Healing with Virtual Reality

Virtual reality, once a technological innovation only accessible to a select few, has been making strides within the consumer market. This has led to virtual reality now being increasingly more accessible to everyday consumers. 

This is exciting for consumers and their families as they will now be able to access a limitless virtual dimension. Although current efforts are focused on gaming and entertainment, researchers have been working to explore virtual reality as an effective tool for therapy and emotional wellbeing.

One promising area of research is the use of a simulated nature setting in order to evoke the benefits of actually being in nature. Being able to isolate just the audio and visual aspects of nature can help to further our understanding of how nature psychologically affects us. Furthering our understanding of this phenomenon could be beneficial to those who are physically unable or unwilling to physically experience nature.

What is Virtual Reality?

Virtual reality, otherwise known as VR, is the use of software and hardware to create a simulated virtual environment that can be virtually experienced. Currently, this is most commonly done with a VR headset that uses a display and a series of lenses within a plastic housing that is worn over your eyes. This method provides the most immersion, as nearly all of your visual field is taken up by the virtual environment.

To process and display this, typical VR headsets require a connection to a type of computer or video game console, with some using even a smartphone. Newer models are now releasing as all-in-one solutions needing only the headset to dive headfirst into virtual reality.

Background of VR Research

The virtual space that a user inhabits when using a VR headset consists of a full 360-degree visual area that a user can explore, with movement enabled via a controller. Virtual reality research focused on promoting psychological health may utilize different environments: urban, natural, or neutral. For urban and natural environments, real-world locations: (cities, state parks, etc.), are recreated within the virtual space. Neutral environments are generally comprised of plain geometric imagery and patterns, providing only a visual awareness of a 3D space (Valtchanov, 2010).

Researchers utilizing VR headsets can virtually place participants into any type of environment. In addition, they are able to log data such as a participant’s heart rate or self-reported level of stress between various types of environments.

Health Benefits from VR

Researchers have looked to see if there are differences in how restorative various environments are. This is essentially the environment’s ability to revitalize, or in negative cases deplete, a person’s mental capacity and ability (Hartig et al., 1997). This has been related to both general wellbeing and stress, however it primarily affects concentration and attention.

It has been shown that VR immersion simulated within urban and natural environments offer different levels of restorativeness. Participants within a simulated urban environment experience restorativeness at a lower level compared to participants who were within a simulated natural environment (Schutte et al., 2017). Those within the natural environment were also more aware of the restorativeness that they experienced, which is related to the improvement in emotional wellbeing.

A similar study comparing neutral, urban, and natural simulated environments found that significantly lower levels of stress were experienced within the natural environment, compared to both the urban and neutral environments (Valtchanov, 2010). Even though it is only simulated, being within a natural environment in VR can in fact offer its users health benefits.

Who Can VR Help?

Although the benefits of VR may be similar to the actual experience of nature, it cannot quite match nature’s effect. Proven health benefits such as elevation in mood levels, cannot yet be fully simulated within virtual reality (Browning et al., 2020). However, VR can provide some benefits to those who lack the means or ability to go into nature.

A plethora of disabilities and diseases, both temporary and lifelong, can make nature inaccessible. For some, accessibility to nature may be limited by safety concerns. Others who are incarcerated, hospitalized, or otherwise confined are also limited. Those affected by these conditions can benefit the most from experiencing nature in VR, especially if nature has been inaccessible for a long period of time.

In order to provide the greatest amount of care to those who would benefit the most, those with pre-existing health conditions should consult with a doctor prior to using virtual reality. While it was designed for the average consumer to be able to use without problems, those suffering from a condition such as epilepsy may be at a greater risk. Virtual reality, as recommended by manufacturers, should only be taken in maximum doses of 30 min. This should then be followed up with a minimum of 15 min of rest, doing so is approaching VR in the safest possible way. Consumers can browse their VR platform’s various experiences and should consider adding natural environments to their library. Integrating natural virtual reality experiences into a wellness regiment could help in the restoration of attention and reduction of stress.

Check out the 2020 PCMag VR Headset Buyers Guide:


Learn further by exploring these resources:

Valtchanov, D., & Ellard, C. (2010). Physiological and affective responses to immersion in virtual reality: Effects of nature and urban settings. Journal of Cybertherapy and Rehabilitation, 3(4), 359-374. Retrieved from https://search-proquest-com.proxy2.library.illinois.edu/docview/857126058?accountid=14553

Hartig, Terry & Korpela, Kalevi & Evans, Gary & Gärling, Tommy. (1997). A Measure of restorative quality in environments. Housing Theory and Society – HOUS THEORY SOC. 14. 175-194. 10.1080/02815739708730435. 

Schutte, N. S., Bhullar, N., Stilinović, E. J., & Richardson, K. (2017). The impact of virtual environments on restorativeness and affect. Ecopsychology, 9(1), 1-7. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1089/eco.2016.0042

Browning MHEM, Mimnaugh KJ, van Riper CJ, Laurent HK and LaValle SM (2020) Can Simulated Nature Support Mental Health? Comparing Short, Single-Doses of 360-Degree Nature Videos in Virtual Reality With the Outdoors. Front. Psychol. 10:2667. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2019.02667

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