VR to combat stress and depression
in the ICU
There’s finally time for a break. An ICU nurse at the UMCG scurries across the hall, kicks off her shoes and sits down in the comfortable chair in a corner of the break room. She takes a deep breath, reaches for a pair of VR glasses in the cabinet behind her, and the next thing you know, she’s relaxing at the beach in Corfu – the sun just a little too bright, the sound of the waves breaking on the beach.
This may sound like science fiction, it is not. The UMCG has been using these VR glasses since the start of the Covid pandemic. They were provided by the VR Mental Health Lab. The idea behind them is to relieve stress by taking people from their work environment and letting them relax in a virtual setting. Bart Lestestuiver, researcher at the Relax XL team at the UMCG, thinks these glasses will soon become common household items, just like smartphones.
‘It’s relaxing in virtual reality’, says Lestestuiver. They started in 2018 with DIY glasses that people could insert their smartphone into to use the VR application. ‘There was only one place to go, this little world in which you started out on a beach. You could walk to the left to explore the rest of the beach or to the right to go into the dunes.’
Some people want something to do
Things have changed quite a bit since then. Anyone who uses the application VRelax can not only visit the Corfu beach, but they can also go swimming with dolphins or visit the Mensinge woods in Roden, Drenthe, during the summer. They are fully immersed in the environment and are able to see and hear everything. There are also environments in which people can do more than just walk around, such as an underwater environment where you can pop the bubbles around you. ‘No matter how nice all those different environments are, people also want something to do’, says Lestestuiver.
The research that the team behind VRelax has been doing over the past few years has shown that virtual reality is a great tool to relieve stress. It works for different kinds of people, too. ‘One of the studies looked at patients who were being treated for burnout, anxiety, psychosis, depression, and bipolar disorder’, says Lestestuiver. The researchers studied the different effects of VRelax and ordinary relaxation exercises, such as mindfulness. ‘We saw that both methods increased the patients’ positive emotions after the relaxation exercises, but that negative emotions decreased more when they used VRelax.’
Negative emotions decreased more than with relaxation exercises
That was a great result for VRelax. During the Covid pandemic, when ICUs were overflowing and nurses were exhausted, researchers found the glasses could also be useful. ‘We were like, couldn’t VRelax be of use in this situation?’
Initially, they simply offered the glasses to ICU wards at the UMCG, helping the ICU nurses take short breaks. But when it turned out the nurses were enjoying the glasses, the researchers decided to do a little study. They asked sixty-six ICU employees to say how stressed they were before and after the use of VRelax. The use of VRelax decreased the employees’ feelings of stress by approximately 40 percent on average. ‘There was a lot of positive feedback’, says Lestestuiver. The VR glasses remain at the UMCG for general use.
During previous studies involving patients who struggled mentally, Lestestuiver and his colleagues observed a short-term effect. There was more than enough reason to set up a larger study to research the long-term effect VRelax might have. Over the next few years, the team also wants to study the physical effects it might have on things such as a person’s heartbeat or the amount of sleep they get.
I would love a pair of glasses that tells you your heart rate has stabilised
In the future, Lestestuiver hopes VRelax can incorporate biofeedback in the glasses, like a smartwatch that measures your metrics and knows to tell you to relax when it senses you’re feeling stressed.
‘Imagine a pair of glasses with accurate sensors that can tell you that your breathing has slowed down or notices when your heart rate stabilises’, says Lestestuiver. People would get immediate feedback on the effect of their relaxation exercises. ‘I would love that, but it would be very difficult to create.’
He himself doesn’t use VRelax to unwind, though. The glasses he has at home are fine for gaming, but they’re mainly a display model. ‘In the end, it’s my job, not my hobby.’
He prefers listening to music or watching a film or series. ‘Other than that, I like to just sit still, relax, and breathe deeply. Nature is a great way to relax as well. But sometimes you’re unable to go outside, either because you’re busy or because there’s no nature anywhere near you. That’s where VRelax comes in.’
For its research the Relax XL team is still looking for participants who are currently being treated for burnout, anxiety, psychosis, depression, or bipolar disorder. More information can be found here.