Picture yourself wandering through a quiet art museum or strolling through a forest in full bloom, taking in the sights and sounds of tranquility. If this puts you in a good place mentally, even though you’re still in your car or at work, you’ve unlocked the secret behind a new treatment aimed at helping people who are battling depression.
Scientists at the University of California, Los Angeles are using virtual reality to help people with anhedonia [an-he-DOAN-ya], which is a symptom of depression or other mental health conditions that is marked by the inability to feel pleasure. Researchers believe anhedonia is somehow tied to the brain’s reward circuitry, but as yet there are no specific treatments that target it.
Most treatments for depression focus on relieving negative symptoms such as helplessness and anxiety, but the new method aims at putting patients in pleasant, albeit artificial, settings. Therapists then talk to them in detail about the beauty they are experiencing.
For those whose conditions keep them from actually stepping into these peaceful places, virtual reality opens the door. Virtual reality has been shown to be effective in helping people overcome social anxiety and other phobias. It has even helped patients suffering from PTSD and those who are recovering from sexual trauma.
Participants in the UCLA study reported lower levels of anxiety and depression compared with those who had standard cognitive behavioral therapy.
The hope is that coaching patients to pay attention to the positive activities they are experiencing through virtual reality will show them how to find and enjoy the good things in their lives once they take off the mask.