder that occurs most frequently in children, in which they are unable to speak in certain situations. Separation anxiety refers to intense distress when a significant person is no longer present, also usually confined to childhood experiences. Generalized anxiety disorder is a pervasive condition of stress that causes the person to worry in a way that is inconsistent with circumstances; it causes distress in even doing routine, daily tasks.
As previously mentioned, anxiety is a normal emotion that people routinely experience. But when it becomes chronic and inhibits the person’s quality of life, it can become a diagnosable, and treatable, mental illness. The good news is that there are many different treatment options available.
Some treatment options involve therapy with a trained professional. Others involve taking medication to help alter the brain’s chemistry so that the person experiences less anxiety. Other treatments include the person making lifestyle changes, such as reducing overall stress and engaging in routine exercise.
CBT is a form of therapy that addresses the damaging beliefs that people may hold. Those beliefs affect people’s thought patterns, which, in turn, affects behavior, relationships, and every aspect of life.
The goal of CBT is to help change a person’s underlying beliefs so that they are positive and constructive. Healthier self-beliefs lead to productive thought patterns, which include less anxiety and other forms of distress. The anticipated outcome is improved behavior. For people with anxiety, CBT has been proven to reduce anxious thoughts and beliefs so that they no longer interrupt daily life.
There are many different components of anxiety. There’s the psychological component of thought patterns leading to destructive behaviors. There’s the physical component of stress hormones getting out of balance. And there’s the neurological component of brain pathways being overloaded.
The latter can be addressed with medication, which can relieve the stress on neural pathways so the person can develop more constructive channels. Some anxiety medicines should be taken regularly, while others are for when someone needs relief, similar to pain medication. Medication is best when it is part of a broader treatment plan that also includes therapy and lifestyle changes.
14. Exercise And Nutrition Therapy Can Provide Benefits
Stress hormones, like cortisol, are commonly excreted by the body’s endocrine system. Once they cycle through the body, they are usually burned out. But when someone is under continual stress, those stress hormones don’t get burned out. They are continuously secreted and build up within the body.
To help relieve the burden of stress hormones on the body, someone who struggles with anxiety can engage in regular exercise. In fact, regular exercise can lead to the same benefits as medication; someone with anxiety might be able to reduce medication by engaging in daily activity.
Also helpful is eating foods that can help relieve the effects of stress on the body. Reducing carbohydrate intake and increasing good fats can help the body cope better with stress and prevent it from causing long-term damage.
Many different religions across the world have long practiced meditation. It comes in many various forms, from Christian contemplative prayer to Hindu yoga to many other spiritual practices promoted by religious leaders all through history. In short, it generally refers to intentionally calming one’s mind and distancing oneself from any internal distractions for a set amount of time.
Meditation has lately been proven to help people who have anxiety. There are plenty of different theories about how it works, from changing brain-wave activity to helping change thought patterns to reducing stress. What matters is that it works.
Far from being just a spiritual practice that religionists around the world engage in, meditation is now seen as a bit of a medical miracle. It has helped people regain their physical health as well as improve their overall well-being and mental health.
In fact, many schools have begun replacing detention and other traditional discipline techniques with meditation. Even children are reporting that engaging in meditation helps them to feel calm and in control of themselves. There is no way to underestimate the benefits of meditation.
People who engage in meditation have stronger memories. They are intentionally training their minds to not give in to all of the distractions that are created by modern life. As a result, they have a better awareness of what is going on and better memories.
In fact, older people who engage in meditation have less age-related memory loss. For those who already have dementia, practicing meditation can actually recover some of their cognitive functions. One particular type of meditation, known as Kirtan Kriya, improves participants’ ability to perform cognitive-based tasks that involve memory.
People who have addictions have lost the ability to control their own selves, particularly around a particular substance or behavior. But one thing that meditation does is it helps the person become more aware of and in control of his or her own practice.
In fact, one study of alcoholics who were trained in meditation found that they were able to redirect their cravings and get better control over their addiction. Another study showed that people who were addicted to food who engaged in meditation showed marked decreases in emotional-based binge eating.
There are a lot of different factors that cause our modern lives to be as stressful as they are. To reduce stress, people can limit their stress-inducing activities, and they can also engage in meditation.
People who practice meditation regularly report feeling less stress. In fact, the reduction of stress is most active in those who have the highest and most chronic levels of stress. “Mindfulness meditation,” which teaches people to be more aware of their surroundings, actually reduced the inflammatory response created by stress hormones in the body. It also reduces the effects of stress-related syndromes, like post-traumatic stress syndrome and irritable bowel syndrome.
Along with meditation, reducing overall stress and the effects of stress on the body, studies have shown that meditation leads to a reduction in anxiety disorders. As long as people continue to engage in reflection, this benefit continues.
Practicing different kinds of meditation provides even stronger benefits for anxiety. Yoga, which combines physical activity with mindfulness, is particularly beneficial for people with chronic anxiety. For those with work-related stress, like nurses who work in fast-paced facilities, doing meditation that is tailored to the work environment helps improve their mental state and work output.
When someone struggles with anxiety, the effects of the overload of stress on the brain can lead to insomnia. The person may not only sleep less, but the hours in which they are asleep are not as beneficial and restorative.
But meditation, in addition to reducing the general sense of anxiety, also improves the person’s quality of sleep. Meditation helps calm the mind and redirect anxious thoughts, which often keep people up late at night. Compared to people who don’t meditate, those who do fall asleep faster, stay asleep longer and wake up feeling more refreshed.
If you have anxiety, then unless your genetic make-up leads you to have lower-than-average blood pressure, you probably also have hypertension. Hypertension, or high blood pressure, can, over the long run, lead to cardiovascular disease, including heart attack and stroke.
But meditation can reduce this by-product of anxiety by actually lowering blood pressure. This is because it reduces the activity of the nerve that regulates heart function, leading to a more steady and healthy heartbeat. People who practice meditation, on average, lower their blood pressure by five points. This reduction is even more pronounced in people who are older or who have higher blood pressure.
23. Meditation Can Control Pain As Well As Medicine
If you suffer from chronic anxiety, then there is a good chance that you experience some form of chronic pain, as well. After all, stress hormones trigger reactions within your body that lead to inflammation. While inflammation protects parts of the body over the short term, over the long run, it causes pain that can become disabling.
Conditions like fibromyalgia are associated with chronic anxiety, but meditation can help reverse the pain. One reason is that people who engage in meditation reduce the level of activity occurring in their brains, which actually reduces its response to pain stimuli. Another reason is that, in the parts of the brain that control pain, meditation causes more activity.
Chronically anxious people are often fearful of what tomorrow will bring. Though they may, at heart, be altruistic people, they are unable to show as much kindness as they want because they are fearful of not having enough.
But people who practice meditation are kinder and engage in more positive, altruistic acts than people who don’t meditate. One form of meditation, known as Metta, increases the person’s positive self-feelings. In turn, the result is more positive feelings towards the people around. Those who practice Metta are more likely to forgive past offenses and have a more positive outlook on life.
If you struggle with chronic anxiety, then almost by definition, you have a hard time sitting still and focusing your thoughts. In fact, you probably don’t even want to focus your thoughts! You may be afraid of the dark direction in which they may take you.
In the words of one person who has anxiety, “The problem with anxiety, of course, is that it makes my mind extra jumpy and extra ready to yank right out of the Zen bliss of meditation and into a hurricane of worries and to-dos. For this reason, unassisted silent meditation is, I believe, particularly difficult for people with anxiety.”
And after all, taking medication is much easier than trying to focus yourself for 30 minutes or more. But not including meditation in your treatment plan for anxiety means that all of the above benefits – and many more – will not be yours.
If you have anxiety, you may struggle with the idea of sitting out on a log in the middle of the woods while you get your meditation on. What if something slimy or with legs crawls up to you and tries to be your friend? Eww!!
But with VR, you can have the experience of sitting out in the middle of nature without having to worry about any creepy crawlies distracting you. Additionally, VR meditation helps engage all of your senses. While regular meditation usually asks that you empty your mind and focus on a mantra, intentionally disregarding your feelings, VR meditation is easier for people with anxiety because you use your senses.
The ability to focus is a bit of an anomaly in today’s world, which seems to favor distraction as a virtue. We live in a world with weapons of mass destruction (nuclear warheads) and weapons of mass distraction (cell phones). There’s no telling which one is actually worse.
For people with anxiety, focusing is even harder. But VR meditation takes all of the mental angst out of trying to focus so that you can focus on, well, focusing! By shutting out all of the distractions for you and engaging your senses, VR does the hard part, and you get to reap the benefits.
Let’s face it; meditating is hard. You’re supposed to silence all distractions and quiet your mind for, how long? Five minutes? No, at least 20 to start to reap the benefits. If you struggle with anxiety, you know how hard it is to try to sit still, let alone quiet your mind, for longer than a millisecond.
But in the words of a user who engaged in VR meditation, I sat, breathed, and took in the rhythm of the waves for a record-breaking 40 minutes. In a word, I meditated — which under normal circumstances is extremely difficult for my anxious mind to do.
29. The Calming Effects of Meditation Last Throughout The Day
Meditation works by calming down a person’s anxious mind and eliminating unwanted thoughts. Its benefits are known to affect a person’s all-around well-being. For people with anxiety, the calming effects of practicing meditation last long after the meditation session ends.
People with anxiety who use VR to practice meditation feel calmer and experience fewer intrusive thoughts for the rest of the day. Doing this daily, or at least every other day, helps people regain control over their lives. The anxiety may still be present, but it is severely diminished and is no longer controlling the person or disrupting daily life.
30. To Practice VR Meditation, You Need A VR Headset
Sure, you could watch a calming YouTube video that shows rain falling, accompanied by the pitter-patter of raindrops and the occasional sound of thunder. But if you are looking at your computer screen, you will probably be tempted to check your Facebook, email, and any other distractions that will interrupt your meditative session.
To really get the benefits of VR meditation, you need a VR headset. For one, if someone you live with sees you wearing a headset, that person is less likely to interrupt you. But also, it eliminates the distractions so that you can focus exclusively on, well, focusing. And the headset also enables a more immersive experience.
Many types of headsets are currently in development or soon to be released. In fact, most major tech companies – from Windows to Sony to Apple – are investing in VR. Right now, it seems to be the future of tech.
Some VR headsets are designed specifically for gamers. As with any gaming tech, these are usually more high-end and more robust – they have lots more memory and are intended for heavy use. If you already have one of these headsets, that’s great. But for VR meditation, you can probably get away with something a bit more inexpensive.
Oculus Go is a VR brand that runs on a Windows-based platform. You can download different apps onto the device before putting the headset on and immersing yourself I a VR experience. The optics are so clear that users feel like they are in their theater.
These headsets come with either 32GB or 64GB of memory, so there is plenty of room for you to download high-quality meditation apps. These apps can make you feel like you are walking along the beach and listening to the waves lap against the shore, or like you are sitting in a secluded forest listening to the birds overhead.
33. Eco-Conscious Users May Want To Opt For Google Cardboard
Psychologists around the world are noticing more and more people are presenting with anxiety related to climate change. If you are one of those people, you may want a VR set that is more environmentally friendly. Google Cardboard is a VR set that is made out of cardboard instead of traditional materials, like plastic or aluminum.
These headsets are compatible with many different smartphone platforms, like Apple and Windows. They are also quite inexpensive – most are $20 or less – as they are made almost entirely out of cardboard. Before investing in one, make sure that it is compatible with your smartphone.
If you are a Samsung fan and have a Samsung smartphone, then you may want to invest in that brand’s line of VR products. Most of these headsets do not have their own memory; they connect directly to the user’s smartphone. As such, they are much less expensive than Oculus sets.
To use a VR headset that connects to your smartphone, you need to download the meditation app to your smartphone. You should then be able to access it via the VR headset. The quality of the VR experience will depend on the app and the audio and optical quality of the headset.
If you aren’t sure yet about whether you want to invest any money in VR meditation, you may want to start by trying one of the available free apps. You can go to your platform’s app store to see what free meditation apps you can download. Or you may also want to try a free sample of a paid app.
Keep in mind that you get what you pay for, and anything worth having is going to cost you something. Free VR apps may not be of the same quality as paid ones. If you try a low-quality free app, you may decide that this isn’t for you and toss out the whole idea of VR meditation altogether.
36. “Guided Meditation” Is One Of The Best Meditation Apps
“Guided Meditation” is a VR meditation app that was produced by Cubicle Ninjas, and it runs at $14.99. This app provides 400 different locations across 22 different environments that you can virtually enter via your VR headset.
With “Guided Meditation,” you can calm your mind and get your focus on while walking along the surface of the moon, watching the Northern Lights (without the need for a warm winter coat), meandering along the beach, or hiking through the woods. Afterward, you will feel calmer and more in control of your life.
This app was designed for people who are new to meditation and want to learn the skill. It uses many different backgrounds and environments, such as stars, illuminated, and sunset. The focus of the app is the user’s own breath, so it has a hardware device designed to measure the user’s respiration and heartbeat.
“Skill Master VR” uses graphics to help users visualize their own breathing patterns. It engages enough of the senses that users have to remain focused to follow through with the app’s instructions. It costs $14.99.
“House of Meditation” was designed by Cerevrum to help people whose minds are always active with distracting chatter and thoughts. It features eight different VR locations, including a Japanese garden, a spaceship, an ocean, and even a trip to Mars. For $6.99, it can help people gain control of their own headspace.
This app can help you reboot your body and mind through soothing music, calm voices, and engaging landscapes. Users will find that their anxious thoughts are naturally reduced as they transport themselves to the virtual world that the app creates for them.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Here Are Our Sources:
“Anxiety Disorders.” The Mayo Clinic. “12 Science-Based Benefits of Meditation.” Healthline. “How Virtual Reality Meditation Helps Me Control My Anxiety.” Healthline. “Every Type Of VR Headset (So Far), Explained (Updated),” by Kevin Carbotte. Tom’s Hardware. August 25, 2015. “Top 6 Best VR Meditation Apps for Your Mental Fitness,” by Juanita Leatham. VR Fitness Insider. October 24, 2017.