Scary Monsters: How Virtual Reality Can Help People Deal With Anxiety | Virtual Reality

tI am in a chair, in a bleak basement, doing my best not to panic—by breathing in for four seconds, holding for seven seconds, and slowly releasing for eight seconds. But when a bloodthirsty beast appears at my feet and starts crawling toward me, I need no pill to tell me that my heart is pounding, that I am in imminent mortal danger.

Welcome to the future of anxiety therapy: a virtual reality (VR) game that teaches you a breathing technique to help calm your nerves, then pits you against a monstrous human who wants to eat you, to practice deploying it in truly panic situations.

Developed by researchers at the University of Cambridge, with the help of a local video game company, Ninja Theory, the game is being tested as a way to teach people a strategy for dealing with everyday anxiety. For me, that could include submitting a story for the Guardian, on very short notice, or trying to get out the door with two kids, when I’m already running late.

“We view anxiety as something most people experience, as opposed to a specific anxiety disorder, in an effort to teach emotion regulation techniques that can be helpful to most people at some point in their lives,” said Lucy Daniel Watanabe. PhD student leading the research.

“Therapists often ask people to learn techniques, like breathing techniques, in completely static, non-reactive ways, and then say, ‘Try this while you’re feeling stressed.’ But there is no way to get people to try it when they are stressed in this therapeutic situation. Virtual reality allows you to completely manipulating the environment that people are in, which can be really helpful in that regard.”

With the VR headset in place and a heart rate monitor attached to my finger, I was whisked off to a rowing boat on a quiet lake at sunset. The calming voice encourages me to breathe in, to hold my breath, to exhale at the appropriate times, and as I feel increasingly relaxed and my heartbeat slow, the boat gently moves forward.

After about five minutes of this, I’m ready to start the next phase of my training: the dungeon. Even though I know it’s just a game, the immersive nature of VR helps suspend my disbelief, and I’m amazed to hear my heartbeat in my ears. In the upper corner of my vision, a little dial tells me my heart is pumping faster than when I was on the boat, which reminds me of what I’m here for. I begin to slow my breathing, and the dial gradually creeps downward, too—even as I hear a fellow prisoner scream, and look to my left to see a body being pulled back out of sight.

The human monster encounters Linda Geddes in a virtual reality game.
The human monster encounters Linda Geddes in a virtual reality game. Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

Then suddenly, the beast was in front of me, emaciated, gray-skinned, blindfolded and with a ghastly grin on its mouth. I’m told he can’t see me, but he can use my heartbeat to sense my position; The only way to avoid death is to use a relaxation technique to lower your heart rate.

I do my best, but the beast is so close, so terrible. Then – once the monster jumped on top of me, and the screen went black – Daniel Watanabe told me that she had purposely put me on a more difficult level, because many of the people she had tested so far had been very good at avoiding death.

Achieving the right balance, let alone validating the approach among larger and more diverse groups of individuals, can take some time. But other VR-based approaches are already being tried within the NHS, for example to help people who suffer from it social anxiety or agoraphobia To practice everyday scenarios, such as being on the street or inside a store, under the guidance of a virtual trainer.

Lucy Daniel Watanabe
Lucy Danielle Watanabe, who is leading the research, said she would never like to use virtual reality in place of therapy. Photograph: Graeme Robertson/The Guardian

Partnering with a gaming company can take these experiences to a new level. Gamification of the process may also help motivate people to practice helpful techniques, such as breathing exercises, rather than relying on internal motivation — “which can be difficult, if you’re in a really tough place,” says Daniel Watanabe.

While she would never want to use VR in place of therapy, “it could be a resource that people can use if they’re on a CBT waitlist, to learn some basic techniques in the meantime,” she said.

For me, while I was hesitant to go back to that cell, the encounter reminded me to try slow breathing, when I’m feeling tense. Even the impending deadline is no match for that beast.

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