Social anxiety

Virtual training to overcome anxiety

More and more people are struggling with anxiety, but researchers hope that patients can overcome their anxiety by practicing the anxiety-inducing situations in a safe, virtual space.

By Birgitte Dalgaard, , 12/20/2019

Around 350.000 Danes suffer from anxiety and according to a report published by the Danish Health Authority last year, the number of children and adolescents diagnosed with anxiety or depression has tripled over the last ten years. The number has risen from 2354 to 7189.

But now, researchers are providing new possibilities for Danes struggling with anxiety.

The patients are to practice the anxiety-inducing situations in a safe environment by wearing a VR headset.

If riding the bus is a trigger, we can start out with a virtual scenario where the bus is empty

Gunver Majgaard, Associate Professor

- The amazing part of virtual reality is that we can control the situation and adjust the degree of difficulty. It is like a VR video game made for patients with anxiety, Gunver Majgaard from SDU Embodied Systems for Robotics and Learning says.

She is an expert in mixed reality design and will be creating the VR scenes for the patients.

- If riding the bus is a trigger, we can start out with a virtual scenario where the bus is empty. As the heart rate of the patient stabilizes, we can add more passengers to the bus.

VR headset and heart rate monitor

In addition to the VR headset, the patients will get a heart rate monitor so the therapist can measure their anxiety level.

To adjust the challenge to the individual patient, the therapist can use the heart rate monitor to evaluate if more passengers can get on the bus, or if some need to get off.

- We can also use the virtual room to show the patients useful coping strategies. If their pulse is too high, we can remind them – in the game – that they can regain control by counting the brown shoes in the bus, Gunver Majgaard points out.

Helps the body to remember

Anxiety costs the Danish society approximately $1.2 billion every year. The money is primarily used for early retirement benefits. According to a report from 2015 by the Danish Health Authority, anxiety is by far the biggest reason for early retirement benefits.

- It is scientifically proven that patients benefit from going through the situations that trigger their anxiety. It helps their body remember that the situation is not dangerous.

-But it is very expensive to bring your therapist to these situations, so by creating some typical scenarios for the patients to go through, we can help a lot of patients.

The next step for the researches is to cooperate with a group of anxiety patients to identify around 10 typical scenarios that the patients fear. Grocery shopping is another example besides riding a bus.

Facts

Grant: DKK 12.4 million from Innovation Fund Denmark, total budget DKK 17 million. Partners in the project:

  • Centre for Telepsychiatry, Mental Health Services of Southern Denmark
  • Department of Clinical Research, University of Southern Denmark
  • The Maersk Mc-Kinney Moller Institute, University of Southern Denmark
  • Department of Psychology, University of Southern Denmark
  • Centre for Innovative Medical Technology, Odense University Hospital
  • iMotions

Project head: Mia Beck Lichtenstein, leader of Centre for Telepsychiatry

Meet the researcher

Associate Professor Gunver Majgaard from SDU Embodied Systems for Robotics and Learning is an expert in mixed reality design. In addition to the project of using virtual reality to fight anxiety, she is part of a project that uses virtual reality to reduce young people’s binge drinking.

Contact

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