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Virtual reality – Training wheels for mindfulness?

The practice of mindfulness has positive psychological effects but it's not as easy as it sounds. Swinburne University has been investigating the role of virtual reality (VR) and Fiona Foley from their National eTherapy Centre, tells us how it can actually benefit mindfulness practice.

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Mindfulness, beneficial but challenging to learn

Mindfulness is one of those things that we know is really beneficial for mental health and wellbeing, but it can be difficult to learn and maintain. The practice of mindfulness involves bringing attention to the present moment. This seems easy in theory, but in practice can be challenging, especially for those starting out. Anyone who has started down the road of mindfulness practice (myself included), will be familiar with the frustrations of the mind wandering anywhere but the present moment, being distracted by any number of thoughts, feelings and sensations and often beating oneself up for “not being able to do it right.” Many don’t continue with it long enough to experience its benefits because of this.

Virtual reality (VR) technology developed to aid mindfulness

Technology has made mindfulness more accessible and approachable to many people. At Swinburne University, we were interested in technologies that could provide people with training-wheels for mindfulness, while they were learning – and we think VR is promising.  We’ve spent the last two years developing and testing VR mindfulness experiences using 360-degree nature environments with audio guidance. We’ve recently made these experiences, which we have called place, available through our website https://www.mentalhealthonline.org.au/.  

The nature-based locations in our VR mindfulness experiences provide a relaxing, immersive environment that can help people to focus on and be present. They’re an alternative to traditional inward, breath or body sensation focused mindfulness practices. Providing options for outward focus on flowing water, birdsong and leaves moving in the wind, in addition to inward breath and sensation focus, seems to be of benefit in supporting present moment awareness and containing distracting thoughts and feelings. Viewing nature has been shown to lower the effort involved in learning mindfulness, and VR can provide access to virtual nature, where access may otherwise be restricted. 

A useful tool for mindfulness practice and emotion regulation

Through our testing in both the general population and clinical groups, we have found that the VR mindfulness experiences;

  • are safe and acceptable;
  • facilitate mindfulness;
  • increase positive emotion;
  • are perceived to be a useful tool for regulating emotion.

We’ve heard from users that nature-based VR mindfulness was calming and relaxing and that some people who had experienced difficulties with mindfulness in the past, found the VR experience easier to pay attention to than audio-only apps. I also know from my own experience, that even as an experienced mindfulness practitioner, there are times when it’s very difficult to be present during mindfulness practices. Having some extra tools like place to use at those times, as well as for a bit of variety, is really helpful. It’s a sentiment echoed by other, more experienced mindfulness users in our trials.  Findings from our initial study have been published in the Journal of Medical Internet Research and there are more in the pipeline, including a publication about the development and design considerations that went into creating place. 

Try it out!

The first of the place’s virtual reality mindfulness experiences are now available for registered users of Swinburne University’s, Mental Health Online website, with stand-alone VR and mobile apps in the pipeline. Place is ideally accessed via a VR headset (stand alone or smartphone VR headset) but can also be accessed via computer or smartphone browser for a non-immersive experience. Health professionals are most welcome to give it a try by creating an account on the website and letting clients know about it, especially if they are new to mindfulness or have struggled with mindfulness in the past. 

References:

Seabrook, E. M., Kelly, R. M., Foley, F., Theiler, S., Thomas, N., Wadley, G., & Nedeljkovic, M. (2020). Understanding how virtual reality can support mindfulness practice: Mixed methods evaluation. Journal of Medical Internet Research, 22, e16106. https://doi.org/10.2196/16106

Lymeus F., Lundgren T., & Hartig T. (2016). Attentional effort of beginning mindfulness training is offset with practice directed toward images of natural scenery. Environment and Behavior, 49, 536–559.

 

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Fiona Foley

Fiona Foley

Fiona Foley is the Digital Mental Health Program Manager at Swinburne University’s National eTherapy Centre and General Manager for the Department of Health funded, Swinburne run, online mental health service, Mental Health Online. Fiona has been involved in the development and trial of a number of digital mental health interventions, both nationally and internationally. Fiona is also an experienced mindfulness practitioner.

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