Virtual reality to reduce stress and anxiety levels caused by the lockdown

Living the coronavirus situation means going through a global health emergency but also having to cope with extreme psychological stress which tests our identity and our relationships. A self-help virtual reality protocol called COVID Feel Good, in which the Institute of Neurosciences of the University of Barcelona takes part, helps people overcoming this psychological burden by reducing the levels of stress and anxiety caused by the lockdown and improving the interpersonal relationships. It is free and you only need a phone with the Youtube app, virtual reality glasses like Google Cardboard (easily found in online stores for ten euros approximately), and spend thirty minutes a day for a week.  

The protocol consists on watching, for a week, at least once a day, a 10-minute video, named “The Secret Garden”. You need to watch it using the virtual reality glasses. Then, you need to follow a series of exercises provided in the website project, with specific goals for each day of the week. 

Three psychological dilemmas hard to manage during the crisis 

All the exercises are aimed to cope with three psychological dilemmas that appear as a consequence of the lockdown. First, stress of the disease: the feeling of risk is strengthened by the continuous flow of conflicting information, through social networks. Second, disappearance of places: we define who we are through the memory of people and events that took part in the places we go to, and which we can no longer visit. Last, the crisis of sense of community, caused by the second point: without the office, workplace, school and others, the binds weaken and the ability to share and accept each other is reduced, which leads to an increase of conflicts. 

A goal per day

The first day is to prevent us from getting obsessed with coronavirus. The second session is aimed to increase our self-esteem. The third, to work on autobiographical memory (what we are and what we want). The fourth day aims to wake up the sense of community so we do not feel alone. The fifth day works on taking back dreams and goals we had before the lockdown started. The sixth day is to work on empathy, and the last, to plan a change.   

COVID Feel Good is the result of a work by several multidiscipline researchers from around the world and it aims to harness the experiential and transformative potential of the virtual reality to reduce the psychological burden of this lockdown. The Research Group on Virtual Reality Applications and other New Technologies in Clinical Health Psychology (VR-PSY Lab) of the University of Barcelona, coordinated by the lecturer José Gutiérrez Maldonado, has collaborated in the project to translate the protocol and video into Catalan and Spanish.   

In June, researchers will start working on a study in three countries to evaluate the efficiency of the protocol regarding the improvement of the mood and overcoming the situation of lockdown. According to Gutiérrez Maldonado, this study wants to test “the adaptation to the new situation, which will last for long and in which we have to accept to live with the virus”. The expert notes that “one of the paradoxes in this health crisis is that, despite being a problem, it can be a unique opportunity”. “Actually, whether we want or not, this forces us to change and manage new situations like quarantine, living with children and our partner, and a lack of relationships, among others”, concludes the lecturer, also member of the Institute of Neurosciences of the UB.  

Virtual reality: perfect tool for experiential learning 

Specifically, what distinguishes virtual reality from other means is the sense of being present related to a higher level of emotional involvement, which turns this technology in a perfect tool to explore what is possible and to support clinical personal changes.   

The videos are in 360º, known as immersive videos, and are created with a multiple-lens camera or a team with multiple cameras, which enables the recording of all directions at the same time and provides a complete view of what surrounds the camera. 

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