Traditional types of therapy for depression like psychoanalysis can provide effective relief but researchers are finding other means that could also prove beneficial. A new study found that virtual reality therapy can help reduce depression symptoms by boosting feelings of self-compassion and relieving issues with self-criticism.
It is important for depression patients to experience a feeling of compassion for themselves as they often have such low self-esteem that they harshly criticize themselves and cause their emotions to escalate.
When feelings of distress arise their own self-criticism can cause distress to become overwhelming and they may not know how to calm their emotional state. Patients can learn compassion for themselves in psychotherapy but this new type of virtual reality can be a concrete exercise in which people can actively participate in self-compassion.
Compassion Therapy through Embodiment
The study involving virtual therapy took 15 adults with depression and provided them with three sessions of the new type of therapy which had been previously tested on volunteers without any depression problems.
Throughout the sessions, the patients wore a specialized virtual reality headset that gave them the perspective of a life-sized avatar that was meant to be their own body. Patients could experience themselves as the avatar as it could mimic their movements in the mirror.
Seeing themselves as an avatar in a virtual reality world is known as "embodiment" and it allowed them to get involved in the virtual type of therapy provided. Throughout an eight minute session of therapy, each patient was told to expression compassion toward an avatar of a distressed child.
As they comforted the child in the virtual world it gradually calmed down and stopped crying. In the next portion of the therapy, the patients then embodied the avatar of the child and listened to the exact same speech of the adult version of themselves providing compassion to calm them down.
This type of method was chosen because many people with depression can easily be compassionate towards others but have trouble being compassionate on themselves.
Reducing Symptoms and Self-Criticism
After three weekly sessions of virtual therapy, the patients answered a survey asking questions about their mood and mental health. Out of the 15 patients involved in the study, nine of them reported reduced symptoms of depression and four experienced a significant drop in the severity of their symptoms.
Some of the patients even said that they felt that they became less self-critical in many of the situations in their real life after going through the therapy. Their therapy sessions gave them a chance to be compassionate toward themselves in the same way they would offer compassion to someone else.
When they comfort the avatar of the child and then hear their own words back they are indirectly comforting themselves in a way that sounds and feels genuine. Because self-criticism and a lack of compassion are a central part of depression, this type of virtual therapy may be uniquely able to target these specific problems and reduce symptoms overall.
Researchers believe that virtual compassion therapy may be an effective tool in treating depression because it bypasses resistance to self-compassion as the responses people have are more automatic. It can also be a helpful alternative for people who cannot see a therapist and need remote access to therapy instead.
While the findings on this study are still preliminary they show a promising future for this type of therapy which could potentially be a valuable addition to existing treatment methods. This new type of therapy could be very powerful if the technique is developed further and used to study more individuals with depression to see its effectiveness in a larger group.
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