Depression is an extremely complex and poorly understood condition and the number of people being diagnosed is growing at an alarming rate. It has been reported that 2.6 in 100 people suffer from depression, 4.1 in 100 people suffer from anxiety and 9.7 in 100 people have mixed depression and anxiety. Depression is known as a “visible illness” that not many people can identify with and relate to, however, it has been reported that 1 in 4 people in the UK will experience a mental health problem each year. Depression is often associated with self-criticism, lack of self-compassion and low self esteem and one of the main symptoms of depression is that people continuously put themselves down and consequently blame themselves for actions or behaviours that have a negative effect.
Self-compassion is defined as being able to extend compassion towards one’s self in instances of perceived inadequacy, failure or suffering. It has been found that self-compassionate individuals experience greater psychological health than individuals who lack self-compassion and self-compassion is often associated with wisdom, optimism and curiosity. Researchers at University College London and ICREA-University of Barcelona hope to give patients with depression a way of being able to increase their self-compassion and generally allowing them to show more love for themselves by using virtual reality.
Virtual reality is an artificial environment created with software and presented in such a way that the user believes that it is a real environment. There are very few places that virtual reality is unable to take us to whether it be the bottom of the ocean or high up in the clouds. Virtual reality has already been successful in allowing surgeons to practice carrying out complex operations and now researchers are hoping that it could relieve patients of their depressive symptoms.
A study was performed on 15 adult patients with depression, the sessions were repeated three times at weekly intervals before patients undertook a follow up assessment of self-criticism, self-compassion and depression one month later. The room was designed in the same way as the virtual room was portrayed to the patients, this was to ensure that it was life-like. A mirror allowed the patients to see their virtual selves to generate an illusion that their virtual body is their own body. The virtual reality sessions involved an 8-minute scenario in which a participant comforted a virtual child in distress. The virtual child was programmed to respond positively to the comforting words of the participants to make them feel as though their words were helping the child, they were told to ask the child to think of a time when everything was happy and to think of someone who loved them. Next, the adult participant was embodied as the child, and their own words were played back to them, this allowed a different perspective to be viewed.
Lead author, Professor Chris Brewin said that the results were promising and that patients had described the experience as being “very powerful”. Of the 15 patients, 9 recorded reduced levels of depression one month after the trial and 4 of those 9 reported a clinically significant drop in depression severity.
This study gives researchers hope for the future and many other virtual reality techniques, allowing patients to boost their self-compassion and self-love, are currently being tested. It happens that sometimes, you are your best therapist.