An immersive virtual reality (VR) therapy can help people with depression by making them less self-critical and more compassionate towards themselves, researchers report.
People who struggle with anxiety and depression can be excessively self-critical when things go wrong in their lives.
The therapy, previously tested by healthy volunteers, was used by 15 patients aged 23-61 suffering from depression.
Nine reported reduced depressive symptoms a month after the therapy, of whom four experienced a clinically significant drop in depression severity.
Patients in the study wore a VR headset to see from the perspective of a life-size ‘avatar’ or virtual body.
Seeing this virtual body in a mirror moving in the same way as their own body typically produces the illusion that this is their own body. This is called “embodiment”.
While embodied in an adult avatar, participants were trained to express compassion towards a distressed virtual child.
As they talked to the child it appeared to gradually stop crying and respond positively to the compassion.
After a few minutes, the patients were embodied in the virtual child and saw the adult avatar deliver their own compassionate words and gestures to them.
This brief eight-minute scenario was repeated three times at weekly intervals, and patients were followed up a month later.
“By comforting the child and then hearing their own words back, patients are indirectly giving themselves compassion. The aim was to teach patients to be more compassionate towards themselves and less self-critical, and we saw promising results,” explained Professor Chris Brewin from University College London.
A month after the study, several patients described how their experience had changed their response to real-life situations in which they would previously have been self-critical.
The study, published in the British Journal of Psychiatry Open, offers a promising proof-of-concept.
“We now hope to develop the technique further to conduct a larger controlled trial, so that we can confidently determine any clinical benefit,” added study co-author professor Mel Slater from ICREA-University of Barcelona.